When Ellison Onizuka was a young boy growing up in Kona, Hawaii, he looked up at the night sky and dreamt of floating among the stars. He would grow up to become the first Asian American and the first person of Japanese origin to reach space aboard the Discovery shuttle in 1985. Onizuka became an inspiration to Japanese Americans across the country, and is the subject of a new series of murals painted by multimedia artist Kent Yoshimura in Little Tokyo.
“I just resonated with this whole idea of dreaming big, not just looking at space as an object but really as a metaphor for all the things that us as a community in Little Tokyo could accomplish,” Yoshimura said.
Yoshimura was commissioned by Etco Homes in collaboration with the Little Tokyo Community Council to create two murals on the sides of the new Āto development, a seven-story collection of urban flats taking shape on Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street.
Yoshimura has deep ties to the Little Tokyo community and was one of 20 artists whose work fell victim to a fire that destroyed the Little Tokyo Art Complex in June of 2021.
“Little Tokyo has been my home, especially as a Japanese American, my entire life,” Yoshimura recounted. “When I was younger, my parents used to take me here to go to the temples, go meet with community members. I grew up in Burbank, so it’s also not that far away. And in recent years after college, I moved back here, primarily to the Arts District, and I started doing a lot more community-oriented art projects that eventually led to having a larger career in murals.”
In his murals at Āto, Yoshimura sought to capture Onizuka’s spirit of unbridled ambition and adventure, using vibrant colors and working with the theme “Reach for the Stars.”
The murals will cover the north and south side of the development, with both pieces portraying different iterations of Onizuka. The northern mural shows a boy looking through a magnifying lens while kneeling among distinguished and historical elements of Little Tokyo, such as orange trees and the Sun Building, and Onizuka holding the world in the palm of his hands. The southern mural depicts a Tintin rocket with silhouettes of some of Little Tokyo’s most famous establishments paired with the image of a boy holding a telescope but looking up to the stars through his hands.
“(Onizuka) was a pretty incredible person, and also during that era he had no one to look up to in regard to role models that were going to space,” Yoshimura said. “Like he’s coming out of nowhere … and then had the opportunity to take this Challenger trip to go back into space.”
On Jan. 28, 1986, Onizuka was one of seven crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which resulted in a 32-month hiatus of the Space Shuttle program and the creation of NASA’s Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance.
Despite his death at the age of 39, Onizuka’s legacy has remained, and his achievements have inspired generations of Japanese Americans. Yoshimura called him a “hero” and said that, although the Challenger disaster happened before he was born, Onizuka’s story was still a part of his life growing up.
“My dad used to have a surf company, so I used to go to Hawaii a lot, specifically Kona … also the place in town that Ellison Onizuka grew up in,” Yoshimura said. “There’s something about just imagining this Japanese American boy in the coffee fields of Kona looking up at the sky and being like, ‘You know what? Not only am I going to travel beyond these islands, I’m going to travel beyond this Earth.’”
One of Yoshimura’s personal goals is to create art that inspires coming generations of Japanese American artists. He described that his work stands as a visual representation of his inner self and that much of his artistic expression is informed by children’s book illustrations, magical realism and authors like Ray Bradbury.
Yoshimura’s mural on the south side of Āto, for instance, is based off of Bradbury’s book, “R is for Rocket.”
“In the epilogue … I see the parallel to Ellison Onizuka, but in different mediums,” Yoshimura described. “It talks about (Bradbury) being a little boy in Illinois looking up at the stars and just thinking of all the stories that he could write and the magic that’s out there. And I imagine Ellison Onizuka being exactly the same: a little boy in Kona, Hawaii, looking up at the stars and seeing what life he’s going to live.”