Art Inspiring Social Change

Growing up in New York City as the child of creative and supportive parents, artist Tak Toyoshima aspired to draw Marvel characters, like the Hulk or Spiderman, or to imitate the style of the Japanese cartoons his father brought with him from Tokyo. In adulthood, he found his own style and success with his comic strip Secret Asian Man, created in 1999 and nationally syndicated in 2007. Speaking at Middlesex on May 3, 2022, as part of the School’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month, Mr. Toyoshima reflected on the content and purpose of his work, as well as the potential for all kinds of art to raise awareness and spur social change.

With Chinatown close to his childhood home, Mr. Toyoshima related that he lived near an Asian community in New York without feeling that he belonged, as he attended activities like Kendo classes and Japanese summer camp. Though these connections to his family’s heritage “were “some of the best times of my life,” he allowed, “These were things that made me feel different, but I didn’t dwell on it until my comic strip.” Secret Asian Man became a way to process and share some of his early experiences – “like public therapy,” he quipped – and in time, he began to broaden the comic’s content from his own stories to those of “other people who felt marginalized, people who needed a voice.”

In this way, Mr. Toyoshima elaborated, cartoons – and art in a wide variety of different mediums and styles – can be used to represent or call attention to social and political issues. “You see symbols everywhere, like on bumper stickers,” he pointed out. “You know what people think from a little symbol on their car.” Artists gravitate toward social themes and problems, especially with publicly displayed images, he observed, to share their messages with as many people as possible.

But, he contended, a person does not have to be a great artist to create an image that effectively conveys meaning and inspires change. “What will you stand up and speak out on?” he asked his audience. “Choose a cause you are passionate about and create art focused on it.”

Most recently, in the wake of a surge of anti-Asian violence, Mr. Toyoshima applied his talents to creating and self-publishing Kwok: A Short Story About a Man. “I wanted to show that victims have full lives,” he said, adding that he donated all the proceeds to a Chinatown organization that assists the elderly – a contribution that he clearly found fulfilling.

“If you are artistic,” Mr. Toyoshima recommended, “think about a project that you can do. I promise you the rewards will be massive.”