HANNO, Saitama Pref. — Sadao Kiyota airbrushes colors on the shutters of the Tonki tofu kitchen, which is closed one recent Monday as are neighboring stores on the Hanno Ginza shopping street near Seibu Hanno Station in Saitama Prefecture.

Passersby occasionally stop to watch him paint without the aid of a preliminary sketch. He started early in the morning, and after working outside for half the day the 67-year-old finishes an image of a traditional tofu kitchen.

Despite the physically demanding job, Kiyota considers his “shutter art” his lifework and his contribution to revitalizing small shopping streets.

“Many people my age bask in retirement on a pension. For me, such a life is not fun,” said Kiyota, who lives in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. “I feel so good while working on my airbrush on shutters.”

Kiyota, who studied Japanese painting when he was young, has visited hundreds of shopping streets around Japan over the last 15 years and has painted roughly 2,500 shutters, he said.

His first — a woman in high heels — was for a shoe shop in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in the early 1990s, when he was almost broke.

Kiyota had just gone through a divorce and bitter business experiences. He closed his graphic design firm with more than 10 employees and set out for a trip to visit former post-station towns on the Tokaido, the Edo Period (1603-1868) route linking Nihonbashi in Tokyo with Kyoto.

Sitting in Numazu with little money left to continue the trip, he came up with the idea of painting pictures on shutters or building walls for a fee.

“When I proposed the idea to shop owners, they refused because they probably thought I would paint graffiti,” Kiyota recalled. “But after my first work got media attention, other shop owners came to ask me to draw pictures on their shutters.”

In the beginning, he was simply out to earn money and painted whatever the shop owners wanted. But it soon became an important art form for him.

“Painting pictures on shutters is a live performance. People come to see me draw and talk to me. So I feel their reactions as I paint. This situation makes me feel excited,” he said. “Besides, I enjoy painting on such a huge canvas like a shutter.”

His works — mostly painted on shutters and occasionally on walls — include a garden, an old-fashioned Japanese house and Western-style streets. Kiyota said he decides what to paint after drawing inspiration from the shop itself and the neighborhood atmosphere.

Spending a few months every year away from his studio in Fujisawa to work on shopping streets, Kiyota thinks of his shutter art as his contribution to helping out small businesses.

Last year, invited by a local business group, Kiyota stayed in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture, for six months and was asked to paint something on the back walls of buildings lining a shopping street. The back walls face a river.

He painted a townscape of traditional merchants’ houses like those preserved in Kyoto.

“Kuwana is a former castle town, but buildings mushrooming randomly in the city detract from this impression. So I wanted to draw a picture that can remind visitors of the city’s history,” he said.

Since June, Kiyota has been driving to Hanno Ginza to work his art on the shutters.

“When I happened to stop over in Hanno on the way to Chichibu (Saitama Prefecture) and walked around the town, I liked the shopping street’s atmosphere,” he said. “So I asked the owner of a kimono shop to let me paint (the shutters).”

Kiyota has painted on the shutters of 11 businesses on Hanno, including an eyeglass shop, a sporting goods store, a tea shop, a stone seller’s shop and the tofu kitchen.

“I hope this can help change the atmosphere (of our shopping street),” said Teizo Ogawa, the third-generation owner of the 120-year-old tofu kitchen, lamenting the closure of neighboring shops.

“If (owners of those empty buildings) have pictures on their shutters, it will be wonderful (for the shopping street),” Ogawa added.

Kiyota worries about the future of his art, as more and more mom-and-pop shops closed down due to the economic slump they are still experiencing, now worsened by the emergence of large malls.

According to a study by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the number of shopping streets with more than 30 shops dropped to 12,407 in fiscal 2004 from 14,271 in fiscal 1994.

“Small retailers may be struggling financially, but I think more shop owners have now come to understand paintings on shutters as an art form,” he said. “I hope my paintings provide an opportunity to help revitalize shopping streets.”

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