Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Pursuing artistic passions at Tokyo LoveHotels

by Rebecca Saunders

Contributing Writer

Landing your dream job isn’t easy. There are obstacles that get in the way — bills to pay, challenging life events — all of which can draw you down a path that’s far from the one you had all planned out in your head. For Kalin Lawrence, though, life is finally moving in the direction that she has always hoped it would.

Pay it forward: After finding a way to get her artistic endeavors out to the wider public, Kalin Lawrence has expanded her focus to help other struggling artists in the Tokyo area. | RIKO MONMA
Pay it forward: After finding a way to get her artistic endeavors out to the wider public, Kalin Lawrence has expanded her focus to help other struggling artists in the Tokyo area. | RIKO MONMA

Co-founder of an event called Tokyo LoveHotels, Lawrence, 31, has been side-hustling for years behind the scenes but has recently found success by helping others achieve their dreams.

“It’s so stressful as an artist,” Lawrence says. “You create stuff, you want to make something, and it takes all this time and money to do it … and then it just collects dust around the house. It’s heartbreaking, so you just continue with your day job.

“Tokyo LoveHotels is a really honest opportunity for all of us to get together and share one space. It’s become a huge platform because of that.”

Tokyo LoveHotels, named for the district of short-stay motels in Shibuya where the first edition was held, launched last year as a place for creatives to showcase their crafts. From DJs to artists and clothing designers, word has spread fast: Around 40 people came out for the first installment, but now a monthly crowd of 500 packs Sankeys Penthouse in Shibuya Ward where the event takes place.

With its on-trend millennial aesthetic and cool array of creators cramming the corners of the venue, Tokyo LoveHotels is becoming the go-to place for artists eager to kickstart their passions and push toward their goals.

The rise of LoveHotels

Tokyo LoveHotels was born out of Lawrence’s frustration over the high costs of having to pay for a place to sell her streetwear brand.

“I had a heat press and I was printing shirts by myself. I was always looking for places to host a pop-up but (the venues) always asked me to pay for the space,” she recalls. “Artists are broke, so that was frustrating. Then I just thought I should do it myself.”

Soon realizing she needed help to make her plan work, Lawrence enlisted her friend, model and singer-songwriter Robin Rastenberger, to collaborate with her on a one-time event. The pair first met when they worked together folding clothes in the stock room of an American Apparel store and instantly bonded.

With one relatively successful event under their belts, the duo tried again — this time at a larger venue with two more pop-up booths and Rastenberger performing as before. This time, 70 people showed up. Things really started to take off, though, when Lawrence secured the current venue at Sankeys Penthouse and held the first official Tokyo LoveHotels night. It drew a crowd of 200, and that’s when the pair realized they had tapped into a market.

“I was so in awe, I couldn’t believe it,” Lawrence recalls of the first big night. “Because it was Sankeys, we had space for way more pop-ups, exhibits, DJs and live painters. We were able to add way more content.”

Lawrence believes Tokyo LoveHotels has grown organically by providing the support that up-and-coming artists need. Creators aren’t charged a fee to exhibit, for starters, and the word-of-mouth, grassroots promotion attracts like-minded people who thrive on creativity — and who want it to thrive in return.

Lawrence echoes this in what sounds like the event’s official mission statement.

“We believe in being fair and honest,” she says. “We want to give every single body a fair opportunity at LoveHotels. There’s no way we’re making (one artist) feel more special than another.”

An international approach

From everywhere: Kalin Lawrence was born to a Japanese mother and British father. 'I definitely feel more comfortable in an international environment,' she says. | RIKO MONMA
From everywhere: Kalin Lawrence was born to a Japanese mother and British father. ‘I definitely feel more comfortable in an international environment,’ she says. | RIKO MONMA

This idea of equality, which means scrapping special treatment and guest lists, might stem from Lawrence’s upbringing. Growing up in the Fukuoka countryside with a Japanese mother and British father, she says her lifestyle was “minimal” and never overly extravagant. Attending an international school in her hometown, Lawrence moved to Tokyo to study art at university and spent a year of her 20s living in London.

“My identity is weird because I’m Japanese and I’m British … but I speak like an American,” she explains. “Americans think I speak like a British person, though, but I only lived in England for a year. It’s not part of me. I only ever went to an international school, so I don’t feel Japanese either. I definitely feel more comfortable in an international environment.”

Inhabiting a space in Japan’s international community has given Lawrence the chance to be herself, and to develop a career that places value on her skills, instead of shoehorning her into a position that calls for her to be someone she isn’t.

“I’ve worked at Japanese companies but I never felt comfortable … and I got fired so many times from Japanese companies,” she says. “Their reason was just, ‘We don’t like you.’ At first they were really happy to hire me because I speak English and Japanese, and they think that’s an asset to their team. So I do everything that they ask me to do, but then they start noticing that I have other passions.

“I wasn’t trying to be any different … but I think it’s inevitable: I’m taller, I look different, I speak English, so I stand out. That’s always been something.”

It’s this underdog, outsider feeling that led Lawrence to gravitate toward hip-hop, and in particular the idea of starting from the bottom and achieving your dreams.

“Creating something from nothing is everything in life,” she says. “That idea is at the root of hip-hop, when you make something out of nothing. The underdog and the hustle. … Hip-hop lifted me up when I was depressed.

“I’ve always had this ‘American dream’ thing, like go-getters and dream-chasers. They have way more of that attitude in the States. I really started getting influenced by that and started feeling better about myself by thinking like that, not ‘I have to keep working because I’m never going to make it.’ It makes me sick just to say that.”

So Lawrence turned her American dream into a Japanese one — just not in the traditional way. Never beholden to the 9-to-5 lifestyle, after clocking out from her day job she’d work hard every night, creating T-shirts, making videos and practicing DJing, never quite knowing what the outcome would be.

“Looking back, I really, really see how it all panned out and how what I did every night made me who I am now. It’s how I’m able to live off what I do,” she says. “And I can’t be any happier because I love what I do now.”

Moving forward

Lawrence has now managed to curate the life that she always wanted for herself, being an artist and her own boss. She has big ideas for the future of Tokyo LoveHotels but wants to keep it true to its roots. Together with Rastenberger, she aims to keep growing the event until major artists and big names take notice, meaning more opportunities for exposure and jobs for the creatives in attendance. There’s even ideas for a Tokyo LoveHotels festival and, perhaps one day, events outside of Tokyo and overseas.

As someone who has carved out a path of her own, Lawrence’s advice for others in that familiar situation of struggling artist couldn’t be clearer.

“My advice is so simple and it’s just to keep going, man!” she says with the conviction of someone who’s adopted it as a mantra. “That’s the most important thing, it doesn’t matter if somebody tries to stop you or if you think you can’t do it: just … do it. Just keep doing it. Take opportunities, take free gigs, and say ‘yes’ to opportunities. Something’s going to come out of it — a connection, networking — I’m sure everything has a reason.

Tokyo LoveHotels is a monthly art event that takes place at Sankeys Penthouse near Harajuku Station in Shibuya Ward. The next event is a Halloween special on Oct. 26. Admission is ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.tokyolovehotels.net.

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