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Koreatown school mural dispute to end with artist overseeing changes

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Beau Stanton’s mural at the RFK Community Schools complex has been a lightning rod for controversy.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Artist Beau Stanton has agreed to make changes to a mural in Koreatown that’s attracted criticism from some activists but that also inspired many others opposed to political censorship to come to his defense.

The mural at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools is dominated by an image of actress Ava Gardner. It ran afoul of the Wilshire Community Coalition, a group led by Korean Americans, which objected to sun rays in the background. Its members associate sun rays, a common artistic motif, with the Japanese imperial battle flag, a hated symbol of that nation’s oppression of Korea during World War II.

In December, Los Angeles Unified School District officials quickly gave in to demands from the group by agreeing to paint over the mural. The group pronounced the background to be as offensive as a swastika and threatened legal action.

But the backlash to this decision was almost immediate. Artists including Shepard Fairey came to Stanton’s defense. Fairey said he would insist on the removal of his own mural from the school if Stanton’s were destroyed. Fairey’s mural of Robert F. Kennedy is a defining symbol of the campus. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 at the hotel that once stood on the site of the school.

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Other muralists also spoke out.

Also coming to Stanton’s defense were prominent members of the Kennedy family and members of the Korean and Korean American community who did not find the mural objectionable. At the same time, a group of Korean art professionals stated that the mural should be removed or altered.

The school district backed away from immediate action but remained in communication with various parties in the dispute.

Stanton said Wednesday he could have held firm on principle but decided instead on an alternative path that would allow him to maintain his artistic integrity and build on his many contacts with community members over the last several months.

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“These interactions have allowed me to synthesize a solution that aims to rise above the original binary conversation of ‘keep or remove the mural’ in order to build upon the original work and create something that speaks to the past, present and future of the RFK campus,” Stanton said in a statement provided to The Times.

Stanton’s plan is to accept broad input and then work closely with a team of students at the school to develop concepts and images that become part of the original work.

“My proposal involves creating a transformative work utilizing the original mural as a base for layering and weaving additional imagery into the original image, much like an urban wall with many historic layers.”

Stanton said the district had set aside about $20,000 to do the work, which will include the cost of renting lift equipment to bring painters to the higher portions of the mural.

All along, Stanton has denied any connection between his artwork and the Japanese battle flag. The rays on the flag differ in number, thickness and color from the rays on the mural. Sun rays appear frequently in Stanton’s work.

He had not intended the work to be political in nature at all; his goal, he said, had been to pay homage to the history of the site at the location of the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, with which Gardner was associated.

Stanton’s willingness to compromise has gotten the school system out of a tight spot. District officials are clearly relieved to have resolution.

“We appreciate everyone’s time and effort on this important issue,” Los Angeles Unified Local District Central Supt. Roberto A. Martinez said. “This exercise allowed all participants to express their opinions on polarized ideas and listen to all perspectives. It was a great learning experience for us all.”

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