She was done working for the day, just loading her tools and materials back into her car, when she accidently dropped a can of green paint on the street in a hillside neighborhood in Sherman Oaks. Luckily, the can was closed as it went tumbling downhill. Then it hit a rock.
“Oh no, I’m painting the entire street now,” said Muralist Laishan Ito. The can had burst open on impact and kept rolling. “The whole hillside with my bucket of paint rolling down,” she added.
Anything can happen when you are painting a mural in public. For Laishan, that’s part of the fun, even if it means scrubbing green paint off the blacktop at the end of the day. If you haven’t heard of her, you’ve probably seen her murals on the LADOT utility boxes around town. She has painted four in Sherman Oaks and one in Studio City.
The green paint incident happened when she was working on the “Welcome to Sherman Oaks” mural on the utility box at Mulholland Drive and Beverly Glen Boulevard.
“Every box has its own story and it’s always been a pleasure to experience every single one of them,” Laishan said.
She also painted the utility box mural on Ventura Boulevard and Dickens Avenue near the Galleria, the one near the new Pavilions on Ventura Boulevard and Kester Avenue, one at Moorpark Boulevard and Tyrone near the Sherman Oaks Public Library branch, and one in Studio City at Ventura Boulevard and Carpenter Avenue. You can read up on all of the utility boxes with murals by a variety of artists in our two-part series: Bye-bye Boring Gray Utility Boxes
Laishan painted her first public mural in Azusa in 2018, but her journey into art started in 1980’s Hong Kong where she was born. An only child, Laishan said drawing was an essential source of entertainment growing up. She started young, but she took the long way around to begin her career as an artist.
Every box has its own story
Moving to the LA area at age 11, her parents wanted something more stable for her career path.
“It was really hard to convince my parents, so I negotiated with them,” she said.
Laishan told her parents she would get a degree in something more financially promising before she applied to any art schools. So, she studied business administration at UC Riverside, and despite her pragmatic choice of major, it was at the university where she really started down the path to become an artist.
Though she had no formal training yet, Laishan responded to a listing on the college’s jobs board for a position producing scientific illustrations for an entomology professor’s research. She landed the gig and began working with UCR wasp expert Dr. John Heraty. She spent four years drawing insects for him.
When it comes to this type of research, Laishan says that line drawings are more effective than a photograph. With a microscope and a camera, you often get too much clarity. There are dust particles and pollen that obscure the detail of the insect. Drawings give a clearer picture.
This work kept her busy for years and she went on to do scientific illustrations for researchers at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and more. She also eventually earned that long dreamt-of art degree from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and worked for Nokia doing branding design. She got married, started a family, had two boys and finally in 2018 started her public mural work.
What do I want to say? What can I do to help?
She began painting the utility boxes in Sherman Oaks and Studio City in 2020 right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic helped me think about what the purpose of my work is,” Laishan said. “What is important to me as an artist? What do I want to say? What can I do to help?”
At that time tensions had peaked across the country with the pandemic lock-down, Black Lives Matter rallies and a rising tide of anti-Asian hate crimes. Laishan wanted to inject some positivity into the culture. She reached out to the folks behind the Let’s Paint Sherman Oaks program from the Sherman Oaks Chamber Foundation and began doing murals locally.
“At first I wasn’t sure it was safe to be out on the street that way,” Laishan said. But she took a leap of faith and it paid off, at least emotionally for Laishan. “I find it really rewarding to do that for the community and bring people some positive energy.”
For Laishan, the most rewarding part of doing public art is interacting with people on the street as she is painting. People are curious, she said, and often stop to ask about her projects.
“They are usually very encouraging and thankful and supportive of what I’m doing,” Laishan said. “It’s always good to know that my work is being appreciated and giving some sort of positive energy to the neighborhood, to people.”
“I think that artists have a responsibility to express emotion and send some kind of message to people. And I want to spread love, unity and kindness,” she said.
If you have a vision, go for it
With two boys, 12 and 10 years old, Laishan says she also hopes her work will inspire her sons to pursue their dreams.
“They are the reason why I keep doing it because they inspire me to be a role model. I kind of have to be,” she said. “Go for what you want. As long as you’re not hurting anyone. As long as you’re doing something healthy, if you have a vision, go for it.”
“I’m not making a whole lot of money, but I feel good about myself, being able to do what I love to do,” she said. “I hope they can figure that out for themselves and be happy in their lives.”
Now she has amassed a substantial collection of public art throughout the entire LA area. Looking to the future, Laishan wants to take her art to a grander scale. She is working toward doing monumental public murals and she continues to create art that jumps off the surface with intense color and inspiring messages of love and unity.
“I hope that people taking walks with their dog or riding their bikes, passing by, have something to smile at,” Laishan said.
*All photos courtesy of Laishan Ito Design
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