Classic Japanese art meets the LA street
Artist Gajin Fujita is coming to the Hunter Museum of American Art on Thursday, May 14. Fujita’s art has been featured in the Hunter’s special exhibition since early April. Fujita’s special exhibit is a part of the Hunter’s larger rotation of three exhibits exploring the influence of Japanese art on American artists.
Following Fujita’s contemporary rendition of traditional Japanese art, the “Japonisme and America” exhibit (opening May 8) and the later “Monet and American Impressionism” exhibit (opening June 27) will demonstrate the wide-ranging effect of Japanese art and printmaking on western artists throughout the years.
As the first and most contemporary artist of these three exhibits, Gajin Fujita is a compelling conjunction of the traditional and the modern. A brief view of his artwork shows immediate explosions of color, full-faced emotion, and a uniquely urban background that has LA pride plastered all over it.
And that urban background—namely, graffiti-styled art—is a part of the essence of Fujita’s artwork. Talking to Fujita about urban art, he showed me how little I knew about the culture. “There’s two camps now—the street art camp and the graffiti art camp. Here in LA, it was graffiti first. These street artists came later.”
Fujita explained a core difference between the two camps, “[Street artists] don’t really use spray paint. I use spray paint still. I guess graffiti is a part of my history. That’s kind of how I started painting, and it’s evolved into this today. I guess I would call myself a graffiti artist, but I would like to be known as just a fine artist—just an artist.”
This is what is particularly fascinating about Fujita’s career and the intermixing of graffiti and gallery art. Often the two cultures of graffiti and gallery art clash, and often graffiti is reprimanded while gallery art is lauded. The distinction between these two art forms has been around since Fujita was starting out in the early ’80s, and today, even after exhibiting around the world, Fujita still has difficulty escaping the ever-present “graffiti artist” label.
“To this day it sort of bothers me that people refer to me as a graffiti artist. I’m not really doing graffiti anymore. I’m showing in galleries and doing my stuff in studios. If I were a graffiti artist, I’d be doing my work out in the streets, doing things illegally. That doesn’t really describe what I’m doing and who I am right now.”
Of course, Fujita readily embraces the tools and craft of graffiti in his exotic paintings. And these graffiti techniques pair with traditional Japanese imagery to create eclectic combinations. Fujita’s work has always centered on this juxtaposition of East and West, but as he’s progressed as an artist, his subjects have become clearer.
“There’s been incremental evolution throughout my career. I started off using the erotic woodblock prints to violate people’s expectations. But now I see myself more involved and interested in samurais and mythological folklore.” Samurais, for Fujita, have become a source of artistic inspiration, and it’s easy to see why—samurais embrace beauty and destruction, life and death. They are walking dichotomies.
One particular samurai caught Fujita’s attention—Yoshitsune of the Minamoto clan. Born in 1159, Yoshitsune is one of the greatest samurai warriors of Japanese history. After becoming a skilled swordsman, Yoshitsune defeated legendary warrior monk Benkei in a duel. After his defeat, Benkei served as Yoshitsune’s right-hand man for life. Fujita’s painting titled “Fatal Match” pictures this famous fight between the two samurai upon a bridge.
Asking Fujita about how he chooses these captivating subjects, he says, “I’m strictly painting what I would want to see in my own place…Once I see something I like, I’ll research about it and look into it more.” Asked about the influence of traditional Japanese art, he laughs. “It’s easier to steal from the posthumous artists.”
It’s this blend of posthumous inspiration and contemporary graffiti that enables Fujita’s art to mesmerize on sight. Though he’s moved on from a traditional graffiti artist, that background permeates his work. I asked him what he thought about the ongoing conflict between graffiti and the law, and he said, “Painting murals on building walls—people don’t like that, building owners don’t like that, I guess the architects don’t like that. Maybe to them, it feels like we’re painting on their masterpiece. We’re defacing their design. It makes sense. I wouldn’t want someone to come and slap a tag on my painting, so I feel them. But at the same time, when there’s a clean spot, it’s irresistable for a graffiti artist.”
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“Gajin Fujita,” Hunter Museum of American Art, 10 Bluff View, (423) huntermuseum.org. Through June 7.