In the latest Un-hidden Bucharest interview, Japanese artist Meguru Yamaguchi tells us how he started his journey of self-knowledge, who influenced him along the way, his thirst for change, what fuels his desire to expand his horizons and create art that has never been seen before, and has the power to fascinate people, while also integrating brush strokes as an expression of our era. He shares news about his upcoming exhibition in New York, his view on murals as part of the cityscape and the step by step keys to success.
f: Hello, Meguru, you strive to create art that is always new, unique and relevant to our times. You manage to do this without assuming any social, political stances or themes. Your artistic universe comprises visually captivating forms expressing the ceaseless process of creation, expanding beyond borders and limitations, and overcoming the frames of the canvas as well as any narrow frames of thought. As viewers, we find ourselves contemplating infinite possibilities of interpretation. It’s like an invitation to partake in enjoying and envisioning the playground you set for us. Tell us about the moment you decided to explore outside the box and the main experiences that guided you on your journey towards the artist you are today.
Meguru Yamaguchi: A lot happened before I was able to create this work.
When I first arrived in New York at the age of 23, I started to ask questions such as “Where do I come from, and (from an expression point of view), where would I go?”
We can see people of many different ethnicities, beliefs, backgrounds and countries in New York – as NY is often described as a melting pot or salad bowl, the city welcomes diversity, and every one represents their culture and countries where they have their roots. Being in this environment, just by walking on the street or in the subway, made me face myself.
So, for the first time in my twenty-three years, I started to think of my identity, the country I was born in and the cultures I was familiar with. After I had considered myself in this way, things became clear to me, and an idea came into my mind that, everything I liked when I was a child, and everything I saw and did would be the key to knowing myself – for me, this was drawing and painting.
I started oil painting when I was 6. I didn’t like to do it the same way other kids did, so I put pigments straight from the tubes onto the canvas without using a brush – in the same manner as Van Gogh.
I learned Japanese Calligraphy, and when I was in high school, I was strongly influenced by street culture and the artist Taro Okamoto.
I couldn’t go to an art university or get a job in a company as many other people did. Moreover, after I started living in New York, I became aware of racism and discrimination. There was a time in the past when I could not travel back to Japan due to visa issues (it is solved now though).
All these personal experiences came together, and I asked myself what are the boundaries, what are the rules of society, that make me an outsider, and why would I let them make me so? I wanted to go beyond those pre-set boundaries which restricted me, so I decided to allow myself to express them through painting.
OUT OF BOUNDS series
In my series of paintings “OUT OF BOUNDS”, I use brush strokes we have inherited from long ago, what I call “perpetuated value”, in a technique that peels away and goes beyond all sorts of “Squared, Canvas, Rules, Systems, Pre-set Conceptions” and I try to let the brush strokes exist as they naturally are.
I was able to create this when all the experiences I underwent had come together – and this became my signature work series. I felt that although I had started drawing in my childhood, I was finally able to create something original when I was over 30. So I can say all this has really been a journey, and yet the journey has just begun too.
OUT OF BOUNDS series
f: You once said that the “strongest point of Japanese culture is mixing things together, and making something new.” It’s similar to the idea of sampling in hip hop. So in your art we discover many influences – from your parents, both fashion designers, your early introduction in the world of pop art and immersion in Japanese Manga, to your initial encounter with Van Gogh’s paintings when you were in your teens, whose technique conveyed a raw impression on you, and later being inspired by Gerhard Richter and Picasso’s Blue Period, to paying homage to the Japanese Gutai movement of the 1950’s, while at the same time being part of the global street art scene where you’ve intersected with the work of Barry McGee, Futura, Swoon, and others. You define contemporary art as a reflection on the work of great predecessors and putting in the new essence of the present with your own hands, based on your personal experience.
Browsing through your website and Instagram, we notice the differences between your early work, focused more on portraits, mixing vibrant colours, and your latest body of work – for instance, “Out of bounds”, according to your words, emphasises through the brush strokes the freedom to surpass the canvas, the rules, the system, but also the “white collar” expectations, the racism in New York, and other aspects to overcome. Then, there is “Splitting Horizon”, where you produced new art based on the responses of people who had seen your work on the internet. Share a few insights about this transition and the past five years that seem to have been about refining your style, and what inspires you at this moment, what captures your attention, and you’d love to sample and ‘rewrite’ into a fresh visual story.
Meguru Yamaguchi: Five years ago I stopped doing my portrait series “Digital Impressionist” because I wondered if I really wanted to continue to draw the faces of people.
I wanted to create things I had never seen before. I have a fickle personality, and moreover, I always want to be excited with feelings of joy and fun. I want to do something fresh and always want to try something new.
You know, artists cannot stay in one place forever, like the grand Picasso changed his style over time and this has become his trademark.
Interestingly enough, I have never lost the feeling of fun and joy when creating brush stroke artworks. Because by doing this you cannot keep everything under your control. Well, I am now able to control my brush strokes at a certain level though. You never know what’s to come until you “unbox” it. I think this is why I can continue doing this. And my trials of refining the act of doing these brush strokes have brought me to the “brush stroke” itself in the end.
