Jun Arita fizzes with a barely-contained energy as he greets me. Smiling broadly, he seems unable to stop himself bowing slightly, even as he laughingly apologizes for it.
Still boyish at 36, Arita is tanned, perfectly groomed and has eyes that sparkle with mischief. The pop artist is currently designing some packaging for Kiwi sunscreen brand Skinnies and painting murals on the walls of the company’s cavernous studio office space in central Auckland. He cheerfully hands paint brushes to the young children of the Skinnies founders and encourages them to help him bring the murals to life.
“If they make a mistake, I will fix it later,” he says with a shrug and smile.
Arita’s artwork — brightly colored characters and graphic text that leap out at the viewer — perfectly matches his effervescent persona. He’s inspired by pop art, traditional Japanese art and graffiti, but says he also loves nature, which is partly why he has made his home in New Zealand. After nearly 12 years in Auckland, his English has even taken on an unmistakable Kiwi twang.
Arita was born in Kishiwada, near Osaka, and describes his childhood as modest but happy. His father, Kusuo, worked in car manufacturing, while his mother, Chizuko, cared for their three sons. Arita’s older brother, Manabu, loved baseball but Jun and his twin brother, Ryo, preferred drawing to going outside to play. When they were 5, the twins created their own comic book, complete with a cast of invented characters.
Going on to study art and design after high school, Arita remembers his graduation show as the moment he first began to imagine a life abroad. Among the attendees, one of his former high school teachers commented that his artistic style would be popular in other countries, and an elderly couple told him that his work “gave them life.” He began to think about the purpose of art and how he would pursue his dreams.
His first foray overseas was to New York in 2004, when he was 21. He spent a month there studying English and visiting art museums and galleries.
In SoHo, he met a street artist who made beautiful objects out of wood. Arita would sit next to him and sketch in his notebook while the artist worked alongside him. When the time came to go back to Japan, the woodwork artist gave him one of his pieces.
“I was stunned, because it was quite expensive, but he just gave it to me,” Arita says. “It made me realize art is about (making a) connection, not all about money.”
The New York trip made him more determined than ever to explore the world, but he knew traveling would not come cheap, so he returned to Japan to work and save. When he was 24, he applied for a working visa in Canada, but a close friend, who had spent time in New Zealand, encouraged him to try the South Pacific island nation instead.
“I knew nothing about New Zealand apart from the natural scenery and (that it was a location for) ‘The Lord of the Rings,'” he says, laughing. But his friend eventually persuaded him to go, and on Sept. 26, 2007, he landed in Auckland with a one-year working holiday visa and his art materials, ready for a new adventure.
It didn’t take long for Arita to start showing his work. In 2008, as part of the city’s fashion week, the New Zealand clothing retailer Glassons held a T-shirt design competition, the winner of which would see their work sold alongside established artists’ designs to raise money for The Breast Cancer Research Trust.
“I went along and I took my colored pens, just in case,” Arita says. After spending four hours creating designs for the competition, he was amazed and delighted that his entry was chosen as the winner. “From there, doors opened for me in New Zealand,” he says.
As well as securing paid design work with big brands such as Red Bull, and designing the cover of New Zealand’s Japanese-language magazine ECube for three years, Arita dedicated much of his time to working with charities and causes that he believes in. In 2014 and 2015, he painted giant Easter eggs as part of the Starship Children’s Health hospital fundraiser. He also illustrated a children’s book, which also raised money for Starship.
“That’s why I do art,” he says. “Not just to make myself happy, but to do something actually useful and meaningful.”
But despite his success, Arita found that the life of an artist didn’t satisfy the extroverted side of his personality. “I was staying home all day, and I needed (to see more) people,” he says. In 2012, he started working at a cafe in Auckland, later going on to manage another cafe. Having truly enjoyed the work, he feels irritated when people sometimes suggest that a “real” artist shouldn’t need to do anything else. “People think you’re doing something else because you can’t make enough money from your art,” he says, frowning. “I can, but I’m not doing it for the money.”
After nine years in New Zealand, Arita started to wonder if he should return to Japan. “I never lost my Japanese soul. There were things I missed about Japan, and my parents were getting older,” he says, going on to explain that he decided to move back to help him decide where his future lay.
In May 2016, he returned to Osaka and began working as ground crew for Japan Airlines while he tried settling into life in his homeland. But he was restless — he missed New Zealand.
During this time of confusion, he says he turned to his mother for advice.
“She said, ‘It doesn’t matter where you are. If you have found something you want to do, then you can do it anywhere.’ She’s always told us that you have to think carefully before you make a decision, but once you do it, don’t regret anything,” Arita recalls. “I realized that I could still go back to Japan at any time, but I wanted to live in New Zealand.”
Certain that he knew what he wanted, Arita flew back to Auckland in October 2016. Since then, he’s been lucky enough to find an equilibrium that gives him everything he needs.
He now works as cabin crew for Air New Zealand, flying between Auckland and Osaka or Tokyo, constantly meeting people along the way. In between, he picks and chooses the art projects that appeal to him, such as the designs he’s working on for Skinnies and charity projects.
“Art is something that’s interconnected with life experiences,” he says. “It’s not something that exists outside real life.”
Name: Jun Arita
Profession: Pop artist and flight attendant
Hometown: Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture
Key moments in career:
2004 — Travels to New York
2007 — Moves to New Zealand
2008 — Becomes a winner of a T-shirt design competition for The Breast Cancer Research Trust
2008-2011 — Designs front covers for ECube magazine
2014, 2015 — Paints giant Easter eggs as part of a fundraiser for the Auckland Starship Children’s Health hospital
2015 — Illustrates a charity children’s book to raise money for Starship
2016 — Returns to Japan to live for six months
2017 — Starts working for Air New Zealand as cabin crew
2019 — His packaging designs for Skinnies sunscreen are featured in Vogue
Things I miss about Japan: “A special dish my mother cooks with pork, peas and mushrooms, and Kyoto.”
Words to live by: “Never give up.”