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Ken Hasebe, mayor of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, has a message for anyone thinking of visiting his part of the city to tag a wall with illegal graffiti.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” says Hasebe. “I read that someone

from overseas had been caught by the police doing graffiti in Shibuya, and they had said they thought they were allowed to do it freely here. That’s a serious misunderstanding.”

Looking at the streets around Hasebe’s office, it is not hard to imagine why some people might think graffiti is tolerated, if not entirely legal, in the bustling youth mecca of Shibuya. Scrawled tags vie for space with colorful spray-painted characters on walls and shop-front shutters around the neighborhood, and are replaced with new ones almost as soon as city authorities clean them off.

Hasebe, who was born and raised in Shibuya and is in his fifth year as mayor, describes graffiti as a “big problem” for the area and says authorities are doing their best to tackle it.

But he also recognizes that street art can have a powerful impact and, for the past three years, Shibuya Ward has been involved in a unique art-meets-public-safety project that has seen graffiti-style pieces pop up in locations around the neighborhood.

The balance between encouraging creative expression and protecting buildings from vandalism, however, can be a fine one. Can Tokyo manage to achieve just the right blend of light and shade?

“There has been a greater awareness of street art recently,” says Imaone, a Tokyo-based mural artist who, like other street artists interviewed by The Japan Times for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. “It has come to be treated as something good, something fashionable. At long last, I think people are coming round to the idea that it’s not always bad.”

Graffiti and street art have a long history in Japan, but even defining what the terms mean can be a thorny subject. Some people believe that a piece must be painted illegally and contain lettering — not just images — to be considered graffiti, and classify murals, which are painted legally, under the broader term street art. Many mural artists come from graffiti backgrounds, however, and bring the motifs, style and energy of graffiti to their work.

Mural artist Suiko, who, along with Imaone, forms part of a collective called THA, was caught by the police doing graffiti so many times growing up in Hiroshima that he was featured on the local TV news. Eventually, his neighbors offered to provide a wall that he could paint on legally, and he has since gone on to find international success, doing work for Disney and Coca-Cola, as well as painting the entire exterior of the Okayama Astronomical Museum.

Mural artist and THA collective member Suiko painted the entire exterior of the Okayama Astronomical Museum. | ITTOKU KAWASAKI / COURTESY OF THA
Mural artist and THA collective member Suiko painted the entire exterior of the Okayama Astronomical Museum. | ITTOKU KAWASAKI / COURTESY OF THA

Suiko, Imaone and their friend Fate, another renowned street artist who started as a graffiti writer, were invited to take part in the inaugural London Mural Festival in September, joining more than 150 artists from around the world in painting more than 50 large walls around the British capital. The trio spent roughly a week working on a mural in the city’s Peckham area, and were satisfied with the results despite the difficult shape of the wall.

“With graffiti, you want to show off your work and your style,” Suiko says. “I bring that mindset to painting murals, but I’ve gone from it being about my ego to it being about getting a message across and sharing something with the people who live in that area.”

THA, which stands for “Truth in the Huge Area,” is given logistical support by Osaka-based design planning company Ritz. inc. Imaone says the collective’s clients include everyone from companies to individuals and local governments, and he believes that street art is beginning to gain an acceptance from the Japanese public that it had never enjoyed before.

Hasebe also believes attitudes are changing. Despite his opposition to illegal graffiti, the mayor has embraced street art in the form of Shibuya Arrow Project, an ongoing initiative that uses murals and installations for the purpose of public safety. The project launched in 2017.

Around 230,000 people live in Shibuya Ward, but the daily influx of visitors to the area, which is one of Tokyo’s major shopping hubs, means its daytime population can swell to around three times that number. As a result, large numbers of people in Shibuya at any one time do not have the local knowledge of where to go in the event of an earthquake or other major disaster.

People who are visiting Shibuya and cannot return home are advised to evacuate to nearby Yoyogi Park or the campus of Aoyama Gakuin University, but Hasebe says most visitors do not know this. To present the information in an easy-to-understand way, the local authority decided to install a series of arrows pointing in the direction of the two evacuation sites, and came up with the idea of using street art to do it.

Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe stands beside one of the pieces commissioned by the local authority as part of the Shibuya Arrow Project. | STEPHAN JARVIS
Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe stands beside one of the pieces commissioned by the local authority as part of the Shibuya Arrow Project. | STEPHAN JARVIS

Shibuya Ward invited 11 artists from fields such as graphic design, manga and modern art to adorn six locations around the neighborhood with arrow motifs, all in different styles. The works range from mischievous cartoon figures lining the walls of a rail underpass to a large “arrow tree” installation rising out of a plant bed. Hasebe says the reaction has been positive.

“Lots of people have said it’s interesting,” Hasebe says. “I don’t think it’s groundbreaking but it has its unique points and it’s quite typical of Shibuya.

“People from overseas are often worried when they come to Japan that there might be an earthquake. They don’t know what to do if there is one, so we thought if we addressed it with this art project, it might be something that would be easy to include in a guidebook or for people to post photos of on Instagram, to widen its reach.”

Shibuya Ward has also launched an app that points the way to the evacuation sites, and Hasebe says there are plans to expand the art project on a microscale, painting smaller arrows on guardrails and streets around the neighborhood.

One thing that Hasebe is clear about, however, is that members of the public do not have license to add their own arrows as they please. In fact, there is currently nowhere in Tokyo where people can paint legally without permission.

Many cities in Europe and the United States have dedicated walls that members of the public are allowed to paint on, offering artists a legal place to hone their craft. These facilities, known as Halls of Fame, often attract well-known street artists from overseas and many have become tourist attractions in their own right.

