This project was begun as part of my research on Executive Order 9066: it is the first time I made the personal decision to really look at this sorry chapter in history as a Japanese American artist. I plan to focus on this direction in my work for the next few years.
“The Tag Project” was started in New York, while I was an artist-in-residence at SUNY Purchase. I was inspired by the thousands of folded origami cranes I saw 12 years before at the Hiroshima Peace memorial. I was also deeply moved by the photos of Dorothea Lange, one is shown above: it was her photos that initially provided the physical and emotional weight of the internment, and how it so profoundly affected the Japanese American citizens during and for years to come. All Japanese Americans from the West Coast were rounded up in 1942 and each were issued a tag and an ID number designating their destination: one of several internment camps, all in desolate deserted areas of the United States. The most haunting and striking photos were of the families wearing tags at the various assembly centers before being shipped off by train to these remote areas.
I was taken by the physical weight of these tags when they were completed and hung, despite appearing to be light and airy. This struck me as being very relevant to the way the internment was perceived by the general American Public. To this day it shocks me to still run into fellow Americans who had no clue that this had happened. It was necessary to make all 120,000 tags, to represent every Japanese American who was sent to the ten major camps. I feel that the sheer numbers and the scale of these tags will convey to all who view this that the internment was a massive project that was to affect an entire culture of people and their future generations.
Obviously this was a huge undertaking. I knew that this will take a community to make happen, but will provide a way for others to meet each other, work together, and share stories. I started out by to asking friends, artists and family to help – and in turn these friends have asked others to help. Some were internees and have shared their stories. Some know the same friends that my parents know. I have also reconnected with folks that I have not seen since I was a child, who have volunteered their help.
To reach out to an extended community I attended internment camp pilgrimages, talked to people, and asked them to spread the word that I am working on this collaborative piece. Suddenly I was receiving invitations to host the Tag Project events at various sites: Buddhist Temples, high schools, churches, colleges, and art centers. The Tag Project traveled to Washington DC, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Maryland, various points in Californa, and I sent kits to volunteers from over half the states, including Hawaii.
The Tag Project was greatly supported, in spirit, by the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego. The JAHSSD currently houses artifacts, interviews, newspaper clippings and other archival materials about the Japanese Americans in San Diego. Linda Canada is the archivist of JAHSSD. She can be reached at (858) 505-9020 or atJAHSSD@sbcglobal.net. The JAHSSD is a non-profit organization, supported by a membership of over 500 individuals. The organization sends out a monthly newsletter called “Footprints” and is edited by Joyce Nabeta Teague.
THE PROCESS OF THE TAG PROJECT:
I designed a rubber stamp that replicates the text on the original tags – each of these tags are stamped, then names are written on each tag – I have seen two different examples of tags from archival materials – some were typewritten and others were handwritten. I feel that the handwritten tags gave the sense of the human connection, and the process of writing the names brings a sense of connection to the person whose name you are writing.
I ordered a big box of red ink pads and numbering stamps and volunteers helped stamp each individual number on these tags.
Finally the tags go through an aging process that requires them to be dunked in coffee or tea and then strung together with red thread.
THE TAG PROJECT – THE FINAL OUTCOME
There are a total of ten groupings of tags – each group represents and is named after each of the ten major Internment Camps – the population of each of these camps varied from 5,000 to 20,000 individuals. The tags cascade from a steel ring and are strung together with red cord. Each grouping is approximately 11′ tall, and the diameters of these groups vary from 3′ to 4/12′ wide. The largest groupings weigh approximately 150 pounds. The steel rings are suspended from steel cable, which gives the appearance that each group hovers, or levitates on its own. They all look like large looming ghost-like figures and they slowly rotate or move with the slightest breeze.