Almost all the temporary public housing units in the disaster-hit Tohoku region of northeast Japan look the same — like little, soulless boxes, in fact.
But soon after graffiti artist Hamilton Yokota went to stay and work at an evacuees’ community in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, the housing there began to be transformed with colorful images — and the residents’ spirits were visibly lifted as they watched their enforced living spaces take on an individual appearance that spread a new warmth despite winter’s chill.
Yokota, who goes by the handle “Titi Freak,” is a Japanese-Brazilian whose favored medium is spray paint. In December, during nine days he spent in the Kasetsu Kaisei Danchi (Kaisei Temporary Housing Complex) community, he created 15 works on the end walls of housing-unit terraces that are presently home to some 200 households.
Yokota’s grandparents are Japanese who migrated from Hiroshima to Sao Paulo. In recent years, the can-wielding creator who is one of the most popular graffiti artists in Brazil has done his thing on the walls of buildings both at home and in other countries around the world — but always after gaining the owner’s permission. He also staged a live painting show at the Nike Stadium gallery in Tokyo in 2010.
This time, the graffiti artist was here at the invitation of the Japan Foundation, a government-funded body that promotes international cultural exchange, and which had asked him to come and work his magic on some temporary housing in Ishinomaki.
Interviewed between house paintings there in mid-December, Yokota said that when he first saw pictures of Kasetsu Kaisei Danchi, he felt that the buildings looked too emotionally cold for people who had lost their own homes, and in many cases family members and friends.
“I wanted to draw colorful paintings on the walls so that the residents could feel more cheerful,” the 37-year-old artist said. “I talked to the residents and asked them what kind of paintings they’d like, and some middle-aged ladies said, ‘We want pictures of flowers.’ ” Other residents told him they would trust him to decide on themes for his works, he said — adding that he often chose fish, including goldfish, as they are his favorite motifs.
Kikuo Akiyama, one of the residents, said that he had never seen this kind of painting before. “The colors of the paintings are adventurous,” he said excitedly, commenting particularly on the fish pictures. “I feel brightened up to see these art works.”
Akiyama, a retired fisherman, said his house was completely destroyed by the huge tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, and that his mother, who was his only family, died of cancer in September. “By volunteering as a coordinator of a residents association here, I have tried not to think (about sad things),” he said as he tried to hold back tears.
Another resident, Masami Endo, a 64-year-old employee at a paper-maker’s in the port of Ishinomaki, told how he and his family narrowly survived the tsunami that swept in about an hour after the 2:46 p.m. magnitude-9 earthquake. For his part, Endo said he escaped by dropping everything and running 1.8 km to the top of a hill; while his wife and mother-in-law, who were at home 3 km from the shore, ran in bare feet to a shrine on a hill.
Meanwhile, his 39-year-old daughter, Yuri, a kindergarten teacher in Ishinoimaki, said she was on the school bus taking the children to their homes when the quake struck.
“We drove straight back to the kindergarten and picked up the other kids, who were shocked and crying, and escaped to a hill. Fortunately we were all safe,” she said. “But at a neighboring kindergarten, three children who had gone back to their homes near the shore, died in the tsunami.”
In Ishinomaki, official statistics show that 3,832 of the 162,822 residents were killed by the earthquake and tsunami, and although Endo’s immediate family members all survived that terrible day, his father-in-law died 19 days later for want of the medical care he needed.
Mitsuo Endo, who was 85, had been receiving daily kidney dialysis. On March 11 he was in a taxi taking him home from a hospital where he had been treated. “But when the quake struck, the driver managed to get to the top of a hill and they both survived,” son-in-law Masami Endo said.
Two days later, Endo was sent to the Red Cross Hospital in Ishinomaki for dialysis. However, because the place was so full, after that he could only have dialysis once every four days.
As a result, Endo said, his father-in-law’s condition deteriorated and he was sent to a larger hospital in Sendai, the prefectural capital, where he died on March 30. Endo said Mitsuo should have been able to live longer had the disaster not happened.
Hanayo, Mistuo’s widow, added, in tears: “I must live longer for the life of my husband.” But then she spoke of how she met Yokota when he was painting a picture on the wall of her house, and she felt encouraged by his spirit and his art.
“He is great. He gave me this,” she said happily, showing a card bearing one of his illustrations and his autograph.
Obviously, the artist’s presence — and his work — had indeed lifted people’s spirits in Kasetsu Kaisei Danchi — but even he couldn’t bring real warmth when it was needed.
When this writer visited Ishinomaki on Dec. 11, the temperature was around freezing, and Endo said that because their new homes were clearly not going to be habitable during the long Tohoku winter, he and others had asked the city of Ishinomaki to do something about it.
“After that they were renovated with double-glazed windows and insulation. So now they are more comfortable than before,” he said.
However, as for the reconstruction of Ishinomaki itself, Endo said he believes that will take more than a decade.
“Some 22,000 houses were completely destroyed,” he said. “The city government says it plans to construct 3,000 disaster-proof public housing units in the city by 2014 — but that is simply too few.”
According to the city government, that number of 3,000 is based on a calculation by Miyagi prefectural government, and the city government is now researching how to increase it.
Such concerns, added to the losses and bereavement so many have suffered, has led to widespread depression and frustration among survivors — especially those in temporary accommodation.
However, the stint put in by Yokota brought a real spark of brightness and hope to the community — and it’s one that will live on in the colorful murals he created.
In fact the artist said that several middle-aged and elderly women came to see him painting outside in the bitter cold and offered him hot tea and sweets. “They gave me a lot of energy and motivated me to continue my work as a graffiti artist,” he said.
Explaining that his wife is Japanese, and that after he left Ishinomaki they were going to move to Osaka and he would continue his work in this country, the artist added: “I’ve now got friends in Ishinomaki, and I’ve had a great experience painting here. They asked me to come to visit them again, so I hope to return and paint more houses in 2012.”