Art, history and dismantling white supremacy

Young girl holding folded paper crane at the Bellevue College Restoration Ceremony

Artist Erin Shigaki In Conversation with Sam Britt and Rea Karim 

Erin Shigaki has been at the forefront of it all. Through her public art murals, she combines the experiences of her Japanese American family’s incarceration during World War II while calling on the current events of migrant detention. Her art is a visual representation of an unspoken past, to recognize the uncomfortable stories about America’s actions and our responsibility to keep all parts of history alive. 

After Bellevue College invited Erin to put up a mural in the C building courtyard, members of the administration defaced her art. The act brought out a need within the college community to address artistic freedom and the effects of whitewashing history. 

Erin sat down with us to share her thoughts on life, art, family history and acknowledging the injustices of the past, amending them in the present, to create a just society in our future. 

How long have you been making art, and what got you started?

“I have worked as a graphic designer, illustrator, and art educator for a long time. I went to college and worked on the East Coast. Living in Brooklyn it was really just about hustling to pay the rent, so I never thought about being an artist. 

And then I moved back to Seattle, about five years ago with my partner, and that gave us a little more ease. I applied for and was accepted into a Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Public Boot Camp that they were offering for free, though I didn’t really know what the full definition of public art was!  In parallel, I was thinking about my family history, particularly around their incarceration. Being back home in Seattle I was working on the annual pilgrimage where we take folks to Minidoka1. When I went to this boot camp, I had a kind of revelation and thought, “I am going to make art about the incarceration! This is what’s in my heart. I want to tell the story of my family and my community, that has been so under wraps.” 

Over time, there have been waves of shame. ‘I can’t talk about it,’ silence, the Redress Movement2, and a painful opening up about it.  And now, in this moment, I have an opportunity to tell people, ‘It’s happening again.’ It’s constantly happening to black and brown people: America is obsessed with incarceration. With migrants, with minor drug offenses, with profiting off of our bodies. Why is this a solution that our country chooses so often?”

How long have you been involved with the #NeverAgainisNow movement, Tsuru for Solidarity and Densho? 

“Tsuru formed around a pilgrimage to Crystal City3. They did an action around a migrant detention center there where children were being held. I designed posters for them, so I was involved early on using my art graphic design skills. Every movement needs artists so it’s a good skill to have and share. 

I don’t know if Densho coined the term ‘Never Again is Now.’ A lot of other groups use it, but they certainly are the foremost educators on the topic of the Japanese American incarceration. They have an amazing archive of interviews and imagery that I frequently use and draw inspiration from. I started off as their graphic designer when I moved back to town—I am super excited to be part of their team. Then they began to branch out into different creative areas and one of the things they started was artist residencies, and I was selected to be one of those artists. 

Densho was where I put up my first wheat paste mural. It was where I first put up that image of the two children going into a concentration camp that was also at Bellevue College.”

What does this mural, the one done at BC and in Seattle, mean to you? And what information are you trying to convey to the viewer? 

“Well, there are a couple of things. One, I really want the history to be told. It’s been under-covered, under-written, and under-discussed in our educational system and textbooks. Nobody wants to feel bad about stuff that happened. Nobody wants to feel blamed. But I feel like we need to be accountable for our sins. I love America. I am so glad I’m American, but we have done some dirty deeds and there’s nothing wrong with calling it out and that’s what’s required for healing. 

Also, what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII rhymes so strongly with what’s happening to migrants today—where innocent people are being detained, in terrible conditions, where people who do what we’re now calling ‘essential work’ are dying! We as Japanese Americans have a moral imperative to tell our story because of the way that our history echoes what is going on now. I feel very strongly and emotionally about this. 

I think it’s important to see the faces of people who were affected. People are very emotionally impacted by seeing those of children—images of children locked up. Because we know children are innocent. I frequently come back to images of children for that reason. And then I also think of sending strong vibes to my dad and his siblings, who were some of those children. And now I know, through doing this work, many more people who were locked up as children.”

Can you tell us about your experience during the Bellwether Festival last year and response?

“I made a couple pieces about the incarceration and one of them was a big plaque with a strawberry on it, dedicated to the Bellevue Japanese-American farm families. The artists were asked to turn a bio and description of the work. I worked with UW historians, someone at Densho and Minidoka survivors to concisely write about the Bellevue history, which definitively includes the Freeman family. It included the same sentence about Miller Freeman and then brought up the fact that the family still owns much of downtown Bellevue. I was trying to ask questions about their intergenerational wealth and talk about the land grab that happened after the incarceration. 

When I showed up to see my work on opening day of Bellwether, the text had been changed. What I had turned in wasn’t there. I talked to my curator and had her handle communication with the overall art director folks. We were told ‘you know she can’t use the name. If she takes out the name, then we will print the rest of what she wrote, but she cannot use the name. So, I cried. And then I agreed because the work was already up in the space. But if I had known that there was going to be censorship then maybe I wouldn’t have participated at all.

