With shows four times a year, Diesel Art Gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward is one of the best free art venues in Tokyo and is well worth checking out. Located in the basement of the clothes brand shop, it puts on consistently good shows that steer clear of the pretentiousness of more “artsy” venues, while remaining edgy in the way that shop-supported art spaces are seldom comfortable with.

Its latest show is a case in point. “Organic Contrast: Artworks of Usugrow” presents the illustrations of Usugrow, a Japanese artist who did not emerge from the usual art-university route, but instead made his name in the underground music scene in the 1990s with artwork related to music, skate culture and apparel design.

The punk attitude implicit in his roots is still evident in his recent work with its iconography of skulls and flowers, but another important influence, according to the gallery’s curator, is Islamic culture. In addition to influencing a puritan palette of black and white, this has also inspired the original calligraphy that Usugrow has developed, which he uses to enhance and decorate his works.

In combination with the skulls, these Islamic elements may remind some of radical Islamic groups, but for Usugrow the skulls and calligraphy have a peaceful and positive meaning.

“Before, I used to draw skulls because they just looked cool, but things have changed recently. There isn’t a more interesting motif than the skull, and I think it fits my philosophy,” he explains. “A skull is a symbol of death, but at the same time it also represents a life. A skull is not a skull from the beginning. You live, die and (your head) becomes a skull. I want to treat the skull more beautifully as a symbol of universal nature in everyday life. Isn’t it good to have a beautiful skull?”

Usugrow’s ubiquitous calligraphy has visual rhythm and balance, but when closely studied, viewers will discover that it also spells out words in English. The messages, such as Usugrow’s mantra “Ask the Moon, ask the Sun,” verge on the spiritual, evoking new-age ideas of complementary opposites. This ties in rather well with his high-contrast images, which have the clarity and symbolic qualities usually associated with tattoo art.

A video installation reveals that Usugrow creates his images with the intensity of a tattoo artist, with a similar degree of concentration and precision to a man working on skin with a needle.

The niche Usugrow occupies — an interesting space between artist, craftsman and streetpunk — allows him to be edgy and creative, without being pretentious or cliched.

“Organic Contrast: Artworks Of Usugrow” at Diesel Art Gallery, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, runs until Nov. 13; daily 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Free admission. www.diesel.co.jp/art


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