Art for Social Action: Soul & Ink’s Asian American Identity and D.C. Community
I had only been in the United States for five days, but I had already traded in my intern desk for a tent in the middle of the National Mall. I had a spray can in one hand, a stencil in the other, and what seemed to be an endless line of people in front of me. Everywhere I looked, a sea of people flooded my view.
I could smell a mixture of hot dumplings, sweat, spray paint, and ink. I could hear the sizzling of woks and the Indian fusion brass band’s music in the background. My hands were stained purple, and drops of paint fell on my royal blue staff shirt that read “Where Asia Meets America.”
We were in the midst of the reopening celebrations for the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler Galleries in October 2017. Co-presented by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, IlluminAsia was a two-day spectacular where 50,000 visitors came to immerse themselves in Asian art, food, and culture. Among the 200 participating local and international artists, members of the Soul & Ink crew stood alongside me in their black uniforms.
Helping visitors create their own IlluminAsia posters to take home, Shani and Brandon staffed the spray-painting station with me, while Frankie and Sherry handled the screen printing. Together, we worked like a well-oiled machine on overdrive. We didn’t know what time it was or how many people we assisted, but by the time we finally had time to catch our breath, the sun had gone to bed.
Soul & Ink is a mobile live screen-printing business founded by Frankie and Sherry Meneses. They bring printmaking out of the conventional studio space and into the streets, taking events to the next level by allowing guests to participate in the process. Guests don’t have to be artists to participate and take pride in the art they help create. From posters to tote bags, guests instantly get custom memorabilia.
As a printmaking student myself at the University of Alberta, I was fascinated with Soul & Ink. In the fall, I interviewed husband-and-wife design team Frankie and Sherry at their in-home studio in Maryland to learn more. I hadn’t expected that our chat would delve into subjects much more complex and personal. Despite the difference in age, nationality, and cultures, we had a lot in common. They inspired me to look back at my own personal experiences, reflecting on my intentions as an artist and the questions I still struggle with as an art student.
How did you figure out you wanted to be artists?
Sherry: I was either too young to hang out with my older sister or too old to want to hang out with my younger brother. So I was always in my own zone or hanging out in my room daydreaming and creating stuff. A lot of spare time for imagination is what led me to be an artist.
My dad was a graphic designer. He started off as a copying machine operator, but eventually he got bored. He started to have more ambition and wanted to get into the graphic design aspect. He worked for the National Rifle Association, but had a moral conflict working for them because of gun-related issues. So he started his own business, Typeworks Plus.
I had worked for a civil rights organization for four years and believed in what they were doing, but I have an entrepreneurial spirit and decided to take on my own interpretation of social justice and social change through hands-art and community involvement. Only now do I realize that I kind of followed in my dad’s footsteps.
Frankie: I think it was more of a subconscious thing. My parents would push us not to be artists. My mom was a doctor and my dad was a contractor, so that was the last thing they wanted us to be in life. But if you are creative, it is going to come out no matter what.
I took every art class possible. Starting in high school, all the classes I liked to take led me to the path that I am on now. Growing up, I read comic books and I was into skateboarding, but I was more into the graphics of the skateboard rather than actually skateboarding. Once I decided to apply to art schools in college, then it all started to make sense.
There was a sense of relief when I heard that, even for two professionals, their decision to be artists wasn’t so cut-and-dry. I remember being in grade twelve and having no clue what I wanted to do. A few months before high school graduation, I realized exactly what Frankie had realized: I was more invested in the arts than I thought. I may have taken AP classes and participated in the regional science fair, but I truly enjoyed myself when I was making props for the theater department or taking photos for the yearbook. I guess I, too, subconsciously always knew.
Frankie and Sherry never planned to start their own business. That big leap was three years ago when they launched in March 2015, and it was a year and a half later that Sherry felt comfortable enough to quit her day job to join Frankie full-time. Now they are the premiere live screen-printing business in the D.C. area.
How does your Asian American experience and heritage play into your work?
Frankie: From the standpoint of where we grew up, there were not a lot of role models for us in terms of Asian Americans. We needed a way to express ourselves and just be brave enough to be able to step forth. There were a lot of Asian stereotypes, like your parents want you to be a doctor or an engineer. They want you to make money, and artists don’t make money! And we’re good at math, so we should follow that path, right? I’m terrible at math, so that rules me out.
When we became artists, we noticed that there aren’t that many out there. We are kind of like that invisible culture. We have to fight for everything, because no one really gives us recognition. That’s where we’ve been challenging stereotypes, where we’ve been putting our culture—when we can and when is appropriate—to the forefront.
Sherry: As Asian women, we are seen as quiet, weak, and submissive. Thank God I’m rebellious and hard-headed!
Being Pinay, I had a lot of reflection on how it is a part of my heritage to be an artist, because a lot of Filipinos make something out of nothing often times using our bare hands due to lack of resources. Jeepneys, for example, were abandoned U.S. military jeeps left behind from World War II. We turned them into a mode of public transportation that doubles as a means of self-expression through kitschy decorations and customized hand-painted lettering. We turned it into an integral icon of cultural pride!
