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City of Boston, MBTA unveil digital billboards celebrating Asian American strength, resilience

Three designs that Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya created for the "We Are More" installation, now displayed around Boston.
Three designs that Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya created for the "We Are More" installation, now displayed around Boston.Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Amid Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, dozens of digital billboards around Greater Boston boast slogans supporting the country’s largest diaspora.

Stand with us, some read. We belong here. Protect our elders.

The signs are emblazoned with faces of people hailing from Korea to Bangladesh and crafted in a flurry of bold colors. A few plainly state that Asian American residents “are more than” a long list of stereotypes — more than “the future doctor,” “the straight A student,” “the helpless refugee,” “the nail lady,” “the Tiger mom.”

Together with the City of Boston and the MBTA, Chinatown’s Pao Arts Center stationed the signs in 80 locations.

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To New York-based artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, the “We Are More” installation is a reminder of the community’s strength, resilience, and individuality.

“As Asian Americans, we haven’t been given the full range or freedom to tell the diversity of our stories, which makes it so easy for us to be scapegoated,” she said in a phone interview. This campaign finally shows that “this is our home, and we won’t tolerate being shoved into these narrow boxes that have been predefined for us.”

It’s also a callback to the staggering rise in Anti-Asian violence and harassment over the past 18 months. Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against the community have increased by 60 percent in Boston between the beginning of 2020 and 2021, according to The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.

The billboards serve as a joyous resistance to this violence, Phingbodhipakkiya said.

“Asian Americans have been cursed, pushed, spat on, kicked, shot, and killed,” she explained. “This is a manifestation of us no longer bearing our pain in the silence and not being cowed by bullies or bigots. We are here to stand. We are here to stay.”

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Phingbodhipakkiya’s portraits display composites of people and stories she has collected through hundreds of conversations. The phrases that are part of the installation are borrowed from activists and the Stop Asian Hate Movement. The project is funded by the Boston Foundation, Nancy Wang Adams, Scott A. Schoen, Kevin Chang, and Schweizer Foundation for Arts and Innovation.

The Boston iteration is just one of several similar “We Are More” campaigns nationwide, born out of an original Times Square campaign.

In Boston, “We Are More” offers support and recognition for the Asian community where they already are — in Chinatown, Quincy, Malden, and beyond. It also serves as a PSA on public transportation, where the campaign holds “space for diversity,” two MBTA officials wrote in a statement.

“This is art literally in the streets,” said Ben Hires, who helped bring the work to the city as CEO of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. “It’s on public transport that Asians, immigrants, and so many marginalized people are taking ever day, and have been taking through the pandemic.”

New York-based artist and educator Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya
New York-based artist and educator Amanda PhingbodhipakkiyaMikayla Whitmore

Some folks reached out to Pao Arts Center director Cynthia Woo to say “We Are More” made them feel safer in public spaces and on the T. (The BCNC collaborated with Bunker Hill Community College to create the Pao Arts Center, a Chinatown arts and culture center in 2017.)

But the “We Are More” installation extends beyond the enduring dangers to AAPI people. Rather, it’s a respite from the grief, Phingbodhipakkiya said.

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“My work is about transmuting pain, grief, and loss into something hopeful and beautiful,” she explained. “We deserve to live without fear. We deserve to live with hope and joy. We deserve to celebrate our Asian joy.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.