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Sonia Romero's Medallions Rise Up in Little Tokyo

The prolific lioness is in Little Tokyo's public art portfolio.

From her busy studio in northeast Los Angeles, She Rides The Lion, artist Sonia Romero completed her latest public art project. Once the images were designed, they were sent out to be produced on 40 powder coated medallions, and then installed on light poles on First, Second, Third and San Pedro streets.

The images tie into Romero's distinct style -- a take on urban folk art that uses bold lines and colors to update the craft. In this series, culture iconography that speaks of the ties between Little Tokyo and Japan are also updated. Her signature visual language -- shaped from the craft of printmaking -- framed within the Little Tokyo's favored image: folding fans.

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"To arrive at the imagery which both resonated with me as an artist and with the history and community of Little Tokyo, I decided to depict three traditional Japanese Folk Art dolls or sculptures," said Romero. "I chose the Kokeshi Doll, the Daruma Doll and the Maneki Neko because they pay tribute to Japanese culture, and are to be found on display and for sale in many of the Little Tokyo businesses."

Photo by Rafael Cardenas

Maneki Neko, the good luck cat, or lucky cat, peer from the window displays of Little Tokyo's businesses and restaurants. You can see how it managed to make it through an approval process that went through the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District and the Japanese Community Council.

The designs went through several revisions after being narrowed down, said Romero. She also faced another major challenge: using images that could be read 16 feet up in the air from streets that are heavy with both pedestrians and drivers, and having to weigh less than 20 pounds.

"They turned out really beautifully," said Romero. "It was not possible to exactly imagine what they would look like against the busy vibrant city of Little Tokyo, but seeing them laying against all the historical buildings, signs, and foliage is really interesting."

The project was commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency in 2010, and approved by both the Little Tokyo Community Council and the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District. The medallions are not unlike those designed by Valerie Mitchell for the Arts District -- also funded by CRA and elegantly provide a visual profile of its site specific location.

"Because parts of the medallions are cut out, you can see the city through them," said Romero of her Little Tokyo public art. "I seek to weave my imagery through an already existing place, as opposed to stamping my viewpoint on top of it."

That may be the only point to refute. Romero's viewpoint is shaped by a family influence of site specific work out of Highland Park and East Los Angeles, and leadership in developing folk and craft art as a visual reference about Los Angeles. This work is an intimate visual conversation between neighborhoods.

Photo by Rafael Cardenas

In the interview below, Romero talks about working with the Little Tokyo community and how her personal experiences with Japanese art influenced her creative process.

What made you interested in the project?

It's such a central location in Los Angeles, very near to where I grew up in Echo Park. And it was such an honor to be able to design something in Little Tokyo.

What were your experiences in Little Tokyo before working on the project?

I grew up going there, eating out.

How involved were you with the community in the creative process?

The community council in Little Tokyo itself has 60 members in it so, I had to get a lot of community approval before we settled on something. For instance, they gave me the fan shape to start with. I didn't come up with the fan -- the fan is something that they already use in a lot of their motifs of public art imagery. So, I started out with the fan shapes, and then I had to find a personal connection to Little Tokyo, or Japanese culture, so I would be involved as an artist. So I decided to focus on these folk art dolls, or toys, or souvenirs that you see in Little Tokyo a lot. They're really traditional, Japanese imagery.

My family has a really deep connect with folk art, because my grandmother founded the Craft and Folk Art Museum. I grew up with a lot of Japanese folk art in my household and in my life. So I felt really connected that way and really drawn to those images. In the end, that was common ground that myself, as a non-Japanese person, and the community of Little Tokyo, agreed upon.

So you grew up with those images on display?

Definitely. I chose imagery that was both popular -- because as a tourist or visitor to Little Tokyo, you'll see them everywhere in the stores and in the restaurants -- and also traditional imagery that comes from different parts of Japanese culture.

Some of them are really pop imagery like the Maneki Neko, good luck cat. Most people are familiar with that image, because it's placed in front of a lot of businesses to draw in fortune. The Daruma doll is derived from Zen Buddhism originally, but it's also a gift that you'll get for good luck in the stores there. The third image that I chose was the Kokeshi doll.

Originally that third image was an anime girl. I was trying to bring in more contemporary Japanese culture and I did an image based on Manga, but that was ultimately rejected by the community council, so I went back to a more traditional image.

Did the council want more traditional images in general?

It wasn't so much that they steered me towards tradition -- they were definitely divided -- but there were some very outspoken people who were not interested in the anime imagery.

What do you hope your audience sees when they walk around Little Tokyo and see your artwork?

I hope that it brings a cohesive feel, because they're repeated elements through most of the main streets in Little Tokyo. Just by seeing them there, regardless if you're conscious of them or not, I think it will bring this piece together.

Photo by Rafael Cardenas


Interview by Kelly Simpson

Photos of Sonia Romero's Little Tokyo Medallion project by Rafael Cardenas I Courtesy of Sonia Romeo

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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