When Leslie Lum asked me to put something up at Bellevue College, I was like, ‘Hmm. Bellevue again, but this is a college…’ I had done a small presentation at the Densho fundraiser dinner last year, so she had seen what I do. So, I agreed to install a mural, and Leslie told me that they wanted the same image of the kids that I put up at Densho. It’s an amazing image, so powerful. And I told her that I’d also want to put up a historical panel and she agreed, and we went over that text. It’s interesting that the Bellwether censorship did not come fully to light until the second censorship incident at Bellevue College.” 

What is your family’s history with the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII?

“Both sides of my family immigrated before the turn of the century. One side through Hawai’i, through the sugarcane plantations. And the other side—also farmers—straight to this area. They were all on this side of the kind of ‘demarcation zone’ created when the Executive Order4 came down. It’s an interesting aside that Spokane is on the other side of the zone. Some Japanese Americans went to Spokane to avoid being incarcerated. And there were some already living in that area, too.

Both sides of my family were incarcerated. My mom’s side were poor tenant farmers so they didn’t own anything. They had been living a hand to mouth existence. When I interviewed her later in life, my maternal grandmother said, ‘you know, life was a little easier in camp for us because we had been so poor and working so hard for someone else.’ 

My dad’s side of the family was in Seattle proper, just a little east of the International District, where many Japanese folks were living. They owned a house. My grandfather had an architecture degree from the University of Washington. My grandmother ran a sewing school and tailoring business from the house. They already had two children, and then they ended up imprisoned in Minidoka for more than three years. My father was born there, in Minidoka: life went on. Sex happened. Lots of babies were born there with a variety of different medical care. My father was delivered by a horse veterinarian: crazy! They stayed until they were kicked out, because my grandfather had said ‘we’re not leaving, they put us here.’ And there was a lot of fear about going back into society.

Another interesting thing about my dad’s side is that they had a good friend who was white, ‘Aunt Mary.’ She was my grandmother’s friend, I think she was a tailoring client. She offered to take care of my family’s house while they were imprisoned so that they didn’t have to sell it for a pittance. They were able to keep some of their belongings stored in the basement. Aunt Mary collected as much of the rent from the tenants as she could. I don’t think it was super regular, but they were really lucky that they had a friend who helped them keep their property. There are too few stories like this.”

When did you first hear about the defacement of your piece at BC?

“A friend of mine knows someone at the BC radio station, who she heard the news from. She texted: ‘I think your piece was defaced.’ My first thought was that the image of the kids had been graffitied. Later the same day, one of the BC staff I had worked with told me that some of the text had been literally whited out.  And then I didn’t hear for a couple more days that it was a woman of color who did it. I saw Belle at a Tsuru action, and she told me, and I was stunned.  It was strange how it came to me in different stages, and it was very hard to get my head around.” 

What did you think of Bellevue College’s response? Do you feel that you and your art was respected in the end? 

“That’s an interesting question because, even on the day of the Remembrance Ceremony on campus where I put up the new panel underneath the defaced one, Kristen Jones, the acting president, and another administrator hovered around me and the Asian Pacific Islander professors trying to determine when the mural was going to come down. They asked questions like, ‘What did we decide on how long this could stay up?’ They needled Belle5 and Leslie6 about what had been agreed. I was there with my parents, and Bellevue City Councilwoman Janice Zahn. Belle and Leslie were very upset and I was confused. The API staff, after having this huge thing happen, of course wanted to keep it up for as long as possible. Leslie, Belle, and Nan7 have been such strong leaders on campus in calling this stuff out. And Belle again had to call out those two administrators right there on the spot and say, ‘Why are you talking about this right now? Do you understand what you are doing? This is exactly what we are trying to fix on this campus.’

I don’t know what is said behind closed doors about my art. I heard from another reporter that the administration was complaining about the fact that, evidently, it wasn’t clear in the original agreement that I was going to put up a historical panel. From my side, it was clear in my agreement with the professors. So, I don’t know if I am totally respected by the administration. I feel respected by the students and that matters more to me because you are the future of the campus and of society.” 

Is there anything else you want BC staff, or campus as a whole to know about your art, or about you?

“I’m glad that it has stirred something up on campus. Do I feel good about people losing their jobs? No. But, do I feel like those people are responsible for the culture and the tone on campus? Yeah, I do. So, I think those actions were justified. 

My message is I hope that the students and faculty will keep being engaged and talking about getting to equity and dismantling white supremacy. And that we can’t be afraid to pick apart and interrogate the ugly parts, and the stuff that doesn’t feel good. There’s a way that we can talk about all of that in a civil way. And we have to to be able to go forward.”

(1) Minidoka – Historic Site in Idaho, commemorating the 9,000+ Japanese Americans imprisoned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center during WWII

(2) The Redress Movement – A movement started in the 1970’s and led by Japanese and Asian American activists urging the U.S. government to redress and amend the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.

(3) Crystal City – Crystal City Detention Center for Japanese Americans during WWII

(4) The Executive Order – Executive Order 9066, the order made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowing for the forced removal and incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in 1941. 

(5) Belle Nishioka – counselor at Bellevue College

(6) Leslie Lum – Bellevue College professor, teaches multicultural consulting, statistics, investing, and introduction to business

(7) Nan Ma – professor of English at Bellevue College