Hitozuki: 15 Years in Paint

, 2010/05/07

The first day of painting was the coldest but instead of going inside the wooden house we retreated further into our jackets to stay and watch Kami and Sasu make preparations. On that wintery day, these two mural painters were covering a concrete wall outside an old house in the backstreets of Shibuya. Tins of paint, brushes, rollers and bags are spread out to form a work station on the side of the road by the wall.

Kami has been painting murals for ten years and Sasu has been painting almost as long. “We are not graffiti artists, we are mural painters,” reminds Kami. Although at one time notoriously known as graffiti writers, and prone to “getting in trouble,” the couple are now married with a son and paint together as ‘Hitotzuki.’ Either operating individually or as a unit, they are two of the most successful artists to emerge from Japan’s graffiti scene.

The wall they are painting borders the garden of a wooden pre-war home nested in old and winding streets of Shibuya’s westside. Lucas Badtke-Berkow and his wife, Kaori Sakurai, live and work from this antiquely modern house. Lucas has been publishing magazines and working in creative media for fifteen years while Kaori has been making magazines for nearly as long. As a unit, they work together as ‘Knee High Media,’ a publishing house responsible for producing some of Japan’s strongest independent publications: Tokion, Paper Sky, Mammoth and Planted. This year, 2010, is important because it marks the 15th anniversary of Knee High Media and it’s for this very reason that Kami and Sasu are painting this wall and by doing so, they are creating something to commemorate the occasion.

Hitozuki and Knee High Media are also painting the wall simply because it makes a good space to paint on. Lucas commented that, “Kami had been searching for a wall like this for a while,” as knit-cap donning artist began mixing paint. Soon thereafter thick black paint, watered down and mixed with “something special,” began to smoothly pour into one of the plastic trays. Kami took a roller and began to apply the black paint straight onto the wall. Normally graffiti writers and muralists coat their walls in a background color before they start painting but Kami was delighted enough with the wall itself that he skipped a background layer and started painting his characteristic curved, black lines directly over the moss, dirt and preexisting graffiti.

Watching Kami paint is rarely as interesting as watching him preparing to paint. To intuit the ideal size and motion of each line he stands back, tilts his head to one side and paints in the air to conjure up the right gestures for each subsequent line of his roller.

The second day is spent much the same, but solid shapes start to take form. Sasu has also started to paint her part of the wall. She paints with a similar process, but the results are much different. On the same concrete wall, underneath a then bare cherry blossom tree, Sasu starts to apply layers of paint that begin to echo in color and what begins to render is the kind of signature minimal and floral mandalas she is known for.

By the third day, Kami’s forms are almost finished and the black lines have traveled far beyond the concrete wall, now working their way over and up onto the house itself. What Kami paints is all about movement and it’s anyone’s guess as to where or how it will look when it’s finished. “Pool skating and graffiti are not so different,” says Kami in reference to his love of skateboarding, “it’s all about movement and lines.” Those lines stop grandmothers on their way to the shops or cause young children to grow quiet and wide eyed as they take in the huge, sprawling shapes over the wall. Their young son seems fascinated with the shapes too when he shows up after daycare.

Briefly describing their typical day, Sasu tells me that after they drop of their child at day care, “we work on our painting projects, like this wall here and then we like to watch sport fights or comedians on TV. Our work comes from this kind of thing, watching TV, a good joke, a good fight, meeting people- simple things, everyday things, it can be anything.” This appreciation and curiosity for the simple things in life comes through in the strange conversations they have with their paintings. Each day the work changes slightly, an ebb and flow as response to small waves of inspiration. But the work does not just progress in a linear fashion, rather it mutates haphazardly- lines appear and disappear and shapes are constantly reworked and refined.

“I think when you work on something for a long time, the more time you spend on it, the more things you begin to notice that you didn’t notice before.” Lucas is talking about how he approaches magazine making, but it describes Kami and Sasu’s process too. A slow attention to detail is very important for both the couple’s work, a sense of craft- or ‘hin,’ a Japanese word Lucas uses to describe Kami’s work. Lucas conitnues, “in Japan, the concept of ‘hin’ is a kind of positive refinement, not one of elitism but just something done carefully.” Working carefully towards refinement not only poses at odds with the typically rushed style of mural painting or even the frenetic pace of graffiti but with the typical style of making magazines as well.

Things have always been slower for both Knee High Media and Hitotzuki. In the early ‘90s Lucas was forging content about Tokyo’s then emergent culture, but not just for Tokyo, he was crafting media with the entire world in mind. At nearly the same time in the later ‘90s, Kami had started painting his distinct minimal black lines not only around Tokyo but also alongside graffiti writers in America and cities all over world. To this day, both Kami and Lucas continue to produce their work in much of the same way as when they began- keeping a sense of openness as essential to the core of their approach. That openness is not just about making non-exclusive work for one group of people but rather, its about working to open up conversations with demographics far, wide and varied.

As the sun sets behind some apartment blocks on the final day of painting, Kami holds his son and together with Sasu, Lucas and Kaori, they survey the new wall. The lines look as though they could have been painted ten or twenty years ago, they seem like a natural extension of the house, and Sasu’s resonating mandala’s are colored and toned to match the flowers of the soon-to-blossom plum tree perfectly. The result after five full days of working on the fifteen meter-wide wall is a fitting visual monument to the fifteen years of Knee High Media. As we leave, Kami has noticed something else and he tells us he needs another day, “there is still a little more to do.”



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Kami and Sasu ‘Hitotzuki'
Knee High Media
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