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Can sound artist Alan Nakagawa help stop pedestrian deaths in LA?

Artist Alan Nakagawa in front of his home in Koreatown
Artist Alan Nakagawa in front of his home in Koreatown
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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This month, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation announced it made an exciting new hire: it isn't a new director, or some brilliant new policy wonk fresh out of urban planning school. It was sound artist Alan Nakagawa.

Nakagawa was brought on to work with Vision Zero, the department's campaign to eliminate traffic deaths in Los Angeles.

An L.A. native, he is work spans installations, visual work, recorded albums and more. He's also worked for Metro's public art program for years.

So, how can an artist save lives of Angelenos on the road?

Cities have tried to deal with traffic deaths for as long cars have driven down their streets.

"Why hasn't it been solved? Maybe we have to look at it in a different way," said Nakagawa. "So part of that different way — that innovative way, hopefully — is to put an artist on board."

LADOT isn't the first place to try this. For decades now, the New York Department of Sanitation has had artist-in-residence Mierle Laderman Ukeles on board — there, she's worked closely with workers to help improve the department's culture.

"There have been amazing projects all over the world where artists have been put into the mix," said Nakagawa.

So what will Nakagawa do, then? It's too early to say; the gig started just this week.

His first goal is to get familiar with the department's culture, maybe to set up shop in the LADOT's first floor gallery. 

If you press him for specifics, Nakagawa will gladly share what he's brainstorming. He's inspired by the roadside memorials left behind after traffic deaths: the altars left for dead pedestrians, the eerie ghost bikes left on the side of the road after a cyclist dies. 

"They're powerful," said Nakagawa. "And I'd like to start a city-wide library of these images, I want to start inviting people to submit images of their local altars and ghost bikes." 

It might take years, but from there, Nakagawa can incorporate the massive data library run by the city's Vision Zero program to find hot spots.

"But that's one idea that I've been kicking around," he added.