Erin Yoshi: Global Muralist and Community Instigator
For global muralist Erin Yoshi, there is no delineation between her art and community. As a self-proclaimed community instigator and experienced organizer, she takes great care to represent the history, challenges, vision, and voice of the communities in which her murals reside.
Yoshi’s website reads, “Erin Yoshi is a community instigator, harnessing her creative power to spread information and awareness. With a practice deeply rooted in historic cultural memories and current global conditions, Yoshi is able to harness abstract color vibrations and figurative storytelling in the pursuit of cultural diversity and biodiversity.”
Yoshi hails from a strict Asian family where art was regarded as more of a fun pastime than a career path. “I used to say I was a community organizer and activist because I worked for a lot of non-profits through college,” says Yoshi. “But I always did art. I started developing photography when I was just seven years old. My mom had an old Pentax that she let me use. Actually, she was an artist…I think she was trying to save me from some heartache and was like, ‘It's not possible – you can't be an artist’ because in her generation, there weren’t as many opportunities.”
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As for staking her claim as an artist, Yoshi says, “It wasn't something that I automatically owned because I just didn't think it was a possibility. I honestly think that's what made me fight harder because I wanted to prove my parents wrong.”
Ironically, it may have been her parents that set the stage for her to become a muralist. As a child, her father stationed her in a swivel chair in front of an erasure board to prevent her from drawing on the walls. “I haven't really grown since I was 11 and I'm 5’2” now. When I was younger, I was really tiny. I would stand on the chair to be able to draw up as high as possible. So I think that they kind of set me up to be a muralist.”
Before Yoshi begins a new project, she says she does a “ton of research” and muses that she is a “super nerd,” often spending the bulk of the project time on community buy-in before the painting even begins.
“When it comes to the content of my work, and especially if it's going to be on the street – if it's going to be a mural, I do extensive research. I do interviews with community members. I set up community workshops and ask them questions about the neighborhood, their history, and their cultural history. And from all of that, I pull together the initial sketches. So that's probably the longest process.” Yoshi then transfers the digital image on to the building so they can get a feel of what the mural will look like in full color and scale. Once she gets the green light, Yoshi says “the painting is fast.”
“Sometimes I'll read books about a community just to understand a little bit more about the history. I interview a diverse range of people – elders and youth activists or youth organizers, you know – people who are on the ground, working with the community…I feel like people that have been in the neighborhood or grew up in the neighborhood – they're always the kind of people that I gravitate towards. My goal is that [the mural] not only has some sort of substance and content to it but that it feels relevant to the folks who are going to walk by it every day.”
“I try to make work that speaks to them, that I know people will be excited about.”
Yoshi is committed to blending story with a feeling of hopefulness. “It's a challenge because a lot of times you'll get conflicting messages. Different folks have different agendas. It's a kind of art form in itself to draw out all the content and then start drawing from it, sketching, drawing, playing with the ideas until I finally get to a few draft rounds. Then I usually pass it back through that same filter. I try to make work that speaks to them, that I know people will be excited about. And if they shared a little bit of information that I then took and used in the mural, a lot of times it makes them so much more connected to the pieces themselves.
“The last mural that I did, the one in Koreatown – I probably did 15 completely different directions. There's this amazing story about the Haenyeo, elder women who fish, but they do it by hand. They're free divers. A lot of them do it from 60 to 80 years old. They started when they were young and it's a cultural trade. So I thought, ‘Oh, what a beautiful story of feminism and women empowerment and honoring our elders.’ So I drew this sketch that I loved and thought was so cool. It was honoring the Haenyeo and one of the business owners said, ‘Oh, by putting water on our building and fish, it’s actually a bad omen that our building will leak and the piping could go.’ I'm not Korean, so I wouldn't know that. And I think that really speaks to the importance of getting buy-in and having it be culturally authentic to the neighborhood.”
Art as a vehicle for change.
When asked if there was a defining moment when she realized her art was a vehicle for change, she shares, “I think because I considered myself a community organizer first, I feel like I became politicized when I was younger. My family is Japanese on the West Coast. Three generations of my family were in the internment camps. My dad grew up incarcerated when he was just a child and I would always hear stories about that. My grandmother is an atomic bomb survivor because she was in Hiroshima. So, you know, I grew up with these stories about injustice and war…I always had that within me. And then I did art. And so it took a long time until I could bring the two together.
“My early art is much more emotional and fantasy – for fun. It wasn't until I got older that I tried to bring the two together because I realized that this could be a vehicle for me to share these larger messages through my creative process. I worked really hard to try and do it in a way that was beautiful because I think there's always been a stigma with community-based murals versus fine art or contemporary murals, which I find to be really unfortunate. There's like a hierarchy, if it's community-based, it's kind of like, ‘Oh, it's not fine art or it's not as professional.’ It's so hard to do community-based work. It takes so much more effort than for me to just go out and draw whatever I want to draw, you know? I mean, that's quick. So yeah, I think that I've worked really hard at trying to bring the two together because of that.”
The Land of We
Per Yoshi’s website, “The Land of We uses art to popularize the ideas and solutions to mitigating climate change. It celebrates the just transition to renewable energy for frontline communities and workers, it highlights cultural inequities, and promotes the achievable goals of environmental sustainability…”
When asked to expand on that definition, Yoshi shares, “The Land of We has really been a dream project. It started to manifest in that same sense of bringing together my loves and hopes for my community and the community at large, as well as trying to tackle some of these major problems that we're facing today. So right now, we're battling climate change deniers and science deniers as well as this growing fervor of racism. So the Land of We is an opportunity for me to try and highlight stories of the importance of biological and cultural diversity that the planet really needs.