When I went back to the Philippines for the first time in 2000, I went with my grandma and my mom. It was powerful for me to be with three generations of women coming back amidst a people’s uprising against President Estrada’s corruption. In 2008, I went back to my dad’s homeland, Taytay, Rizal, where we visited the Angono artist village. The whole village was made up of a tight-knit community of artists, activists, and painters, and to me that’s when I realized that it’s part of our heritage to use our hands. Kamayan is another tradition in our culture, where we eat with our hands. We craft so many things with our hands, like turntablism—hip-hop is a big deal in the Filipino American community too.
The capability of what we can create with our hands and the ingenuity of our culture, to me, is very much an influence and an inherent instinct. Our traditions and culture have definitely been an inspiration for me.
Frankie and Sherry are American-born children of immigrants, and I am a Canadian-born child of immigrants. Though they are of Filipino descent, and I of Chinese, Malaysian, and British descent, we all check the same box on government forms: “Asian.” We all are boxed into the same stereotypes.
For many of my classmates growing up, I was the first—and, for a long time, the only—Asian friend they had. I was their first real exposure to Asian culture, but the lack of accurate representation of Asians in the media had more of an influence on my peers than I did. I distinctly remember having to write an assignment on who my role model was but coming up blank. I had decided that I didn’t need one, that I wasn’t going to wait to see someone like me succeed as validation that I could. I was going to have to be the role model I wanted for myself.
As I’ve grown older, I have had this increasing feeling of responsibility to be an advocate for the North American Asian experience and for accurate representation. Hearing Frankie and Sherry unveil the familiar stereotypes they faced gave me a sense of pride, because despite the limited views society has on Asian Americans, Frankie and Sherry have been able to break barriers and be successful artists. At IlluminAsia, standing with the other Asian artists on the National Mall, I felt proud of my ethnic background and proud of my choice to pursue the arts.
How do you describe your role as an artist in relation to community?
Sherry: In America, there has been a lot of turmoil since the 2016 election and the inauguration. We noticed how excited everyone was, and how despairing it became when we saw that Trump was going to be president. After that, we started seeing things happening in America that were making people scared and feeling helpless. We were resolved to keep on putting out important work and using art as a way to transform some of these negative emotions into something positive.
We were making sure that the designs were inclusive and speaking diplomatically about something that is hurting a large amount of people. We both felt this responsibility and this resolve to keep the light shining on hope. Our Drink & Ink workshops started in December 2016 as holiday workshops in local distilleries, then shifted into a voice for the community in January 2017 around the time of inauguration and the Women’s March. We were creating these resistance posters and speaking up for marginalized communities. Having the community come out and having the conversations about how people were feeling alone was eye-opening. I realized that this was about creating a safe space for people, and it’s creative placemaking in a sense that we are activating a space and drawing in the community together to make a difference, and that feels good!
We feel like it comes intuitively for us to want to make a difference as artists. It’s a part of our community; a lot of our artist friends in the area are like “artivists” in that way. We are kind of like connectors of the community.
Frankie: For the role of artists, it’s not just to inspire people, but it is also to challenge perceptions. We’ve always been doing this, to change the idea of what people think—like with screen printing only being used for shirts, and it’s in a warehouse. We use it as a voice, as a platform, to get other ideas out there and actually get people together. That is what our role at its highest level can be.
It may have happened in the United States, but the impacts of the presidential election are felt beyond its borders. The election was like live entertainment for Canadian audiences. We were far enough away to laugh at it but close enough to fear it. The day after the election, all my professors discussed the election with their students instead of following their lecture plans. Some were frustrated, some were confused, some were straight up mad. Even if you didn’t follow the election, you could feel the same feeling of despair that Sherry described.
I remember my printmaking class on that day. The instructors came together and asked for action. They showed us examples of political posters and told us that it is important that artists generate work that reflects current events—to speak up. We created politically charged artwork that was showcased in an exhibition called Hope and Fears.
Some may be critical and say that making art won’t help the situation, that it’s only pretty pictures. But didn’t the Women’s March posters make you think about how you treat others? Didn’t they make you feel mad, sad, and empowered? Aren’t the political caricatures in newspapers a little bit frightening? Art allows us to show others a different perspective that some may find hard to understand.
Looking back at all the injustices that happen in the world, change has happened because of people who spoke up. I am glad to know there are vocal and passionate “artivists” like Frankie and Sherry in our communities.
I have often wondered where I fit in the art world. What am I contributing to society? After my time with Frankie and Sherry, I now ask myself, how does the art world fit into my community? How am I contributing to society? The “how” is something very important—it is what differentiates art for beauty’s sake, art for profit, and art for social action. Soul & Ink take the “how” seriously. By researching and communicating with their clients and community members, their business model has become the perfect formula of branding, creative placemaking, and community engagement.
As I approach the end of my stay in D.C., I return to Canada with more ambition. I hope to develop into an artist who has a distinct voice and holds true to my values, like Frankie and Sherry Meneses, while also making sure to enjoy the journey and its unexpected turns.
You can catch Soul & Ink this summer at the Folklife Festival. They will be live screenprinting posters that you can customize with stencils on Sunday, July 8, from 4 to 8 p.m. on the National Mall.
Jeraldine Chong was an education intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She studies art and design at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.