During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya's artwork, currently on display in iconic locations throughout New York City, captures a range of Asian American voices. The vibrant colors and bold lettering feel distinctly joyful — which may seem like a surprising choice, as they were inspired by the ongoing surge in anti-Asian violence that's plagued the country since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
But for Phingbodhipakkiya, the uplifting nature of the imagery is an important part of the message.
"I think about things that we can't see with the naked eye, so microscopic worlds or in the far reaches of outer space," she told TODAY's Craig Melvin. "But I think we can also reveal the depth and wonder and complexity and beauty and resilience of communities of color."
"I don't think Asian Americans have been given the space and the freedom to share the full range and diversity of our stories, and there's such beauty and depth in that," she added.
"I did not make you sick," reads one of the designs posted on bus stops.
"I am not your scapegoat," declares another.
"We belong here," states a third.
Phingbodhipakkiya, who's Thai and Indonesian, said many of the eye-catching statements integrated into her work come from real-life stories.
"My parents had just experienced being yelled at in a grocery store, being told that they should go back to where they came from," she recalled. "I got on the subway, this was before New York shut down, and the person next to me looked at me and said, 'Ew, gross. Get away from me.'"
"These are just some of the things I would have said in response to what happened to me, but also just broadly, this is what standing up and using our voice looks like."
Phingbodhipakkiya started out as an Alzheimer's disease researcher, majoring in neuroscience. Still, she always felt the arts calling her.
"I thought I would be a surgeon, or some kind of doctor," she said, adding that her parents' immigrant background emphasized stability. "Growing up, my mother especially encouraged both the STEM fields and the arts, though the arts were never supposed to be my profession."
She also spent time in her father's restaurants growing up, which informed her artistic approach.
"The colors, the spices, the sounds and the sense of belonging, the sense of community that we built inside this series of restaurants really has shaped my work," she said. "You see that my work is very colorful, you see that it is vibrant, uplifting. I'm depicting Asian American and Black and Latinx faces with dignity, with respect and also with love and joy."
After she became a full-time artist, her career hit a major milestone when her work was featured on the cover of Time magazine following the spa shootings in March that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, in Atlanta, where she grew up.
Now, she's the artist in residence with New York City's Commission on Human Rights and is the visionary behind the "I Still Believe in Our City" campaign with installations in Times Square, Lincoln Center, Brooklyn's Atlantic Terminal and more.
"I hope my work gives folks a sense of peace, a respite from grief, a sense of pride," Phingbodhipakkiya said. "There's room here for your voices, for your grief, for your joy, for your laughter. There's room here for your heart."