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Erin Shigaki, Public Artist

Erin’s art poses a question at the entrance to the Pacific Bonsai Museum's new exhibit, Here, she sits with her parents, John and Polly Shigaki.
Erin Shigaki is a Seattle Yonsei graphic artist best known for her public art linking the Japanese-American past with the divisive present. Her most recent project is “One Time One Meeting: A Community Shrine.” It is one of seven artistic contributions to “Greenway Art Interruptions,” an art walk in the Licton Springs neighborhood, north Seattle. Erin’s art runs along N 92nd Street between Wallingford and Ashworth Avenues N.
Instagram: @purplegatedesign

by David Yamaguchi, The North American Post
Photos by Eugene Tagawa

Since May, when I started monitoring the NAP office news feeds, one name has come up in them repeatedly. It is that of Erin Shigaki, a graphic and public artist. At the time, her mural at Bellevue College, defaced in February, was still making local headlines.

Then, I only vaguely knew of Erin, from her “Never Again is Now” art that had previously hung on the side of the Densho office on South Jackson. While it had been “on my list” of interesting local Nikkei [Japan-descended] features to photograph, its location was apparently too close to me. By the time I stopped for it, the rain and sun had done their work. The ephemeral art was no longer suitable for capturing.

In June, I began emailing Erin directly to learn more about her involvement in the artwork on the plywood covering Momo/Kobo at Higo/Kaname. Since then, Erin’s name has come across my desk twice more. Her art is a featured part of the Pacific Bonsai Museum’s 2020-2021 exhibit, “World War Bonsai: Remembrance and Resilience” (see calendar). Most recently, she is one of seven artists whose work graces the path of the Licton Springs Art Walk in north Seattle.

As the wind and rain of November draw the public-art viewing season to a close, it is a good time to share what I have learned about Erin. Excerpts of our email conversation follow on page 6.

[June 22, 2020]

Subject: Your artwork at Kobo/Momo/Kaname

I don’t think we have met, but I am a big fan of your deacon/mom [of St. Peter’s Church]…

I am in the early phases of exploring if there is enough of a back-story for my writing about the above poster-work you led.

My guess is that as an artist, boarded-up windows offer the opportunity of large, public, blank canvases to say something, and to get your name out there. But they are also time sinks, and we all have to watch out for those, as it is expensive to live in Seattle.

Does your studio bring in enough paying work that you can afford to take on projects like this now and then? Is that how you manage it?  How much time did this project take on your part?

I welcome any comments you care to share…

Erin Shigakis public art at the Licton Springs art walk north Seattle The red rope draws from the Japanese concept of akai ito the red thread of love that ties people together

Erin 紫垣: Yes, Deacon Polly is an amazing person (and mother!).

Thanks for reaching out…

Ordinarily, I apply for grant money to get public art pieces up. And so far, that has worked well, since I’m quite new in the field and am mainly doing temporary projects. But, these are not ordinary times. In the case of the Jackson Building, it was urgently important to my collaborator Scott Méxcal and me to create a solidarity message and perhaps a small space of healing for the Black community. I want to have hard conversations within our community about how white supremacy has pitted Asians and Black folk against each other. And I also want to connect the dots between Japanese Americans’ World War II incarceration and the continuing state and other violence Black and Brown folk disproportionately face. For that reason, the solidarity message takes the appearance of the exclusion order (E.O. 9066). My wish is to reclaim this tyrannical document and convert it into a message of hope. I wish to remind the JA and API [Asian and Pacific Islander] communities that because of own struggles for humanity, we have a moral imperative to fight against white supremacy, organize in solidarity with and amplify the Black community’s demands for equality.

Hope this helps and to meet you at some point soon. I’ll say hello to Mom from you!

David: Thanks for getting back to me…

Coincidentally, our layouts for this Friday’s paper include coverage of the “Tsuru for Solidarity” gathering at Tanforan. Your sister, Joy, is on their website…

Keep up the great work.

[July 17: My article on the Kobo artwork appears in the N.A.P. It is reprinted on September 5 in the Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles, with whom we have a working relationship. The latter prompts Erin to check in.]

[Oct. 12-15]

Erin with artist friend Fines Scott who helped install the piece The rope knots are based on those in senninbari the thousand stitch wraps that Japanese American soldiers wore into battle during World War II

Erin: I want to tell/ask you a couple more things about the solidarity mural at Momo/Kobo/ Kaname. I get the sense that it rubbed some people the wrong way because I deliberately decided to make the main message be from the JA community—though I did include #Asians4BlackLives at the bottom. I stand by the decision because I wanted to highlight that specific physical space and moment in the history of the neighborhood… Any thoughts…?

David: I enjoy this ongoing conversation… I have started saying, “I don’t know anyone cool. But there is a good chance I know their parents…”

[Your] mural rubbing some the wrong way: [it] doesn’t bother me one bit. I see it as your job to put the art out there, as you see fit. If people don’t like it, where are their murals? Did they scrounge paint, organize friends, get up on ladders?