Some street artists in Tokyo believe their city’s lack of a similar facility is a missed opportunity, and argue that it can drive graffiti artists to seek out illegal alternatives.

“There are graffiti writers who come here from overseas,” says Snipe1, a Tokyo-based graffiti writer who has traveled extensively across the U.S. and Europe. “If there was a place where they could all gather and show their skills, they would all go there and then people could go and check it out. It’s better to see graffiti for yourself rather than on Instagram. If there was even one place like that here, people would come and it would create something new that would attract attention.

“Even in places in Europe where they have free walls where anyone can go and paint, it has become so that they’re managed,” he continues. “In Barcelona, you have to register before you can paint there. I think you would need to do something like that here but if you make it too rigid, you wouldn’t be able to paint freely.”

Hasebe feels that the high price of land would make setting up a Hall of Fame in Shibuya Ward difficult, and he is reluctant to allow the walls of public facilities such as schools and hospitals to be used for graffiti.

In the early 1990s, however, places where graffiti was tolerated by the authorities did exist in Tokyo and the wider Kanto region. Yoyogi Park, Komazawa Park and the walls around Sakuragicho Station in Kanagawa Prefecture were all known as spots where artists could paint without fear of being reported, until a crackdown toward the end of the decade changed the mood.

Japanese mural artists (from left) Fate, Suiko and Imaone took part in the inaugural London Mural Festival in September, painting a wall in the city’s Peckham area. | YUTA NAOUMI / COURTESY OF THA
Japanese mural artists (from left) Fate, Suiko and Imaone took part in the inaugural London Mural Festival in September, painting a wall in the city’s Peckham area. | YUTA NAOUMI / COURTESY OF THA

Fate, who grew up in Kanagawa, was known as one of Sakuragicho’s most prominent artists, and people would visit the area just to see the murals that he and his contemporaries had painted. Then, in 2008, local authorities scrubbed the walls clean and a piece of Japanese graffiti history was erased forever.

“It made me think that Japan is uptight,” Fate says. “There isn’t any place like Sakuragicho around now, and I think they should have kept it. It had become like a tourist attraction. I wondered why they would want to put a stop to it. It was a waste, but if something is not allowed in Japan, they put a stop to it quickly.

“People who frown upon graffiti tend to really frown upon it,” he continues. “I think there are still a lot of people in Japan who find it unacceptable. People will report it to the police as soon as they see someone doing it. I think there’s only a small number of people who find it acceptable.”

Fate says he was able to paint freely in the daytime when he first took up graffiti in the early 1990s because few people in Japan had any real knowledge of what graffiti was.

As painting murals became more popular, however, so too did the practice of “bombing,” in which graffiti writers compete to paint their stylized tags in the most prominent and audacious places.

Snipe1 spent time in the United States as a high school student in the 1990s, and it was during a trip to New York that he saw graffiti for the first time. He was curious about the mysterious tags he saw plastered all over the city and, after his roommate had explained to him what they meant, he threw himself wholeheartedly into bombing.

Eventually, Snipe1 became so active in graffiti that he was caught by the police in various states and ultimately deported from the United States and told never to return. He says he has since retired from illegal graffiti now that he has a wife and family to think about, and in recent years his artwork has been shown at exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles, among other places.

Graffiti writer Snipe1 says the practice of 'bombing,' where graffiti artists tag their names in ever-more audacious places, is more about status than artistic expression. | COURTESY OF SNIPE1
Graffiti writer Snipe1 says the practice of ‘bombing,’ where graffiti artists tag their names in ever-more audacious places, is more about status than artistic expression. | COURTESY OF SNIPE1

Snipe1 explains that bombing is less about artistic expression and more about gaining status, and he can understand why it would sour the general public’s perception of street art in general.

“Art is art because an audience recognizes it as art,” Snipe1 says. “The audience for graffiti is only the people taking part in it. It’s a game to be enjoyed by the players. People who do graffiti don’t care about what other people think about it. The objective is fame. You’re trying to get a reputation, and the winner is the person whose name gets the most props from the other players.”

Snipe1 thinks the Japanese public came to think of mural-painting and bombing as one and the same when graffiti became more widespread in the 1990s, and street artists have been fighting to gain acceptance ever since.

The members of THA are careful to stress that the work they do now cannot be regarded as graffiti, but Suiko chafes at the idea that graffiti is wholly without merit.

“One thing that disappoints me a little is that Japanese people tend to think that because graffiti is illegal, it’s not art,” he says. “The way I think about it is that graffiti might be illegal, but it can also be art. The fact that it’s illegal is because the law says it’s illegal. But whether it’s art or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether it’s legal or not.”

Hasebe points to Shibuya Arrow Project as evidence that the public is beginning to come round to the merits of street art, however, and the fact that THA’s previous clients include corporate heavyweights such as multinational accounting firm Deloitte Tohmatsu suggests the art form is moving ever closer to the mainstream.

Imaone says he welcomes street art becoming a more established part of society, and that if more people are aware of it and more works are commissioned, more people will follow in THA’s footsteps and the scene will continue to grow.

For an art form that was born on the margins and grew up fostering an outlaw spirit, however, there is a part of graffiti that can never be tamed.

“If artists like us have to dumb down our work in order to get people interested, if we have to take the work away from its roots and cheapen it, that’s not something I would be prepared to do,” Imaone says. “When someone commissions me to do a piece, if it’s something that doesn’t have any soul to it, I won’t do it. If I were to just paint something as the client instructed me to, I’d be the same as an illustrator or a sign painter. I used to be a graffiti artist. That’s where I’m coming from.”

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