Star Wars

In this 2021 painting “Ether,” Gajin Fujita searches for hope and strength for his native Los Angeles. (LA Louver © Gajin Fujita/Courtesy)

Gajin Fujita doesn’t waste images when he works. 

From graffiti to classical icons, from “Star Wars” to Tongva tribes, from spray paint to gold leaf, Fujita makes the most of whatever he finds to tell the stories of what he experiences and explores.

In his sixth solo exhibition at Venice’s LA Louver, Fujita shares the work he created between 2020 and 2023, capturing the emotional and social upheaval of those years. 

The show, “True Colors,” runs through Saturday, May 6, and includes a range of paintings and drawings that dip into social critique and portraiture.

Fujita acknowledged that those years were a period of global angst, animosity and anxiety. 

“I was just trying to keep a pictorial diary, basically, of what was happening globally and more particularly where I was born and raised here in LA,” Fujita said. “I wanted to make an impression of what I saw out there which was some heinous stuff and just outright ridiculous things going on in our country.”

One of his early works he dubbed “#WTF” because that’s what he was feeling as he watched the news every day and saw the riots in the streets outside his windows.

In that piece, a geisha sits on a graffitied bench snapping a selfie with her sparkly iPhone while a palm tree burns in the background. It was inspired by him watching young people taking selfies with burning police cars during the George Floyd protests. The chaos spilled out into the streets that he walked every day to school.

“I went through the riots in ’92, but this was another level,” Fujita said. “I was trying to depict and paint what I saw.”

Toward the end of 2020, he painted “Burning Down the House,” which captures the energy of 2020 in metaphors that include iconography from the 1980s when he was growing up. In it, Earth has been set ablaze and the “Star Wars” Death Star and a fire-breathing Godzilla roam free.

“It’s definitely depicting the era of the ’80s that I experienced growing up in the city of LA,” Fujita said. “People in my generation were going to relate to it immediately and that’s what I know. Those films and characters are super iconic, especially in Hollywood.”

Another piece, “No Man’s LAnd” pays tribute to the Tongva, the Indigenous people native to what is now LA. It introduces themes that are found throughout the body of work developed in this period — themes of location, identity, political injustice and nature versus humans. 

Fujita’s 2020 work also captures themes of hope and the belief that society will rise from the current chaos into something better. He expressed that in “We Shall Rise” in which red and blue phoenixes dance together, celebrating unity and difference. He continued to use phoenixes in 2021 in the work “Ether,” where it flies above the clouds, transcending all the earthly conflicts going on.

Both paintings came out of his desire to show unity during a divisive time. He said they were born out of iconic images from that year that he will never unsee — the killing of George Floyd being one and the other watching the former president walk across the Capitol with a Bible in his hand while there was rioting and pandemonium behind him.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to erase that image,” Fujita said. “I felt like, what are we as people in this country? I wanted to paint an image of hope. So, I painted ‘We Shall Rise’ and it’s an image of two phoenixes flying through the heavens. 

“I painted that to have a galvanizing message for the people of the United States because we were being mocked and ridiculed by the rest of the world.”

The United States wasn’t united anymore. The country was divided over masking and civil rights and so many other things. He wanted his art to counter that. 

He also longed to call attention to the reality of mental illness, something that so many more people were experiencing during the pandemic. The message is personal as his mother — who encouraged him as an artist and provided a foundation in classical art education for him — was dealing with Alzheimer’s, which accelerated during the pandemic.

With his newest painting, “True Colors,” Fujita created a portrait of his mother, Chitose Fujita, who is holding a yellow hibiscus flower with a dramatic sunset behind her. Elephants fly in the background, and she wears a green ribbon, both alluding to her fight against the degenerative disease. Fujita calls it a painting of hope as well. 

“I want to have people aware that mental health illnesses shouldn’t be taken so lightly,” Fujita said. “My mom is a strong, iconographic image. Alzheimer’s is a debilitating disease. You can’t reverse its course. But throughout the pandemic, I’ve also had close friends from my graffiti crew that have had issues with their mental capacity. They went through PTSD and were diagnosed bipolar and stuff like that. You can’t just put it away or sweep it under the rug. You’ve got to try to face it and tackle it. I realized that you need to exercise your mind as well.”

The exhibition also includes his first and only self-portrait and a portrait of legendary LA Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

Along with the show, LA Louver will publish a new catalog of Fujita’s work with an introduction by the gallery’s founding director, Peter Goulds, and an essay by art critic David Pagel. 

Fujita and Goulds’ friendship keeps him returning to the LA Louver. He said they immediately developed a great rapport, and he has been pleased with everything he has done there. 

The catalog is between 100 and 150 pages, much longer than the last one they did in 2011. There have also been advances in printing technology that show his work in a much better fashion. In addition to depictions of his work, the catalog contains pictures of his outdoor studio and him working in it.

Meanwhile, he’s eager for people to see “True Colors” and all the changes it represents in his work.

“It’s a body of work that is super personal to me and there’s been technical changes,” Fujita said. “They’ll definitely know it’s my work, but there's an evolution involved in my works. These paintings have never been seen even though I made some of them three years ago. They haven't been shown publicly. So, I hope people will enjoy seeing these basically new pieces.”

“True Colors” by Gajin Fujita

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, through Saturday, May 6

WHERE: LA Louver, 45 N. Venice Boulevard, Venice

COST: Free

INFO: 310-822-4955,