A still from Adrienne Pao and Robin Lasser's 'COVID Bubbles: Californians Dress for Emergence' project in San Jose. (Courtesy of Adrienne Pao and Robin Lasser)
The billboard at the corner of Washington and North 4th Streets in downtown San Jose is attracting quite a bit of attention these days, with cars honking as they drive past and passersby stopping to stare.
Instead of advertising the usual products or services, the billboard displays an eye-catching photograph of a group of Vietnamese people wearing the brightly-colored traditional Vietnamese national dress known as áo dài and carrying lanterns inscribed with slogans.
“So one says ‘Giúp người. Giúp ta,’ meaning, ‘Help yourself. Help others,’” says San Jose resident and arts leader Trami Cron, who helped get the Vietnamese community involved in the billboard’s creation through a photo and video shoot back in May at San Jose’s Kelly Park. “And the other one says, ‘Chích ngừa rồi. Đi vui chơi!’ meaning, ‘We are now vaccinated. Let’s go have fun!’”
This is one of five artistic billboards bearing pro-vaccine messages in Vietnamese and English up through the end of the month across San Jose. Five others feature messages in Spanish and English.
“‘Vacunados, podemos abrazar los abuelos,’ which means, ‘Vaccinated, we can hug our grandparents,’” says local photographer and educator Jesus Aguilar, who brought members of his community together to pose for those billboards in June at San Jose’s Heritage Rose Garden. “This is really important in the Latinx community,” he adds.
All 10 of the billboards are part of a statewide public messaging campaign—“Your Actions Save Lives”—launched by the governor’s office earlier this year. It uses many kinds of public art, including poetry, videos and music, to urge Californians to stop the spread of the virus.
“It’s finding artists that can make work that reaches a certain part of the community in a way that possibly traditional advertising mechanisms cannot,” says curator Shelly Willis, who selected the artists for the statewide effort, which produced 18 original artworks in 14 California communities.
San Jose artists Robin Lasser (who is also a San Jose State University art professor) and Adrienne Pao co-led the billboard project in San Jose, titled Covid Bubbles: Californians Dress for Emergence. It’s a continuation of the pair’s long-term Dress Tents installation series, which Lasser describes as “nomadic wearable architecture.” One of these tents, installed in the Heritage Rose Garden, is at the center of the new Latinx-focused billboard campaign.
“With these billboards, we didn’t want to have the wagging finger, like, ‘Have you been vaccinated yet? Because if not, you don’t care about the world!’” Lasser says. “But rather, we wanted people to feel a sense of joy in their experience of the billboards, and a sense of joy should they decide to get vaccinated.”
According to Santa Clara County deputy county executive Rocio Luna, the region’s Latinx and Vietnamese populations have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Many are essential workers and have found it hard to get culturally relevant information about COVID-19 prevention. She says that’s where this art project can help.
“There’s a very unique message in each of these art installations that speaks to these communities,” Luna says. “And it makes these communities aware that we’re listening and that they’re valued and we want them safe and we want them here.”
According to Santa Clara County public health data, an estimated 95% of the county’s Asian population is fully vaccinated. However, the data isn’t broken down into specific ethnic groups, and Luna says vaccine hesitancy is still higher in the Vietnamese population as compared to other Asian American communities. Meanwhile around 68% of the Latinx population is fully vaccinated.
Aguilar says if we really want to get those numbers up, it’s important to involve community members themselves in the messaging, as is the case with the billboard project.
“If the messenger looks like you, you’re a little bit more likely to kind of follow the guidelines, to follow the advice,” he says.
The billboards are just one part of the plan.
Lasser, Pao, Cron and Aguilar have done outreach around the art with the communities involved, gathering at the billboards in recent weeks to celebrate and exchange stories. Videos document the process of making the art installations photographed for the billboards. There’s a forthcoming book featuring imagery and stories of people’s pandemic experiences. And the billboards themselves will be up-cycled into tote bags.
Those positive messages about vaccination will be seen around town long after the roadside advertising is gone.
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