By Sophie Arni
For an artist who is famous for his graffiti and tattoos in southern Japan, to create a video art piece skateboarding in Fukushima is an unconventional move. From a street to a white cube artist, BABU has been skating his way through the different spaces and walks of life. Whatever debris he finds from Japanese earthquakes, he takes as an opportunity to create. From broken wood and abandoned boats, he makes skateboards. The ironic twist on destruction and the infinite possibilities of creation is BABU’s playground, or should I say, skate park. It comes as no surprise to discover BABU is driven by insatiable energy to defy, always subtly, the establishment amidst a transformative period of Japanese contemporary art.
The 3/11 tsunami and earthquake were described indeed, by Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum, as one of the three major events shaping modern Japanese history (the other two being 1868 Meiji Restoration and the end of World War II). The natural and nuclear catastrophe of September 2011 has prompted Japanese artists to question the sustainability and limits of their country’s economic booms and development. A new wave of post-Fukushima artists is today involved in questioning the urban fabrics of reconstruction. BABU is one of them but stands out for his bold and direct engagement with street life and nuclear activity. The following conversation took place on November 11th, 2017 via Skype, between the artist and curator Sophie Mayuko Arni who recently had included his video and sculptures in East-East: UAE meets Japan Vol. 3, a group exhibition at CHI-KA Space, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.
BABU, Go High!, 2016. Video, 2:46. Still image. Courtesy of the artist.
Sophie Arni: BABU, thank you for this opportunity. I discovered your work through a blog post from the Tokyo University of the Arts’ new Global Arts program. The article reviewed LANDSCAPE, a traveling exhibition of various Asian artists throughout venues in Thailand, China, and Japan. The show featured Go High! (2016), your video skateboarding through the abandoned streets of Fukushima. The still image stuck with me. It’s a powerful image. Let’s start from the beginning. You are from Kitakyushu, the southern province of Japan, and started out as a graffiti artist. Could you tell me more about your youth and your influences? BABU: I started out really young. I was fourteen years old, and skateboarding was a huge influence on me. My sister introduced me at a young age to American and European popular culture. I grew up listening to western music. S.A.: Were you inspired by American street culture? Looking at your paintings reminds me of Jean-Michel Basquiat. BABU: I watched a lot of American movies, and always observed the set, the streets, the background of the movies shot in New York. I did some research on the U.S. graffiti scene and of course, Basquiat was a big influence. The Basquiat documentary and Wild Style inspired me a lot. S.A.: Right, Basquiat by Julian Schnabel is a classic, such a well-done movie about a painter from a painter’s point of view. What especially drew you to Basquiat? BABU: He aimed to be the next Andy Warhol. He was a street boy, but he had the ambition to climb to Warhol’s level, and even surpass him. S.A.: Did you grow up listening to U.S. music? Can you name some musical inspirations? BABU: There are a lot of foreign influences in my work. I really like Dub and Noise music, I think these two are my favorite genres. And I’m also inspired by Japanese Gal culture [Japanese ‘harajuku gal’ culture, representative of Japanese girls referencing popular African-American culture]. S.A.: In parallel to graffiti, you also delved into tattoo design, am I right? How was the transition from graffiti to tattoo?
BABU: While I was doing graffiti, I met a tattoo master called Mr. Ichimaru Kouji, who pushed me towards the tattoo world. I stopped graffiti all together for seven years and became a tattoo artist. I tattooed my whole shoulders for my last exhibition. S.A.: It seems your career is filled with transitions and different phases: from graffiti to tattoo artist, to now showing your work in gallery and museum exhibitions. How do you feel about the institutionalization of your practice, which is very much grounded in street landscapes and influences? BABU: There are advantages and disadvantages to gallery exhibitions. It’s a selective world, not many people can enter that category. S.A.: What are some benefits? BABU: A positive point? In a gallery or museum, I can reduce the painting surface to a smaller canvas. Small canvases work well in the space.
S.A.: I want to talk about your Go High! video, and skateboarding. You said skateboarding influenced you from an early age. Skateboarding is at the heart of many ‘subcultures’ today. But before brands like Supreme or Vans marketed the skateboarding aesthetics to a mass consumer base, its core lies in subverting societal norms. BABU: Yes, skateboarding is practiced on the street. It’s not an indoor activity, it deals directly with the outside world. It’s a fun feeling to skate through streets, but at the same time, it can disturb the public peace with its noise or can sometimes damage public infrastructure. I wanted to create skateboards that don’t make any noise. In 2016, I started to make skateboards from debris I found in Kumamoto after its big earthquake. These are the sculptures I am exhibiting today. I wanted to transform an object that originally disturbs society into one that shows creation. It’s always been my concept.
