Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on the history of graphic design and social activism in California, with a focus on Los Angeles, published in partnership with KCET Artbound.
On February 5, 1969, five students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) met with the school’s administration. The students — Dinora Gil, Laura Ho, Tracy Okida, Colin Watanabe, and Mike Murase — arrived with a specific pitch. They wanted to create a publication focused on the concerns and viewpoints of the Asian American communities on campus. They were tired of classes that ignored or misrepresented their cultures and histories in favor of a white-washed narrative. A student-run publication, they argued, would counter the deficiencies of the university and the overall anti-Asian sentiment rampant on campus. Like a lot of students of color, inflamed by the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Third World movements, they began questioning the assimilationist perspective that had been force-fed to them for years.
Their idea had been sparked by a range of events. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of Black, brown, and Indigenous students at San Francisco State University, held a strike in protest of their Eurocentric education. They organized sit-ins and other demonstrations around campus, which lasted for five months, becoming the longest student strike in US history. The students had various demands, including the creation of an ethnic studies department, hiring more faculty of color, and admitting more students of color. Their criticisms (strikes also occurred at campuses in Berkeley and New York) highlighted the ways in which institutional racism was embedded within the university. That same year, UC Berkeley graduate student (and later UCLA professor of history) Yuji Ichioka introduced the term “Asian American” into popular culture, after he founded the student group Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), with the goal of uniting different ethnicities under one political identity.
These events, combined with the rising anti-Vietnam War movement, pushed students like Murase and others to advocate for their community’s needs. According to Murase, the administration balked at their request, and would only offer funding if they framed the publication as a “scholarly sociological journal” and granted the school full editorial control. The group scoffed at the compromise, and later decided to start the paper on their own. They each threw in $100 for ink and printing supplies, and quickly got to work. Two months later they released the inaugural issue of Gidra: four pages stuffed with essays, illustrations, and poems that touched upon a host of topics, from the Third World Liberation Front to the oppression experienced by women to Asian empowerment and pride.
From the outset, Gidra was driven by a sense of urgency and curiosity, turning away from the rigid codes of professionalism and respectability. They outlined their intentions for the paper in their mission statement: “Truth is not always pretty, not in this world. We try hard to keep from hearing about the feelings, concerns, and problems of fellow human beings when it disturbs us, when it makes us feel uneasy. And too often it is position and power that determine who is heard. This is why GIDRA was created. GIDRA is dedicated to truth.”
The graphic design became an extension of their commitment to blunt and provocative commentary, their spirit of encouraging dialogue and holding nothing back. On the front page of the first issue is a drawing of five Asian children staring through a barbed-wire fence. Below the image is a caption that reads, “What is my crime?” On the next page, near an article about the Yellow Brotherhood (a Los Angeles-based organization that supported and mentored Asian youth dealing with gang involvement, depression, drugs, and suicide), is a comic-strip-style panel that breaks down with biting clarity Japanese stereotypes.
What started as a monthly paper geared towards Asian American students at UCLA soon expanded to the greater Los Angeles community. You can see that shift happen across the design and content, as the paper became more action-oriented, focused on tangible ways to deepen Asian unity and increase critical engagement with the political realities of the time (the magazine’s entire archive is available to view online via Densho, the Japanese-American historical repository). As Murase writes in the essay “Toward Barefoot Journalism,” which appeared in Gidra’s final issue in 1974, changing the scope of the paper from campus to community led to pieces that moved away from only recounting “what happened” to work that outlined “what we can do.” Articles spoke out against the gentrification of Little Tokyo in the 1970s, examined the issue of sexism, and shared tips for starting a community garden.
Gidra’s style was confrontational and punkish, eager to implode American myths for the messy truths experienced by individuals pushed to the margins: women, immigrants, war veterans, farmworkers, people who went through the juvenile detention or prison system, former gang members, community organizers, the working class. Murase explained in an email to Hyperallergic that they refused to be “limited by conventional or mainstream notions of what print media should look like.” If anything, the style expressed the staff’s evolving political education, their desire to spread radical thought through art and culture. As students they had been exposed to a number of revolutionary movements (i.e. Black Panthers and Emory Douglas; the Young Lords; I Wor Kuen), and they drew inspiration from their rejection of white supremacy and investment in community programs. The AAPA newsletter, which lambasted US history of racism, economic exploitation, and imperialism, also circulated around various California college campuses at this time, as Topic notes.
By 1970, Gidra was adopting a more creative format. Staff members like Alan Ota transformed their traditional newsprint approach into an enthralling visual experience. Covers became more prominent, featuring eclectic illustrations and photographs. Because Gidra stressed a non-hierarchical work environment, driven by group discussions and consensus, there was no overarching house design, which allowed for more freedom and play. One spread from the November 1970 issue reprinted the FBI Wanted poster for Angela Davis; on the next page is a mock Wanted ad for then-President Richard Nixon. His crimes include “genocide, homicide, conspiracy.”
The design reflected the range of perspectives and styles present at the paper. Over 200 volunteers cycled through the Gidra offices, and the paper delights in the dynamism of its contributors. Murase, who today directs the community programming at the Little Tokyo Service Center, recalled that though the paper worked with a core group of artists and art students, most of the original art was sourced from “activist-artists without formal training.” And some illustrations were created in-house, using images cut-and-pasted from other magazines. “We used ink drawings, Letraset rub-on transfer deals, montages. Anything but the slick commercialism of Madison Avenue ads.” Artists like David Monkawa, Dean Toji, Glen Iwasaki, and Alan “Batman” Takemoto strove for a visual style that enhanced the senses, rather than numbing and nullifying them. The readers appreciated the homegrown style of the paper. “It was folksy, community orientated reporting. It really helped coalesce Asian Americans at the time into a progressive political voice,” writer and historian Susan Parks shared with Los Angeles Magazine.
Gidra would go on to publish 60 issues over five years. They disbanded in 1975 due to financial issues. Over the years, Gidra has cropped up in college classrooms (as reading assignments) and museums, most notably the 2017 exhibition at the Chinese American Museum, Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles 1968-1980s, guest curated by Ryan Lee Wong. When thinking about his experience working on the paper 50 years ago, Murase is surprised by its continued relevance: “we never thought that Gidra would have the durability and sustainability of interest that it has come to have.” Perhaps we flock to Gidra now because we are still dealing with iterations of the same problems, from white supremacy to police brutality to anti-Asian rhetoric to the mass incarceration of Black and brown people to our never-ending imperialist wars. Publications like Gidra remind us that current resistance movements and strategies do not exist in a vacuum — they point to a long history of dissent and protest. Studying them, learning from their mistakes and triumphs, provides a map of where we have been as we continue to fight for and demand liberation for all.