The contemporary art center, Art Tower Mito is known for their brave, high- quality concepts in spite of their location: Mito, a 1/4 million town with decreasing population. This time curator Kenji Kubota collaborated with Kaze magazine to do a large scale exhibition about Japanese graffiti which goes beyond the boundaries of a conventional museum, allowing for 13 walls around the city to be legally painted, changing the face of Mito.
Interview with Kenji Kubota by Uleshka
outside wall by SITE, CASPER, JOTA, AMES, HUZE, VERY, DASTE, VITR
outside wall by DEM
This is the first time an exhibition about Japanese graffiti with this kind of large scale has taken place in the world. What made you start the exhibition and how long did it take you to find all your artists?
I have been watching graffiti for quite a while, but didn’t have any contacts in that scene myself. For this exhibition I consulted Kaze magazine, since they are local and know what is going on. We talked a long time about graffiti and then as a result we decided to focus on Japanese graffiti only. Making this exhibition took about 1.5 years.
color stained jacket by KRESS
room by KRESS
real 3D style bench by KRESS
By which criteria did you decide which particular graffiti writer to go for?
Kaze magazine picked some fine Japanese graffiti writers and introduced them to me. They brought me photographs of all kinds of different artists, we discussed a lot about their works and then finally I decided to pick 38 of them: ACUTE, AKIM, AMES, BELx2, BUTOBASK, CASPER, COSA, CS, DASTE, DEM, DICE, DISKAH, ESOW, FATE, HUZE, ICHI, JOTA, KAMI, KANE, KEONE, KRESS, MAKE, NEIM, NESM, PHIL, QP, RACK, REW, ROMI, SASI, SITE, SKLAWL, TABU, SUIKO, VERY, VITR, ZEN, ZYS.
To what extent are live events, performances and workshops an important part of the exhibition?
We wanted to show the connection between graffiti, hip hop and skateboard culture so life events such as live painting, rap music, break dancing etc. are essential for the exhibition. Putting a skateboard ramp inside the gallery as a further art piece is to show the close connection between skateboarding and graffiti.
next to the skateborad ramp
photos by DISKAH, skateramp by ZYS
How does the police deal with graffiti in Japan? Are there things like Vandal Squad etc?
I’m not sure how they deal with this in general, but when our writers did up some walls in Mito, citizens got upset about this “vandalism” and called the police. The police came to the site and we explained to them that these were legal walls and above all: art! They understood and whenever someone called the police after that, the police explained to them that it was art. How nice!
In what way do you think that Japanese graffiti differs from western graffiti?
It’s been about 15 years since graffiti came to Japan. At first, in the early 90ies, it was more like an imitation of mainly West Coast Style, with some European influences such as Dutch and German graffiti. There surly has been a development and now many artists are trying to do more original pieces: some do graffiti in Japanese characters, Kanji or Katakana mixed with influences from manga or anime. If you look at their letters you can tell that some of them are really influenced by Japanese pop culture and I also think that the way they create their letters is somehow different to western graffiti. It feels more like craftmanship than normal writing.
ZYS and DEM
NEIM and KUNI
They are trying to establish something new, which will surely be much more significant in about 5-10 years from now. Besides, I think they also want to emphasize that they are Japanese.
How did graffiti actually come to Japan?
It is said that in the early 80s the film Wild style made its way to Japan and from there Hip Hop in the forms of Rap, Breakdance and DJing began to spread, but graffiti didn’t at that time. It was about 10 years later, when young Japanese who travelled to America and Europe came back to Japan and then started graffiti.
One other little difference is also, that I think that many Japanese writers are more influenced by pure skateboarding, or punk music not so much by hip hop music for example.
Door of Daizu Jikken, Nakameguro
Would you then say that Japanese graffiti is very merged with the sub culture of hip-hop or could it be considered as an independent discipline?
It is still very mixed and very few writers do just graffiti exclusively. Many of them skate and rap… that is their whole way of life and graffiti is a part of that.
How do Japanese writers receive foreign graffiti writers and how do they generally view the graffiti community?
That is some kind of overall rule for all graffiti writers and I think Japan is no exception here. If you travel you always have the opportunity to meet other graffiti writers, stay at their place for free and do a few pieces together. That is also an important part of the graffiti lifestyle, the strong community feeling and respect towards other writers. I could imagine it to be a bit difficult in Tokyo, though, because apartments are so small and also some writers still live at their parents’ house…
What is their core? (e.g. New York motto: We wanna destroy! German motto: Style and fame) Does an overall motto exist?
