A mural in Chinatown that was vandalized during the pandemic was reinstalled Saturday after community restoration efforts.
“Tied Together by a Thousand Threads” was installed in July 2017 by the nonprofit Asian Community Development Corporation. The 8- by 16-foot painting on plywood hangs on the brick wall of a vacant building at 15-25 Harrison Ave. in Phillips Square, an area in the northern part of Chinatown. Community members raised over $4,000 to restore and reinstall the mural, which was lightly vandalized in the first few years after its unveiling and then noticeably defaced during the pandemic.
The organization created an online fundraiser in February with the original goal of $4,000 to support the project. “We were able to able to meet our goal within a few weeks of the campaign launching,” Christine Nguyen, ACDC’s director of development and communications, said.
ACDC staff and the artist, Shaina Lu, had been discussing restoration efforts for the last two years. When it came time to uninstall the mural, Lu found that residents were eager to help. She posted a short comic on Instagram recapping how friends and passerby chipped in last minute to provide tools for taking the mural down.
“Strangers in the street would come by and help us un-drill,” Lu said.
The vandalism began as soon as a year after the initial installation in the form of scribbles and tags on the mural and the sign next to it, as well as one instance of advertisements pasted on the mural. Over the course of the defacement, residents and staff reported the vandalism to the City of Boston through its 311 app, which addresses non-emergency issues.
“Everybody felt this collective ownership and care for the mural,” ACDC’s director of community programs and design, Jeena Chang, said.
The city removed the graffiti, but some of its later efforts eventually made the problem worse. In spring 2021, the Graffiti Busters team from the city’s property management department covered offensive messages on the mural with blocks of black paint, obscuring the mural’s design even further.
Chang said ACDC raised the problem of using paint to cover graffiti to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. Joseph Callahan, deputy commissioner of the city’s property management department, confirmed to the Globe that the Graffiti Busters used paint in this instance, without consulting ACDC, but that is not the department’s current approach. “Our current process for addressing vandalized murals involves working with partners including the original artist, property owner, and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture,“ Callahan said in an email.
The mural was initially organized by students in ACDC’s Asian Voices of Organized Youth for Community Empowerment program, or A-VOYCE, in collaboration with Chinatown resident Yvonne Ng. Ng, who is an annual fund and donor relations officer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, responded to A-VOYCE’s call for public art project ideas, and they worked together to design a mural that depicts Chinatown’s history, much of it filtered through Ng’s childhood memories of the neighborhood.
The mural’s title is translated from a Chinese idiom, “千絲萬縷,” and encapsulates Chinatown’s past, present, and future, said Lu. On the left side of the mural, Consuelo, Ng’s mother, and Ng’s 3-year-old son, Enrique, blow bubbles together. Thin, sinuous white lines extend from their bubble wands across the painting, and eight bubbles of varying sizes depict different scenes and symbols, set against a blue backdrop.
The mural is a record of how much has changed in Chinatown, Ng said. Some bubbles depict Chinatown’s people and culture, including images of a garment worker and protesters, dim sum, and the now-closed See Sun Market that existed in the building the mural is on, according to ACDC. One bubble depicts an eye symbol that was the sign of an establishment known as Naked i Cabaret, which Ng remembers from Chinatown’s proximity to the city’s red-light district, the Combat Zone.
“I didn’t want to romanticize the history. I really wanted [it] to be grounded in truth,” Ng said.
One bubble on the left shows an elevated Orange Line train, from before the line went underground in the late 1980s. Another in the top right is a rendering of a 1903 raid in the neighborhood where police arrested and deported several laundrymen.
Chang said that with the painful parts of history, “there also is power and resistance.”
“It’s not about Chinatown as a poor or in-need neighborhood, but Chinatown where the residents and the businesses are empowered and exercise their power in fighting for their neighborhood,” Chang said.
The decision to install the mural was itself an example of fighting back. In 2017, residents protested proposals for three hotels in Chinatown, and ACDC placed the mural on one of the buildings that was meant to be developed into a hotel. The mural was thought to be a temporary measure of resistance, purposefully painted on wooden squares instead of on the brick wall so that ACDC could remove it if the proposal moved forward, Chang said.
The mural was one of ACDC’s “placekeeping” initiatives — efforts to improve Chinatown’s public spaces — and fit into the nonprofit’s method of “using arts and culture to extend the cultural footprint of the neighborhood in hopes of actually extending the physical footprint,” Chang said.
ACDC calls this strategy ANCHOR (Activation, Needs, Community, Housing and Open spaces, and Residents) in which art projects can serve as physical markers of the neighborhood and delineate the community spaces as belonging to Chinatown given the increasing displacement of residents.
“[The mural] was the start of us pushing back and trying to reclaim this northern edge and almost create a cultural gateway,” Chang said.
Nearly six years later, the Harrison Avenue property is still empty and the mural remains. While there is always a possibility that the restored version of the mural will also be vandalized, ACDC is considering preventative actions like public communication about the mural’s significance as well as working with city officials to create mitigation tactics.
Ng said that when she found out people had rallied behind the restoration, allowing ACDC to meet its fundraising goal, it was “heartwarming” to see that people connected with the mural.
“Even though it comes from my experience, I hope that it’s a mural that really celebrates a shared experience,” Ng said.
Abigail Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.