AMP: Grassroots²


Erin Shigaki of Purple Gate Design

What do you do? I am a designer, illustrator and public artist. My goal is to make art which reflects my communities. It focuses on the Asian American experience, especially the WWII incarceration of my family and community in Seattle. More broadly, I am interested in moments of beauty and intimacy that are created despite unspeakably harsh circumstances. Seattle’s underrepresented communities are continually asked ‘are you American?’ and ‘do you belong?’ through a racist, fear-centered lens. I am interested in exploring the concept of resilience and the notions of belonging and being seen in a society that has systematically oppressed people of color. Using art to tell stories about these moments can educate, redress wrongs, and incrementally heal.

What is your why? Why do you do what you do?

My grandparents’ and community’s silence and struggle around the Japanese American incarceration has always been a flashpoint for me to stand up against injustice against any people. In the 1980s, when people in my community were ready to start talking about what they had endured, my mom ensured that my sister and I learned these stories by directly asking our grandmothers. I began educating others about what happened when I was 12 years old.

In my community, we have embraced the phrase “never again is now.” We have a unique moral imperative to stand against the separation and detainment of immigrant children and families; the civil liberties that are being revoked; and the mass incarceration that is adversely impacting the lives of too many black and brown folks.

How has family separation impacted you and your family? In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which allowed the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the west coast into ten concentration camps. More than two-thirds of those rounded up were American citizens. My entire family and community in the Seattle, WA area were among those forcibly removed. They were given less than two months time to sell homes, businesses, possessions; arrange places to store things and say goodbye to friends. They were allowed to take only what they could carry.

The photograph is of my grandmother Yasuko Shigaki holding my father John in her arms, with my Auntie Irene and Uncle Dale beside them. My dad was born there in the Idaho desert in the Minidoka concentration camp. He was delivered by a horse veterinarian. They are posing in front of their shoddy tar paper barrack that was home for 4 years.

Many babies were made in camp. I always marvel that couples found a way—despite living in single-room barracks with hung blankets for privacy. And though families grew while incarcerated, older children slipped away from the family fold because every meal was served in a chaotic mess hall. Because schools and social structures were not immediately set up. Because many fathers had been taken away by the FBI in the days immediately Pearl Harbor. Because people were in a state of deep grieving for all that they had lost and for what they could not understand.

We don’t have a photograph of my Grandfather in camp. We did not talk about the fact that he suffered a nervous break-down there and refused to work at one of the $19 per month jobs offered for “skilled” people. Though he had earned a B.A. in Architecture from the University of Washington in the 1920s, he never returned to drafting once released from Minidoka.

How can you be supported? I would like to install more wheat paste murals and public art pieces that provoke conversations about historical injustices and how they rhyme with what is happening today. I think it’s important that this work is in public spaces, where it can be accessed by anyone. If someone knows of a wall I can work on— especially one that sees a lot of foot-traffic—that would be helpful. If a person has a connection to a paint company or art supply shop that can donate supplies, that would be a great gift. Time is an incredibly powerful offering—I am always up for collaborating with other artists who also want to share these messages! And probably the easiest and most wide-reaching thing someone can do is share information about these projects through social media channels and personal networks. Let’s keep building momentum.