Until two months ago, Koreatown was something of a mystery to Tony Osumi and Darryl Mar, two young Asian American muralists from the Westside. Although they had driven through it on occasion and had studied the Korean American community as graduate students in UCLA's Asian American studies program, neither had much direct contact with the neighborhood.
Then they began work on a mural on the front wall of the Siyeon restaurant at 721 S. Western Ave., a commission they received after winning a mural competition sponsored by the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice. To their pleasant surprise, they discovered that Koreatown isn't just for Korean Americans.
They originally planned a design focusing on Korean heritage that was agreed upon by the restaurant owner and other community representatives, but Osumi and Mar changed their minds after seeing groups of Asian American, African American and Latino children playing together on the sidewalk around them.
"The first week when we were scraping the wall, we saw all these kids around us, all playing together cross-racially," said Osumi, 27, who is of Japanese and European descent. "We realized then that our piece was too confining in its approach. The mural needed to represent the community."
After two months of work by Osumi and Mar, plus their assistants Sergio Torres and Morritz Lechadores and a small army of Koreatown residents, the result was a unique cross-cultural piece titled "Remember Your Roots," the first of its kind commissioned by the Social and Public Art Resource Center. The mural was officially unveiled Aug. 21.
Osumi and Mar said they began painting based pretty much on their original design--Koreans in traditional and western garb flanking Baek Du Mountain, the peak representing the mythological origin of the Korean people--but added the faces of African American and Latino youths in the blue of the mural's background.
As the mural took shape, locals of all ages began dropping by to comment and make suggestions. Many ended up donning painting attire and joining the muralists.
"At one time, we had 40 people working on the mural, all races and all ages," said Mar, 25, a third-generation Chinese American. "The older ones wouldn't paint, but they would give advice."
Reaction at the restaurant has been positive.
"It's fabulous," said Peter Kwong, a restaurant consultant for Siyeon. "People really relate to it. Siyeon is already a landmark, and this just enhances that. Busloads of Korean tourists get off, go 'Wow,' and start taking pictures."
Angeline Rhee, a waitress at the restaurant, has heard pleased comments from customers on the mural's cross-cultural motif.
"They love it so much," she said. "They like how there are both black people and Korean people on the mural. It shows we're trying to work with the black community."
Osumi and Mar plan to continue painting murals. Their next project will be an indoor mural at UCLA's Campbell Hall that will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the university's Asian American studies program.