I think that right now they are pursuing their new styles. Destroying just for the sake of it is not yet important. Trying to establish an own style, being unique and technically good in order to get fame is what drives most of them I suppose.
Some of the writers in this show already managed that very well, for example KAMI or SASU.
KAMI and SASU
What is style for them? What makes them special?
That depends on the writers. QP for example is very unique with his simple icons in black and white. He is bombing all over in Tokyo, but the places he chooses to draw are very special. If you look at his gallery piece, you can also tell that his sense of space is very unique. His work is highly inspirational.
What different kind of styles are there?
NESM for example brought only photographs into the gallery. He didn’t spray anything. A while ago he did graffiti in New York but he is now looking for a new stage of graffiti. His piece consists out of huge letters cut into grass with gardening tools. You can even see that from an airplane. I think he is questioning graffiti by questioning the medium and tries to find new ways to express himself through writing. He is basically exploring the possibility of graffiti by changing the medium.
DISKAH, DEM and ZYS’ work is very much influenced by skateboarding culture. They are not pursuing the wild style or anime character, but their work is very purely graffiti, very colorful and rich in their usage of letters and messages… I feel that their work has a special kind of lightness, their feelings are expressed very truly and directly through their work. They are the ones showing their work in and around the skateboard ramp.
DISKAH and DEM
DISKAH and DEM
Then there are graffiti crews, like the SCA crew from Kanagawa (KRESS, PHIL, FATE, MAKE and BUTOBASK). PHIL is very good in making characters while others make the letters. Their ability is very high and their style original.
FATE”,”room of SCA crew
FATE”,”room of SCA crew
What about the two important things in order to get respect writing graffiti: quality and quantity. I sometimes have the feeling, that for Japanese artists overall, technique is important and the place you spray in (in terms of dangerous and huge = fame) comes second.
If you live in Tokyo you don’t have all that much space to write in comparison to Hiroshima or Okayama for example. If you drive around Okayama by car, you can basically find the place to write graffiti anywhere! The tendency for writers in Tokyo is to always try and find a small place where they can draw very quickly and therefor their work becomes more simple. If you look at QP, ZYS, KAMI or SASU – all their work is based on very simple icons where as the writers outside Tokyo have a lot of place to do their master pieces and so they are pursuing more complex styles.
As always, hardly any women in the scene. BELL and SASU are the only ones in this exhibition, where as I am not entirely sure if I would consider SASU to be graffiti.
SASU creates very decorative, stylish and beautiful paintings with a definite female touch. I don’t think she considers herself to be a graffiti artist either. For this exhibition, we decided to chose artists who work on the streets and she is bombing the streets. But on the whole, the line between street art and graffiti is hard to define, I agree. SASU and KAMI call themselves painters, sometimes and they might be a bit different to traditional graffiti. Either way, there are so many kinds of styles… You don’t need to write letters to do graffiti.
Who of those graffiti writers actually manages to make a living out of it?
ESOW and CASPER
I’m not sure, but I think very few… same as in the art world. Some are involved in Kaze magazine, SASU was in the Nike “Urban Canvas” video and ESOW can live by doing characters. He is doing a lot of exhibitions in galleries and besides he is a professional skateboarder.
How has this exhibition changed your way of looking at graffiti?
I found very interesting to curate this exhibition, because I have only been dealing with fine artists in my past. This was the first time to collaborate with writers, be confronted with their attitude about their expression and overall to get to know their seriousness of their work. I was very impressed to see that their attitude and seriousness about what they do was the same as in the art world. I felt very happy about that.
Like ANY official graffiti interview at the end: Anything else you would like to say?
I hope that through this exhibition Japanese people will change the way they looked at graffiti up until now. Graffiti has this aspect of social problems, but at the same time it is such a strong method of artistic expression. I think graffiti is the balance between social expression and art. If you know what graffiti is, the you can enjoy life more when walking in the streets. I wish for people to realize this.
DICE and PLUM
Mito citizen experiencing ROM, AKIM, TABU, SKLAWL
Thank you so much for the interview!
Since there are so many more pictures of the exhibition, we made a little image gallery.