New ‘Longevity’ mural is a sign of growing interest in public art in Asiatown

Artist Thomas Tran stands in front of his mural, “Longevity” / VCSA Facebook

Artist Thomas Tran’s new mural has an auspicious name – Longevity.

It references the blessing of long life that holds significance in many Asian cultures. The title is also a nod to the themes of community health and wellness contained in its images, which Tran conceived and developed with input from a public survey conducted earlier this spring.

Completed on May 22, Longevity is the latest mural in Houston’s Asiatown – a massively colorful 2-story painting located in Sterling Plaza at 9798 Bellaire Boulevard. 

Full view of Thomas Tran’s mural “Longevity” with artist standing in front / VCSA Facebook

It was commissioned by the nonprofit VCSA (Vietnamese Culture and Science Association) and funded with part of a grant from Houston in Action’s “Safer Together” Vaccine Equity Campaign.

“This mural … reflects the tradition of intergenerational care that is prevalent in Asian families,” said Teresa Trinh, President of VCSA.

“You will see an interaction between an elderly grandmother and a grandchild, in addition to the interaction between a parent and child. The mural also contains other traditional elements of the Asian culture including a tiger, dragon, and phoenix,” she said.

Even when the mural was still in its planning stages, there was one image that Tran knew he wanted to include – that of a loving Asian father hugging his son. 

“The theme is about community health, so I’d definitely want to include mental health,” said Tran.

That father-son hug is now a major focal point in the mural – the artist’s way to destigmatize the topic of mental health, which has faced barriers in the AAPI community. Recent studies indicate that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health treatment than other racial groups.

The mural’s official public unveiling will be on Saturday, June 4 from 10 – 11am with refreshments, speakers, and a lion dance.

It marks the culmination of hard work behind a project that took 2 days to outline with a projector, 5 days of painting, 1 day of touch-up work by the artist, and roughly 205 volunteers working together in the days leading up to its completion.

“Personally, it was grueling but rewarding work,” said Tran. “People seem to like it.”

One of those people is Matt Manalo, founder of Filipinx Artists of Houston and Alief Art House, who calls Tran’s mural “delightful,” “engaging,” and “thoughtful.”

“The new mural brings in the conversation of inclusivity in Asiatown, which breaks all the stereotypes of what or how Asians should be or look like, which I am truly excited about,” said Manalo.

The faces, clothing, and personalities captured in the mural aim to reflect the multiethnic nature of Greater Houston’s AAPI community – which include Vietnamese, South Asians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Cambodians, and Asians from Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand, and numerous other ethnic groups.

Thomas Tran’s Alief Community Mural 2019 / Courtesy of Thomas Tran

Tran’s Longevity mural comes at a time when public art has been brewing in Asiatown and in neighboring Alief in recent years.

In 2019, Tran painted an Alief Community Mural located behind Thien Phu Wedding Restaurant at 11360 Bellaire Blvd, Suite 100.

Also in 2019, Manalo founded the Alief Art House – a shipping container set up in Alief SPARK Park and Nature Center to house free art exhibits and events for the neighborhood, and to support Alief artists.

In 2019, the International Management District, which is just west of Asiatown, gave a public art makeover to 22 concrete globes along Bellaire Boulevard. Local artist Armando Castelan was hired to paint the large spheres in the esplanades into mini murals depicting the district’s diversity.

Mini mural by artist Armando Castelan, located on Bellaire Boulevard / Courtesy of International Management District

In 2020, Tran painted the temporary mural “Crocodile Garden” for Alief Art House, which recently added a second shipping container to set up offices and workshops.

Other existing public art in Asiatown include the Vietnam War Memorial at Universal Shopping Plaza at 11360 Bellaire Boulevard, and various sculptures in public spaces, such as a small fish sculpture at the northwest corner of Bellaire and Ranchester.

Still – Tran, Manalo, and Trinh all agree that there is not enough public art in Asiatown.

“Hopefully, with the completion of this [Longevity] mural, it will spur other organizations to host murals throughout the area,” Trinh said.

Manalo believes that the impact of public art is not only economic but also educational, barrier-breaking, and personal.

“The mural … will not only draw more people to support Asian-owned businesses, but it will also draw attention to the stories and culture of folks who live and work in the area,” said Manalo.

“The mural and public art in Asiatown are so important because it also shows that Asians can also be creative,” he said. “It brings me back to the conversation I had with my parents about switching to pursuing art as my career. I believe that it is a discussion that needs to happen more.”

Father hugging son in Thomas Tran’s “Longevity” mural / Photo by Thomas Tran

The Southwest Management District, which worked with VCSA to find a location for the Longevity mural, considers public art a “key part of the beautification of the business corridors within its boundaries,” according to its Executive Director Alice Lee.

Lee says that for years her district, which encompasses Asiatown, has funded the removal of graffiti and litter, and has maintained landscaping of medians.

Now, she says, they are considering funding public art projects – and art is ever-present, if you look for it:

“From the lion sculptures in front of the Hope Clinic on Bellaire Boulevard to the bright pink edifice of the Reiwatakiya cosmetics store just down the street, businesses and institutions continue to provide visually attractive features that almost make the District a constantly changing piece of art itself,” said Lee.

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