“By whitewashing the cultural elements out of our everyday culture and society, it really limits knowledge.”
“It limits the richness that is available. It also denies histories that have been a part of what makes our world so beautiful. My love for diversity and my community and recognizing that a lot of the insights that I look towards for wisdom are based on old cultural wisdoms and different cultures. I've traveled a lot, and I think that that's where a lot of my passion comes from with cultural diversity and then biological diversity.
“I started thinking about it when I worked on a project in grad school where I was researching renewable energy. At that time I started to realize this imminent climate catastrophe that we were up against as I was seeing the facts about our dependency on fossil fuels and just how the planet was heating up at such a rapid speed and what that would mean. I saw the need to try and inspire hope to protect biological diversity.”
Yoshi tells a story of traveling to Ecuador and spending time in the Amazon and cloud forest. She tells the story with a lilt in her voice that, much like her murals, drops her audience right there alongside her; in this instance, to witness trees walking towards the sun.
“There's just so much beautiful nature that I didn't even know existed. In the Amazon, there are these trees that actually walk. It's crazy. It blew my mind. They have a very intricate root system where if they want to move in a direction because the sun is better over there and a little bit warmer, they basically shoot a root out in that direction and they can pull themselves towards it. And it's slow, but they still walk. I mean, just beautiful things like that.”
“I pull from that feeling of lush nature and try to bring it back to the city.”
“Also, in Ecuador, you have the Galapagos there. There's this area where the whales come every year and they meet and that's where they have their babies. I would go maybe three or four times in the summer when the whales come and it's something like 6000 whales that show up and you can hear them in the water when you're snorkeling and you can see the babies and they are jumping. It's just a beautiful, amazing thing to experience. I pull from that feeling of lush nature and try and bring it back to the city. It's like…what are we missing out on right now?”
As a global muralist who’s painted more than 100 murals, Yoshi has represented both triumphant community stories and controversial history through her art, reflecting, “There are stories that have changed me forever and have touched my soul.”
“I have so many stories that were so inspiring to be a part of. I feel like when I have traveled and painted, I have gotten so much out of the experience. I have this huge range of beautiful experiences. For example, in the Philippines, I painted in a community that had a mine, and a lot of the mines in the Philippines are owned by Canadian, Australian, European, and U.S. companies. And so the community was trying to block the expansion of the mines. So the elders would basically camp out in this little hut made out of bamboo and they would trade off. So, one day it was women, one day men, and then Thursdays were coed. If trucks came to try and bring more equipment to the mine to expand it, they would lay down in the middle of the road. And these are elders in the community. The women who started it were in their ‘80s.
“So I camped out overnight with them to see what this was about and to learn about their story so that I could go into town and start painting these stories about the mine, their struggle, how it's affected their water, and how this greed has totally torn up the town where people have lost family members because it's super dangerous to work in a mine. I feel connected to that story and there's just so many like that.”
“I used my foreign passport to be able to paint these stories.”
Yoshi recalls her first solo series in Columbia, working on the project, Memoria Viva. “Memoria Viva was about a genocide that had taken place in the ‘80s up until the early ‘2000s. It was a legal government party that was like a leftist party. It would be considered something similar to our Green Party, where the current administration had killed all of the political leaders, presidential candidates, a lot of the major candidates, and community organizers that were a part of this party. So it would be like if we wiped out everybody from the Green Party. It was a huge travesty. People went into hiding and I started to interview people that were in hiding about what had happened. Then I would paint murals in universities and union halls on the front of buildings about this story. People had never done that before because it was still considered dangerous. I used my foreign passport to be able to paint these stories.
“One of them was on the face of a university in a town called Meta and the military base was right next door. When I started painting it, they put a military checkpoint right in front of my mural, which made me feel very uncomfortable. Seven days before I started painting, they had assassinated one of the teachers at the school who was an organizer. So a lot of community members came up to me, very hush-hush, and said, ‘What you're doing is very dangerous. Please be careful.’ I did it anyway. My mural was on the front of the university, so it was very visible. It was probably the fastest I ever painted.”
“I like to try to build a story that is controversial and at the same time slightly dangerous.”
Yoshi reflects on the school and how brave they were to allow the mural. “I give them so much credit. I basically painted a human that split into two sides where there's a robot side that was kind of symbolic of their military with military gear on, and then a human side. And the military side is stabbing the heart of the human side and it pours blood out of the heart. And then I have people below it that are dancing. The massacre that happened in the town was called the Ballet Rojo, which means ‘The Red Dance.’ It sounds very gruesome, but it doesn't look so gruesome because I paint happy feelings. So it looks like these people are just dancing, but then veiled was the message in between. I like to try to build a story that is controversial and at the same time slightly dangerous.
“That mural still stands. It's still there on the building. So I feel like those were some of those initial experiences where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to do work that has meaning. I want to do work that uplifts stories that aren't being showcased on the forefront and to do it in a way that people see it and feel pride when they come up to the work. I've had this with multiple murals – they'll touch it and cry. When you see that happening, there’s just nothing like it.”
“All of us have the potential to create change and to create the future that we want.”
“We all have a role to play, and the more that we dare to be bold and powerful, the more we inspire others to do so. I think that if anything, through my work, I just try and inspire hope and create these moments for talking points for people to come together. Maybe it moves them in some way, but really – just start the conversation. All of us have the potential to create change and to create the future that we want.”
Maybe it moves them in some way…Yes, much like a tree that shoots roots towards the sun.