Why I let brush strokes be free and not keep them locked in canvases, is partly because I was influenced by a phrase of Taro Okamoto, who said, “You can expand more”. And when I thought about it, I noticed that I was already adding extra papers when I was drawing self-portraits in my elementary school because I couldn’t draw them on one piece of paper. Also, since I was small, I have tended to avoid expressing in the way others do.
At this moment, I am curious about new technologies and their advancements. I hope to continue to take my subject of brush strokes with me and sublimate it as an expression of an era.
SPLITTING HORIZON series
I love the people around me, the guys I always hang out with. They are so precious to me, I spend time with them, we talk, chat about music or exhibitions we recently went to, and I am often inspired in the middle of these times and conversations.
f: Quoting from your website, you’ve invented a new technique – “Cut & Paste”, which “entails laying out paints on plastic sheets to dry, then cutting, peeling and pasting them onto other surfaces, as if collaging three-dimensional brushstrokes.” In a previous interview, you discussed the influence of both Japanese calligraphy and Western painting techniques in defining your approach, free of restrictions. We’ve also seen you at work in several videos, as shown below.
Please describe the evolution of your emblematic technique, what you feel while working on a new piece, in your studio, or outside the studio, as in the case of Andrew Freedman Home, for example. How does a new artwork evolve from concept to its finished version? Is it ever complete in your vision? What’s something that you’ve never tried, but want to experiment soon? Moreover, knowing that you like combining old and new techniques, and inspired by your Instagram post in December, we were wondering if there’s any chance to see your works from a digital perspective – animated, as VR/AR experience, and so on.
Meguru Yamaguchi: I do check and research new technologies and works all the time. Maybe I will integrate some of these into my work in the future, but I cannot disclose that at the moment.
Interventions at Andrew Freedman Home, NY, 2018/2017
f: Since we’ve mentioned the digital times we live in, you often talk about social media in your interviews. We know that you don’t watch TV, that social media is not that much of interest now as it was in your early work, and that you prefer to cherish time with friends and family. However, there are still significant opportunities for branding and networking on social media. What’s your current relationship with SNS both on a personal and professional level?
Meguru Yamaguchi: Think about it – before the time I built my career, I was someone with no background of higher education, an artist with no support, no galleries to belong to. Where would you go then? I thought of putting my works on social media. It was before Instagram, so I used Facebook. I was happy to receive “Likes” on the posts of my works. It’s like you cook good food and serve it, then someone eats it and says “this is delicious”. I liked its crystal clear call-and-response feedback and its immediacy. Nowadays, everyone does this after we started using Instagram. I gradually stopped reading magazines and blogs, because we individuals have power – people are the media now. So if you are interested in someone, you can follow them and see what’s coming. This is the way the era has changed over the last 15 years.
I have to admit that I too am a social-media-holic, and it’s like an addiction that you can arguably say my hands and my iPhone are connected almost 24/7, but I also think that there was a time I gradually became tired of social media’s flip side of “showcasing ourselves better than actuality”, i.e. severely retouched selfies of girls, showing off travel pics, your kids or restaurants. As we live in an era where we all have our own media, I realised my timeline was filled with things which had nothing to do with me.
To me, images are food to nurture you, like nutrition. I want to intake good and healthy images, so I became pretty selective about the information I surround myself with. The same happens on news feeds – I found they are filled with negative stories even though the world is filled with a lot of good happy news. And yet, although it sounds like a contradiction I think artists should supply people with information. So, as an artist of this time, you should create news and act in an arguably hyped-up way. I think it’s necessary. It has to be mentioned that due to this trend, we are swimming in a sea of flashy, tacky and superficial artworks because of an exponential increase of artists of hype-only, good-looking-on-Instagram-only, who do not have enough solidity to sustain themselves over time in their ideas and conceptions. And you know what, really cool people do not even do Instagram, do they?
I do what I want to do, sometimes even in a hyped-up way, and I want to grab people’s hearts and fascinate them. I want to inject genuine images and artworks onto their timelines.
f: Your portfolio includes collaborations with renowned brands such as Nike, Chari & Co NYC, UNIQLO, Alife, Stussy, and others. At one point, you stated that “too much collaboration can be a bad thing,” since risking to compromise your original vision. How do you stay true to your concept and what you want to convey in such situations? In which other fields of business would you like to have your work displayed?
Meguru Yamaguchi: As I said, I think nowadays it is necessary that artists act in a hyped-up fashion too. Because it totality counts as far as artists are concerned. In this sense, I am always careful whom I collaborate with since it could be argued that too much collaboration could result in being too commercially-driven. So, I find myself having no choice but to decline many offers because to me collaborations are part of my self-image. I mean, I take them as a bonus. I didn’t plan to at the start of my career but, luckily, I was offered some along my way. I can show my works to people through collaborations which is a good thing, but what I really want is to show my personal works.
f: You’ve been present in art fairs such as Art Fair Tokyo in March, with your new series “MOBIUS”, and SCOPE Art Show in Miami. We’d love to hear a few words about these recent events, the works showcased there and any upcoming exhibitions this year.
