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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005
Tagging in Mito galleries
Special to The Japan Times
"Street culture" and graffiti came into Japan around the 1990s, primarily as a fashion trend that accompanied the spread of hip-hop music and skateboarding. Traditionally, of course, it has grittier associations with American slums and ghettoes, where it became, at its most politically conscious, an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo of racism, lack of economic opportunity, and a widening disparity between rich and poor.
These opposites -- fashion from "the system" versus fashion from the street -- capture the contradiction of putting graffiti in a gallery. It's taming a wild style that has prided itself on keeping it real by putting it in the trend-conscious boxes of the art world. But it's happened before in other cities and other times -- think of New York with Futura, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or even Keith Haring.
And now it's being done in Japan at the Art Tower Mito's Contemporary Art Gallery in Ibaraki Prefecture in conjunction with the Mito Arts Foundation and Kaze magazine. The gallery is putting on "X-COLOR/Graffiti in Japan," a large-scale show of 38 of Japan's top graffiti artists, together with major sponsors including G-shock, Shiseido, Asahi, Tower Records and agnes b. Ironically, tickets to the exhibition (running till Dec. 4) can be purchased via Japan Rail train company, an organization you might consider the natural archenemy of graffiti. What's going on?
Art Tower Mito curator and organizer Kenji Kubota wants to show people the intrinsic creativity behind graffiti, helping them understand that it is a form of self -expression rather than vandalism. The event is the first time graffiti has truly been acknowledged as a credible art form in Japan. For many of the "writers," it is also the first step in understanding the mainstream appeal of their work -- presented in a legitimate environment, their paintings are evaluated, appreciated and scrutinized as art, as opposed to something kids are perceived as doing to create havoc.
Kubota says that now is a pivotal time in Japanese graffiti culture as "it is developing its own recognizable style after an initial period in which the works simply imitated American artists." He wanted to introduce graffiti into galleries as it had been done in the United States and Europe long before, and he felt that there was now enough homegrown talent to warrant a large-scale show. In true graffiti form, though, the show extends beyond the gallery, which it has essentially taken over, to 13 walls all over Mito.
Graffiti magazine Kaze provided the gallery with all the exhibited artists. These Japanese writers' style is characterized by the influence of kanji script, anime and minimalism. Many of the seminal graffiti artists in the U.S. are recognizing this distinct Japanese sensibility and are now collaborating with famous artists such as Kami, Sasu, Wanto and Zys.
Despite the fact that some companies shied away from participating, it wasn't too difficult to get sponsors -- many youth orientated brands want to capitalize on its trendy image. Whether these companies hold any real interest in street culture is questionable, but it does aid their corporate identity to be savvy to the streets.
And what about the irony of JR selling tickets to a show of works by artists who have most probably defaced their trains?
Kubota laughs and says that "perhaps they don't really understand fully what the show is about," before adding quickly, "There is nothing illegal about this show!" apparently not wanting to be seen as condoning activities that can, under Japan's strict laws, put writers behind bars.
But does graffiti and its street culture have any relevance in one of the world's safest countries? A place that is commonly free of truly dangerous neighborhoods?
Veteran graffiti artist Dopesac suggests that ghettos do exist in Tokyo, claiming the city itself is "one big ghetto" with its predominantly conformist, homogenous social paradigm. Naturally there will be an underground culture that resists it, whether it's yakuza, drug-users or simply disaffected youth.
And while the root causes may be different in Japan, young people are sensitive to the same social frustrations that are often expressed in hip-hop culture. For writers like Dopesac, fashion trends embracing street culture are meaningless; graffiti acts as a means to show provincial pride, nationalism or just as (or more) likely, anti-nationalism -- a disenchantment with the current social climate.
Whatever the motivation, the reality of struggling to support themselves is a major issue for a lot of the writers in the show. They are faced with the decision to stay pure and keep it street or to look for commercial commissions at the risk of selling out.
DEM, who has works in three locations in Mito, says that "keeping it real means stealing paint and tagging walls and trains illegally" -- thus staying fairly anonymous and maintaining an ambiguous public persona. Faced with real life issues, such as becoming a father soon, means that getting arrested isn't really a risk worth taking.
Consequently, he recognizes that he "has to work within more legitimate circles," such as doing works commissioned by Levi's Jeans. He justifies these commercial pieces as "simply aesthetic images only -- layers of graphics -- with no real meaning behind them."
But while curators and ad execs may be caging a lion, the art form is still the medium for people who don't have the money, or maybe desire, to work within the established art world themselves. No matter how much graffiti is absorbed by art and advertising, it will retain the subversive, anti-authoritarian feel of its origins on the street, because regardless of where the works are displayed, that's where its creativity is born.
"X-COLOR/ Graffiti in Japan" runs till Dec. 4 at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito and around Mito City. Open 9:30 a.m.-18 p.m. (closed Mondays); adults 800, yen groups of over 20 and reserved tickets 600, yen children under 15 and seniors and disabled people free. For more information, call (029) 227-8120 or visit www.arttowermito.or.jp or kazemag.com