By Guest Contributor Ken Choy, cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine
Blacklava has been a reliable support system for Asian America. If one has an indie film, she’d go to Blacklava to help promote it. If one wants to expand a business, t-shirts created by Blacklava is the obvious choice. And if non-profits and live events need more bandwidth, no wider audience is to be found than Blacklava’s. Throngs crowd around the company’s booth appearances at Comic-Con just as much as they do at the Nihonmachi Street Fair.
Originally geared toward the surfing community, Ryan Suda created his company 20 years ago. He segued into Asian American-focused items when he created the “Asian is Not Oriental” t-shirt and was continually asked, “Hey, where can I get one of those?” And since then, Blacklava has been a reliable source of support and socially conscious sustenance for the Asian American community. Throughout the years, Blacklava has partnered with the likes of AngryAsianMan, San Diego Asian Film Festival, East West Players, Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, Secret Identities, and over 150 other collaborators–including our own Hyphen Magazine.
As he prepares to open a 20th Anniversary Exhibit in Downtown LA’s Hatakeyama Gallery which includes an Opening Night Gala, I caught up with the soft-spoken entrepreneur and philanthropist with a huge heart.
KC: Are you aware of the magnitude of your contribution to the community?
RS: I love when people tell me their personal stories and experience wearing their Blacklava shirt. These stories are my only insight into the contribution that Blacklava has made. I just make the shirts. I have no idea how people are going to interpret them. It’s the great stories that people tell me that keep me going. Keep them coming.
KC: With continuing violence against APIs and growing hostility toward China, what effect can a t-shirt have?
RS: I really have no idea. T-shirts, to me, is just a different medium of expression. It has certain advantages and limitations to how effective it can be in tackling issues or getting out a message. It’s just one of the many ways to communicate. It takes people pushing a message on all levels to really make a difference. I do know that they’ve opened up communication which is the first step toward understanding one another.
KC: A lot of APIs have difficulty promoting themselves; it’s particularly difficult for many Japanese Americans. What’s your best advice for asserting oneself in business?
RS: I’m actually not very good at promoting myself. I don’t like to toot my own horn. Although, I find that when I do toot it a little, people do respond.
KC: I’m sure you’re energized by the response from the community that they appreciate what you have done and continue to do.
RS: The amount of positive energy people are sending in my direction is overwhelming! I can’t wait ’til this Saturday. To take a moment and just enjoy everyone…take in as many stories as I can…thank as many people as I can… and create as many new possibilities for the future of Blacklava as I can.
The Gallery Exhibit will showcase artists works inspired by Blacklava t-shirts. Artists include Tak Toyoshima, Erin Nomura, Mark Yamasaki, Shane Sato, Karin Anna Cheung, Shin Kawasaki, Traci Kato Kiriyama, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, and Scott Okamoto.
The exhibit will run through October 10 at Hatakeyama Gallery at 905 S Hill St, Los Angeles, CA 90015.
Ken Choy is a community organizer and filmmaker, and producer of Breaking the Bow. He is gay, green, and gluten-free.