S.A.: For the 2016 Reborn Art Festival in Ishinomaki [a seaside town on the Eastern coast of Japan, which was deeply affected by the 3/11 tsunami], a rendition of which is currently showing at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, you transported a boat you found on the beach to the exhibition space. You transformed the boat into a large 'skateboard' with four wheels. BABU: Yes, when I saw this abandoned boat on the beach, I immediately thought about one thing: that’s a skateboard. It was a beautiful coincidence. I found some wheels on the cliffs next to the boat. I added them to the boat’s back. S.A.: What was the public’s reception to this work? BABU: Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for the exhibition opening. For my recent solo show at the Beams Gallery in Tokyo, a lot of artists came to the opening reception. I had something like 200 works ready for this show and had to only exhibit 100 because of space restrictions. Other artists were really surprised.
S.A.: I can imagine! Your work is filled with energy – silent maybe – but visually stimulating. Talking about energy, tell me about Fukushima. Go High! is a 2:46 minute video, made mostly of raw footage of you skating throughout the empty streets of Fukushima wearing a full-body protective gear. You shot this video in 2016, five years after the nuclear incident. Weren’t you scared? BABU: We talk often about Fukushima. We should not ignore the event, and act that everything is going for the better. This type of thinking is actually great for me, as a street artist, because I’m given a voice away from political or activist implications. To go forward, I create even though it’s sometimes dangerous. The ‘playful’, ‘ironical twist’ can empower contemporary artists looking towards a future after Fukushima.
S.A.: I came across the writings of Nigerian-British writer Kuduo Eshun recently, who links GIF images to Nietzsche’s theory on eternal recurrence. It’s the idea that everything that happens has happened at some time before, that humanity can never escape the loop of history. I think that’s relevant to Fukushima too. It’s the third nuclear disaster Japan has suffered from. What do you think of this eternal circle, that the past creates the present and that one can never truly know the future without delving into the present moment? BABU: In Japan, we saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These experiences sparked artistic creations and will forever last in our collective memory without taboo. I try to keep the focus on the future though. I have a positive outlook on the future. The future might be cyclical, but it’s always different too. S.A.: Do you have any future projects in Fukushima? BABU: Yes, I want to create a white cube gallery in Fukushima, a "no-man’s gallery." No one will be able to visit it because of radioactivity, but there will be a security camera taping it 24/7 and the footage will be broadcasted online. This is my biggest project right now. I want to transmit the present reality of Fukushima via the internet. Absolutely no one knows what’s going on in Fukushima on a daily basis. S.A.: That’s a fantastic project. What type of artists would you show in the gallery if you don’t mind me asking? BABU: Artists with strong messages. S.A.: Like yourself. And tell us, do you have any immediate future projects or exhibitions? What are you working on right now? BABU: I’ll be showing at a video art festival in Shanghai soon and I’m also participating in an upcoming Japanese art competition with a large exhibition in Ueno Park in 2018. Apart from that, I’m working on a new form of Japanese graffiti. I’m over the spray-can painting style. I want to create another form, another dimension of street art here in Japan. Kyushu is a very volcanic region with a lot of onsen hot springs. I’ve been going to many public baths and digging rocks in the shape of "B," short for BABU. I’ve also been placing small Buddha statues around countryside streets. It’s been a very active period. I’m making more than 60 drawings a day in my studio.
S.A.: I love this idea of Japanese graffiti, intervention-style. Thank you for the interview. BABU: Thank you.
BABU (b. 1983, Kitakyushu, Japan) is a Japanese street artist best known for his contributions to the graffiti and skateboard scenes of southern Japan. He started his career at age 14 in Kitakyushu. Skateboarding has been a considerable influence in his work, as he finds it a subtle protest against the normalization of society. His work focuses on reclaiming empty and forgotten urban landscapes, and he has recently expanded his practice to include drawings, paintings, video art, and found objects installations. Selected exhibitions include ‘East-East: 2020, Vol.3’, a group exhibition at CHI-KA Space, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai (2017), a solo exhibition ‘Ai (LOVE)’ at B-Gallery/Beams Japan, Toyko (2017); ‘LANDSCAPE: Hotel Asia Project 2016’ curated by Ni Kun and Gen Sasaki which premiered in Gallery Soap, Kitakyushu (2015-6) and traveled to venues in Thailand, China and Japan; ‘ANACONDA’, Gallery Soap, Kitakyushu (2006); ‘one against 4’, a solo exhibition at the Art Space Tetra, Fukuoka (2005); and ‘SAD Song’, Gallery of Modern Art Bank Vald, Fukuoka (2005).
All images are courtesy of the artist.