I heard that you work a day job in the ID [International District]…

Erin: I haven’t worked full-time for anyone but myself since pre-9/11 [2001]. I think folks often think that I am on the Wing [Luke]’s staff because I do so much there!…

I’m always in the ID on Fridays for grocery delivery.

David: You deliver food there, on King Street? Incidentally, does Mom still run the T-shirt & trophy shop?

Erin: No more JAE [Awards]. But I’m glad they got to retire!

I deliver meals/groceries for SCIDpda’s program! [Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority]

Licton Springs Art Walk

[Oct. 22]

David: FYI, your Licton Springs art made the Japanese side of the paper [Oct. 23, together with that of artist Naoko Morisawa].

Erin: Yes, the Morisawas (whom I’ve never met in person) are very sweet! They thought to include me when approaching the NAP. I could read my name and the rest of the easy kana [phonetic script]! Illiteracy is a drag!

[Oct. 23-27]

[Our conversation wandered to Japanese literacy. I would later learn that Erin took three years of college Japanese, which included a semester in Kyoto.]

David: You know why they write our names in kana [instead of in Chinese kanji, conventionally used for nouns, verbs, and Japanese names]? It is to make clear… that we are not “real Japanese,” but foreigners.

Incidentally, I learned my kana from your grandma.

[Shigaki-sensei taught the first-grade class at the Seattle Japanese Language School for many years. Years later, I learned that she held students back, from second grade, if they didn’t know their kana, which are analogous to ABC’s. They are comprised of 46 cursive hiragana and 46 corresponding block katakana. The latter are used analogously to italics in English. They are the script used to distinguish JA names in the Japanese pages of the NAP.

In contrast to kana, it is the sheer number of kanji that makes written Japanese hard for second-language learners. See related story, p. 2]

Inside World War Bonsai Remembrance Resilience Behind her Fumiko and Natalie Hayashida leave Bainbridge Island destination and duration unknown March 1942 the Manzanar internment camp CA

Erin: Yeah, I think the reception of JA’s in Nihon [Japan] has gotten better—last time I was there I was surprised at the conversations I had versus when there in the 90s. But still, the katakana thing is annoying. I’m like: I have kanji. It came from Japan. Where my family is REALLY from! Might that be an interesting story? To see how views have changed, especially among Nikkei [Japanese descendants] who live here?

I’m so happy that Grandma Yasu was your teacher! I miss that woman.

David: https://www.youtube.com/… [Lisa Ono Jazz Auditoria Online 2020]

[A]t the listed address, you can see jazz singer, Lisa Ono, who is Japanese Brazilian. She uses her Japanese family name kanji, because she can, as an artist…

In fact, why not take it further? E-RIN is simple enough a name that Japanese characters can be found to match. Thus, you could sign your art with a four-character string typical of Japanese names: SHI-GAKI-E-RIN…

Erin: I think I worked with a friend from Nihon years ago to come up with kanji/meaning for Eri, which is a Japanese name… I’m more concerned with my surname (which I will NEVER give up) and it’s been nice having it in my email address as well as my Instagram!

[Nov. 11-14]

David: Subject: One time, One meeting

Can you tell me more about this public art?  Specifically, does it contain blank wooden tablets for people to write on? if so, that would be really cool, interactive art for Americans.

Erin: My original plan was to work with students at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School [next to the art walk] to create the messages. I did try to reach out to students via the art teachers of the three schools on the site, as well as [through] posters and a box at the free-lunch pick-up spot, but it was a difficult task. I heard from about four students, and a few people in the neighborhood. The rest of the messages were supplied by my immediate community! I used my email newsletter (are you on my list?), my mom forwarded her network, and so did my sister Alison who lives near the site. So it worked out in the end!

Erin: Here are the photos Eugene Tagawa (Uncle Eugene) took on installation day… Domo! [Thanks]

David: Eugene Tagawa gets around!

Erin: I have officially adopted him as my ichiban [number one] uncle, so he always shoots my work!

David: Have your uncle adopt me. Do you have a cell phone number? I want to send you a photo; that is the easiest way.

Erins carport torii The kanji read Ichigo ichie Translated One time one meeting it emphasizes living in the moment for you may meet the person in front of you only once in your life Photo by Erin

Erin: Hai! [“Yes.” She provides it.]

David: [I text her a photo, with a follow-up email]: I am the kid in the family house. This spring, inspired by your display at Kobo, I built a “torii” [Japanese gate] over an old fence gate. Not so spectacular. But it makes walking through there fun for me.

Erin: [she texts back] Love it. And this is the one I painted in my carport in April. For my sanity and for some sense of healing!

David: There is something about making things with one’s hands that is therapeutic. I can’t explain it.

Erin: I agree. Ancient wisdom of the ancestors.