Last Updated:Jun 24, 2009

Nobumasa Takahashi “Japanese Graffiti”

Japanese illustrator/artist Nobumasa Takahashi is a friendly guy. As we walk into the gallery space of his month-long exhibition “Japanese Graffiti” held in the café/bar area of Space Force in Nakameguro, the petit, ponytailed Takahashi beams at us from the top of a stepladder, black marker in hand.

In front of him is a 3.5 x 10m wall half-covered from the floor upwards in tiny, impossibly detailed illustrations of buildings, people and fantastical creatures, all meticulously drawn directly on the wall with a black marker.

Like the street artists of New York and Berlin who spray-paint in the city as a form of rebellion or self-expression, in “Japanese Graffiti” Takahashi aims to explore the concept of an entirely original Japanese-style graffiti, from an illustrator’s point of view. Japanese-style graffiti: Is it manga? Is it random scrawling? And more importantly, when does ‘graffiti’ become ‘Art’? Over the course of the month until February 18th when the whole thing will be painted over, Takamasa will gradually fill every single empty wall space with tightly packed illustrations, until the whole thing will look like a giant animated megalopolis.

The title of the piece is “Building”, fitting as most of it consists of various odd-shaped skyscrapers, office and apartment blocks, but also because of the nature of the process – Takamasa will add building by building, picture by picture every day based on requests made by the visitors of the exhibition.

Needless to say, my friend and I are itching to leave a little piece of ourselves in this illustrated utopia which is teeming with crazy pictures (obviously requested by visitors) of giant human-eating frogs, freak babies, UFOs and so on. After being informed by Takamasa’s assistant that we are to write our request on a bit of masking tape with our name and date, we promptly sit down at the table in the middle of the room with the other patrons and try to think of a brilliant and seemingly impossible-to-draw idea. We settle with “Girls eating a parfait full of insects”, hand the masking tape to the assistant who takes a polaroid of us and says that the picture will be done in an hour or so.

Illustration by Nobumasa Takahashi.
Illustration by Nobumasa Takahashi.

Sure enough, when we come back an hour later, Takamasa immediately takes us to the far left-hand side of the wall where he has drawn two girls (looking somewhat like myself and my friend) sitting, spoons in hand, in front of a king-sized parfait full of beetles, worms, ladybirds, and all sorts of other creepy crawlies.

As we admire his handiwork, he reveals to us that he wasn’t sure whether the girls were supposed to be enjoying the parfait or not, but for some reason he ended up making them look a little bit happy (to which we nod approvingly). Our masking tape is displayed on the wall with myriad other requests made by the visitors. My friend and I write a message on the Polaroid they took earlier, which is also displayed on the wall with polaroids of other request-makers as proof of our participation. Everyone looks positively giddy.

The joy of Takamasa’s exhibition comes from its interactivity and immediacy. Visitors can not only watch Takamasa in action, but are encouraged to participate in his artwork. These spontaneous ideas from visitors are the driving force of this piece, and the temporality of it makes it all the more exciting. As well, Takamasa himself is very amicable and obviously loves the conversations. As we’re about to leave, he hands us a postcard of the exhibition with little illustrations of ourselves (which he probably drew very quickly!) and tells us that we should visit again on the 18th of February, when they will celebrate the piece for the last time before it is painted over. Needless to say, I will be there to see my insect-ridden parfait for the last time, and to see the illustrated city that the people of Tokyo have created together. A Japanese anime-city dreamed up by Japanese people, Japanese-style: now that’s Art.

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Lena Oishi

Lena Oishi

Born in Japan in 1982, grew up in England and Australia. With a BA in Media and Communications and MA in Cinema Studies, she now lives in Tokyo as a freelance translator and occasional editor. Works include VICE Magazine, Japanese editorial supervision of "Metronome No. 11 - <i>What Is To Be Done? Tokyo</i> " (Seikosha, 2007), and translation for film and art festival catalogs. She can also interpret simultaneously if you give her enough candy. Lena likes making her eyeballs bleed after watching way too many films while eating ice cream in the dark.

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