By Jen Kinney.
In pursuing zero traffic deaths in the city by 2025, Los Angeles Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds says she’s open to everything. “I need to exhaust every single tool in the tool box and then a bunch of other tools people don’t even think belong in the tool box,” she says. Enter Alan Nakagawa, oral historian, muralist and the first artist-in-residence at LADOT. A lifelong Angeleno, Nakagawa will spend at least a year embedded in the department, making art and recommending ways other artists can be enlisted in helping the city reach Vision Zero.
The 52-year-old has experience in mural arts focused on social issues, music and oral history. Starting in the ’90s, he coordinated public art for Metro, L.A. County’s main transit planner and operator. There, he says, he advocated for artists. “In the hubbub of bureaucracy and public art, the artist is often the least paid and the most needed,” he says.
As the first artist in the new Creative Catalyst residency program — which is being co-administered by the Department of Cultural Affairs — Nakagawa will be paid $20,000 for the first year. He says it’s only intended to be a part-time position, but already he’s buzzing with projects. First, to understand what LADOT does and how artists might be better integrated into every aspect of its operations — from communication to street design to public art — he’s recording oral histories of agency staff past and present.
“Having worked for several decades at Metro, I couldn’t tell you that I completely understand Metro,” he says. Knowing that his residency would only be a year (two if the department receives the federal funding it’s applied for), Nakagawa decided this was the most expedient and interesting way to learn as much as he could. Reynolds calls the oral history approach a “really brilliant” way to pay respect to the department, while also acclimating staff to the idea of working in concert with artists. Nakagawa hopes to talk to 60 people before the year is up, and to share the audio in an online archive. He’s already begun to edit them into short podcasts.