For Jonathan Chang, art is a medium for healing and starting conversations as a form of activism.
But when the Los Angeles-based illustrator woke Sunday, Jan. 22, to news of a tragic mass shooting that killed 11 Asians at a Monterey Park dance hall, Chang, who grew up in nearby Arcadia, felt numb.
“You always hear about violence toward Asians, and other races,” said Chang, 36, who works full-time as an art director. “I never thought this would happen in our community, the San Gabriel Valley. It was always a sacred place for Asians to be together.”
The next thing he knew he could do was to draw. Over the next few days, Chang worked on illustrating lifelike, digital portraits of several victims of the Monterey Park shooting, created from photos of the victims he was able to find online. The first one he published, just days after, was of beloved Star Dance instructor My My Nhan.
Chang said he’s been voluntarily creating and posting the portraits on social media – hoping to raise awareness of who the victims were, their names and stories. He wants to draw more attention to their lives, rather than all the political debate that inevitably happens after gun violence and mass shootings.
“Doing these portraits was me being pissed off,” Chang said. “People were talking about politics, agendas. … I wanted people to start talking about the victims, who are real people, with real stories. For me, I’d rather be doing something to try to help than doing nothing.”
For nearly two years, Chang has been using his talent — and Photoshop drawing skills — to illustrate more than 30 lifelike portraits that highlight Asian leaders, such as 9/11 hero Betty Ong; or victims of anti-Asian hate crimes, like Michelle Go in New York or Vicha Ratanapakdee. He says he hopes these portraits continue to raise awareness of ongoing injustices faced by the Asian American community.
In 2020, Chang helped design T-shirts and flyers for anti-racism rallies and worked on marketing for Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign. Other projects include a series raising awareness of Filipino nurses at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chang’s portraits even made billboards on Times Square, gathering the attention of millions.
“It’s all art and design as a way of activism,” he said, “using it as a medium to enact positive change … and to share Asian stories.”
Chang noted that some of these portraits have already reached several of the Monterey Park victims’ families. Some have reached out directly — many said they were touched at his way of “keeping their loved one’s story alive,” and for “humanizing” them beyond a mass shooting statistic.
Alice Sakaye is the daughter of Maria Liang, the owner of Star Dance Ballroom Studio. In a direct message sent earlier this week to Chang, Sakaye thanked Chang for “paying tribute to those who have passed away.”
“It really touched me and my mom,” Sakaye wrote. “These victims are more than just news headlines — they were somebody’s po po (grandma) or yéye (grandpa). They were longtime friends and patrons who shared a love for dancing and supported our small business. They proved that you can never be too old to learn a new hobby.”
Those killed in the shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio were older, many of them immigrants, who found themselves a hobby and community through ballroom dance. Chang noted how important it is for people to have a creative outlet to express themselves.
His portraits show victims as smiling and lively, with a visible white halo around their likeness.
“I try to portray them where they were still as they were, in a candid moment in time,” Chang said. “In that sense, they were trying to escape day-to-day reality by dancing, and doing what they love.”
Captions on Instagram also include a snippet of their story, a statement from family members and a link to a fundraising page.
Other portraits of his that have gotten mass attention since the shooting include those of Ming Wei Ma, Diana Tom, Yu-Lun Kao, Xiujuan Yu and Valentino Alvero. Other victims’ portraits, he said, are still to be drawn.
Chang now has more than 11,000 followers on his Instagram account, @jdschang.
But Chang said that it’s not about the followers or viral attention he’s been getting online – but rather, about knowing the victims’ stories, and who these brave Asian Americans were beyond the news headlines. He attended a candlelight vigil Wednesday night that “felt so close to home.”
“Everyone should use their craft to enact change, and just get people talking,” Chang said.
Source: Orange County Register
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