Meguru Yamaguchi: I never exhibit artworks that do not fascinate me. Regardless of the size or occasion of exhibitions and opportunities, I always release my artworks as if it’s the last hit I could smash. So, not only in the case of the two shows you mentioned but every time I consider my latest works to be the coolest ones and never seen before.
I am having a show in New York in June, at GR gallery. I will present my new works which have a very different twist than ever before.
Works part of the series MOBIUS / Images from SCOPE Art Show
f: Further focusing on murals, your first official pieces were the ones from 2012 (at Bogart Salon, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where you are currently based) and 2013 (at Chari & Co NYC). As you mentioned elsewhere, before this, you’ve been doing a lot of trial and error. What’s your approach to street art in general? What do you like about changing the vibe of the public space? Where would you love having a major street art intervention – Tokyo, NY, anywhere else in the world or any special/unconventional places?
Meguru Yamaguchi: Firstly, I like murals to be on a huge and panoramic scale. It’s totally different from doing shows in perfectly white cubes such as galleries. It’s like, BMX is different from skateboarding. It’s not better or worse – you know, they both have good points.
I have a feeling that murals function as a part of the cityscape. The fun stuff of doing murals is that the artists must be undaunted by ideas and compositions which instantly change the atmosphere of the street.
I didn’t understand this when I started, and it took some time until I got it. Initially, I saw a wall as a mere canvas, but it isn’t. I think you have to be objective about your artworks.
f: We’ve put together the Un-hidden Bucharest map that cartographies 56 pieces by independent and active local and international artists who enriched the city with their creations in the public space. If you’d ever travel to Bucharest, what kind of mural or other types of street art intervention would you like to do?
Meguru Yamaguchi: Well, I would be delighted to have a chance to do a mural in Bucharest. If I could, then I would like to create a work that would influence the atmosphere or mood of the city by what I’ve created. That would be exciting.
f: You once defined success as doing what you want to do, what you love. You also said that you don’t like to make goals. So you built your future by focusing on the tasks in front of you. Therefore, we can say that newness and change result from nowness, one step at a time.
At the end our conversation, please share with feeder.ro readers the advice that you’d wanted to hear from someone at the beginning of your journey in life or pass on some key-learning on creating one’s success based on what you’ve learned from your experience so far.
Find out what you really want to do. Or, more precisely, decide what you want to do. Once you have decided, then keep on going no matter how people see you.
Rumours on the internet, people you’ve never met, or sometimes even your close friends and brothers may deny what you do. If this happens, do not take it, just dive into what you do. Create an environment where you can do what you do. Do not compare yourself with others. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday. When you spend times like these, many things start to unfold for you. I am on my journey too, so let us all do our best to keep going.
This article is part of the Un-hidden Bucharest series of interviews with street art and graffiti artists, published weekly on feeder.ro. Together we will enter their artistic universe and learn how the city can be regenerated through artistic interventions in the public space.
Keep your eyes on feeder.ro, we’ll publish new interviews soon with iZZY iZVNE, Maria Bălan, John Dot S, Livi Po, J.Ace, Robert Obert, KSELEQOQYNQYSHY, Primitiv Print, Livia Fălcaru, Skinny Bunny, Obie Platon, Alina Marinescu, Maria Duda, Trun, Irina Marinescu, Kero Zen, Lost.Optics, Serebe, CAGE, ILUC, Nicolae Comănescu, Nicolás Alfalfa, Boeme1, SUNSHINERS, Daia – Diana Grigore, Pisica Pătrată, Alexander Blot, and more.
Interview by Emilia Cazan
Images © Meguru Yamaguchi
Un-hidden Bucharest is an urban regeneration programme conceived as a series of artistic interventions designed for the public space, co-created with the community, aiming at humanizing Bucharest and promoting its understanding and exploration through art.
The Un-hidden Bucharest street art project is organized by Save or Cancel, through feeder.ro and is co-funded by AFCN. The program does not necessarily represent the position of the National Cultural Fund Administration. AFCN is not responsible for the content of the program or the way the program results can be used. These are entirely the responsibility of the beneficiary of the funding.
Organizer: The Save or Cancel team, composed of Cristina Popa (random) – social designer, editor, and cultural manager, and Andrei Racovițan (ubic) – architect, editor, and artistic manager, together with the audience, artists, collaborators și partners.
Project partners: CNDB, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, Zeppelin, IQads, Igloo, Urban things, România Pozitivă, IQool
About Save or Cancel
Since 2008, Save or Cancel is a medium of communication and propagation of the arts and culture, promoting and facilitating their role in contemporary society.
The self-initiated multidisciplinary programs of Save or Cancel aim to identify sustainable and adaptable opportunities for (re) valorization of the existence through architectural, cultural and editorial projects.
Visit the project’s page to find out more about past, current and future activities: https://feeder.ro/un-hidden