Check the history: the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868) was an age of emperors and shoguns, but it also was a time when popular culture flourished with the emergence of populist art forms such as ukiyo-e (i.e., “pictures of the floating world”) – woodblock prints depicting sumo wrestlers, women and their courtesans, street scenes, theater actors and landscapes.
Japanese painter Tenmyouya Hisashi coalesces ukiyo-e influences with forms like old-school scrolls, manga comics, kanji characters (Chinese ideograms) and graffiti to create stunning acrylic paintings centered on themes of violence, faith and social satire. His technique is almost flawless, meticulously taking into account tiny minutiae. But the most intriguing attribute in his work is how he interweaves elements of Western hip hop culture (gangs in low-riders, b-boys in samurai outfits, breakdancers and turntables, a Buddha statue tagged with graffiti) with ancient Eastern motifs. Despite these hip hop overtones, Hisashi claims he isn’t a b-boy at all.
“It has been always misunderstood that I’m a b-boy,” he says. “Actually, I’m not. Such as there was a technique called “ukiyo-e” in Japan, which reflected its time in the past, I have [only] chosen the motifs of b-boy or graffiti to reflect our own time.”
Born in 1966, the Tokyo native held his first exhibition in 1990 at the Isetan Museum in Japan’s capital. Since then, he’s been featured in several shows throughout his country, as well as in the U.S. at the One Planet under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art exhibit at the Bronx Museum of Art and the Reed Space in New York.Recently, he had three pieces in The American Effect show at NYC’s Whitney Museum and he contributed 10 works to the current Japan Rising exposition at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art a bit north of Miami.
Although Hisashi experiments with different social satires, the dynamics of violence regularly appear in his work – everything from fierce tattooed sumos in wrestling matches to Japanese thugs in b-boy stance and intricately-designed samurai robots. Conversely, while some pieces may display a martyr being slain viciously or monstrous combat scenes such as his “Bush vs. Bin Laden” work, where the former is embodied in a dreadful behemoth, Hisashi is interested in the dichotomy of violence and faith, which, he says, “represent opposite extremes, but are also two sides of the same thing.”
Other works exude a precise quality of portraiture, especially the paintings of Japanese gangs poised with bats, swords or spray paint cans in hand or even just a thugged-out couple – Japanese-shogun-style – the words “B-Boy” and “B-Girl” inscribed on top. It’s almost as if these characters were literally swiped off the streets of the Japanese underworld to pose for Hisashi’s brush, although they are products of his imagination.
“Hip hop culture permeates Japan,” he explains. “There are many color gangs who are imitating the States and I paint these gangs since they are the symbol of violence. Some of my works harmonize them with traditional Japanese styles like contemporary ukiyo-e.”
Distinguished by a puckish melding of tradition with progression, Hisashi’s paintings elucidate the historical development of pop culture within two entirely different eras and societies. For instance, an amalgam of video game fights, manga illustration and ukiyo-e technique is well shown in a Mortal Kombat-like sequence in “Eight ‘Serpent and Crane’ Moves vs. ‘Drunken Fists.’ ”
But most importantly, he sees the equivalency of values in lowbrow art forms such as graffiti with what is deemed to be “high art.”
“If we think of the history of art in the long range like 200 or 300 years,” he says, “graffiti may change into a fine art in the future, but I treat graffiti and fine art in parallel as a painter.”
Japan Rising is on view at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, 601 Lake Avenue, Lake Worth, through November 9. Call 561-582-0006 for more info.
Omar Sommereyns can be reached at SOASIS@aol.com