It was February 2021, and alumnus Jonathan D. Chang (BFA 08 Illustration) felt frustrated that the recent death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai grandfather who had been shoved to the ground and killed in San Francisco, would be another case of anti-Asian violence met with silence.
Less than a year earlier, the Asian American designer and illustrator had designed a “Proud AF to be Asian” shirt—with the slogan stacked into rows like the Chinese character "王", meaning "king"—and a flame-engulfed fist icon, integrating the Chinese character "人", meaning "people,” for the nationwide “They Can’t Burn Us All” anti-racism movement and marches, which were launched by rapper China Mac and actor Will Lex Ham after an 89-year-old Asian grandmother was set on fire in Brooklyn that July.
My big thing is not waiting for permission to speak up.Jonathan ChangIllustrator and designer
“Then not as many people started showing up at the rallies, and video footage came out of Vicha being pushed, and I thought, ‘Another elder is getting attacked and killed, and no one’s going to say anything,’” says Chang via Zoom, seated in the Burbank apartment he shares with his fiancé and Illustration alumna Debbie Lee (BFA 10).
Encouraged by a friend, Chang quickly drew a tribute portrait of Ratanapakdee. In the image, the older man smiles, sporting a grey-white mustache. Chang uploaded the drawing to Instagram, and by the next morning it had been shared by thousands of people, with users changing their profile photo to the portrait of Ratanapakdee.
“My big thing is not waiting for permission to speak up,” says Chang. “If major brands, social media and celebrities didn’t say ‘Stop Asian Hate,’ would people have come out and stood up for it? Speak up. Just do it. If you see something wrong, you can amplify bringing attention to it, even within your own small circle.”
Since that 2021 portrait, Chang has created and shared on his social media many more illustrations of Asian people who have been attacked and/or killed nationwide, to raise awareness. His portraits have ranged from images of victims unharmed and smiling—with those killed outlined in white—to illustrations of people with bruises and lacerations.
According to data published by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in the United States rose by 339% in 2021 compared to an already record-breaking 2020, spurred by racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2021, soon after the Atlanta-area spa shootings in which six women of Asian descent were killed, Chang posted an animated tribute to Xiao Zhen Xie, a 75-year-old Chinese grandmother in San Francisco who fought against her white attacker with a wooden board. The GIF, featuring Xie determined and swinging the board, with the words “F*ck Around And Find Out,” went viral. “The story of this grandma who was not taking this shit was something I wanted to celebrate, and it resonated with a lot of people,” Chang says.
Motivated, he looked for partners to create merchandise with the image to give to donors for a GoFundMe for Xie, which she later gave to a Stop Asian Hate community fund. Together with Asian-owned Oakland print shop Town Print, who donated 1,000 shirts, and biracial half Japanese executive Emily Lonetto, who donated 2,000 stickers, Chang raised an incredible $38,000 in seven days matched by venture capitalist Eric Kim.
When Chang read about the January 2022 murder of 40-year-old Michelle Go, a Chinese American senior manager in finance pushed by a homeless man into the path of an oncoming subway train in New York City, he drew a portrait of her and posted it.
Having seen the post on Instagram, Ben Wei, founder of the non-profit Asians Fighting Injustice, contacted Chang about using the portrait for a vigil in Times Square. In just 24 hours, Chang designed two digital billboards, featuring his portrait of Go and his other portraits of Asian victims of injustices. “A friend at the vigil texted me, ‘Oh my God, Jonathan, they’re huge and everyone here is bawling,’” he says.
An only child, Chang was born in Taiwan, and his father died in a motorcycle accident when he was a baby. He and his mother moved to Southern California when he was 3 years old. He learned English watching television shows such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He spent time drawing while his mom worked, and also found that drawing was another way to communicate at school. His stepdad taught him how to fight back after he was bullied for being Asian.
Chang met his fiancé Lee—now a graphic designer at Nickelodeon—in an art class in high school. ArtCenter was his only choice for college. “I was always told that ArtCenter was one of the best art and design colleges, and I was so happy to get in,” he says. After graduating, Chang gravitated towards toy packaging art and design, and his projects have included the rebrand for Monster Jam and Star Wars toy lines.
In early 2019, Chang created and posted an animated GIF of 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang with his fists up, like a boxer, on his Instagram. When Yang’s team saw that image, they contracted Chang to design merchandise for Yang’s campaign.
Chang also created a digital mural of the National Mall and tokens generated by non-fungible token (NFT) holders for Yang’s Lobby3, a new Web3 community and lobbying group designed to give people a stronger voice in Washington D.C. and build a more prosperous economic future together.
As a senior concept artist at OnChain Studios, a company Chang joined in early 2022, he designs digital toys, packaging and concept art for their flagship product Cryptoys—digital toys that live on the blockchain as NFTs. And he continues to post illustrations on social media casting a spotlight on anti-Asian injustice.
“I don’t know the answers or want to point fingers,” says Chang. “For me personally, it’s just about getting the story out there. There’s so much talent within our communities that if we all use it for good, we can make positive social change.”