Saturday, September 8, 2012

EAST vs. WEST: The Graffiti Paintings of Gajin Fujita

by Drew Martin

I went to Japan several years ago looking for unique illustrations. What I found was a lot of run-of-the-mill anime. What I was seeking was actually much closer to home, in America. The paintings of Gajin Fujita sample Eastern and Western imagery and use materials ranging from spray paint to gold leaf.

Fujita is tagged as a Los Angeles graffiti artist and even though he was a member of graffiti crews it sounds a bit too rogue for someone who went to a select arts magnet high school, has a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and an MFA from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Fujita shows his work in museums and galleries all over the world, and sells his pieces for tens of thousands of dollars. His 2011 solo show, Made in L.A. at LA Louver was preceded by the Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight stating he is "the most important 21st Century iteration of graffiti's influence on art." 

I still associate graffiti with the rock-bottom New York of my youth. Like most once-taboo things, such as tattoos and body piercings, graffiti was reserved for wayward punks. The question is whether Fujita was the East LA Prometheus who stole the fire from the street and brought it to the world of fine arts or whether graffiti, like other inner city phenomena, including rap music, simply found its own way from its gritty breeding grounds into the mainstream where it has become safely popularized and is now adored by collectors.

While defacing property is still a crime, the graffiti style grew beyond itself long ago. There have been decades of recognition and sponsors and graffiti has already been embraced by advertising, merchandising and corporate branding. That being said, and despite having been raised with reputable Japanese parents in sunny California, what I like about Fujita is that he has drummed up the virility of his culture in an era when the sex and violence of Japan have been packaged through anime and filtered through a culture of cute, as well as peculiar perversities.

Gajin's fornications and altercations are unbridled and raw. They are not the quirky-fetishes of Japanese businessmen who buy unwashed panties of teenage girls from vending machines or about fighting in some kind of game environment. This is Shogun sex and violence, slicing through bodies like a samurai sword.

It is an interesting idea, that this satellite and middle-aged Japanese "kid" is perhaps more in touch with the vibe of his ancestors than his counterparts in Japan. If you look at Takashi Murakami, for example, his work starts with pop and ends with pop. Even Murakami's very sexual pieces, such as "My Lonesome Cowboy," a life-size sculpture of smooth, young man offering up a thick swirl of his ejaculation, are still presented as cartoon manifestations.

I have heard it said before that the "cute" culture of Japan is a subconscious and humbled response to the WWII nuclear blasts the nation suffered. Fujita, however, grew up on US soil in a culture that was once persecuted in America and although he is now part of a respected minority, he knows the downside of being one. There are no polite maneuvers with Fujita. He reaches back to dominant Edo period imagery and the power of sexuality.

The E
ast versus West dialogue for Japan is not simply Europe and America versus Asia but an internal polarity as well. Tokyo and Kyoto actually stand for Eastern Capital and Western Capital. In Fujita's painting EAST vs. WEST, the jousting warriors are marked with symbols of America's eastern and western cultural capitals, New York and Los Angeles, by using the team logos for the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

This rivalry is just as pronounced in almost every other aspect of American culture. It is Hollywood versus Broadway, LA hip versus NY cool fashion and many decades of artworld comparisons. That being said, Fujita's EAST vs. WEST is really East and West. The graffiti style Fujita uses originates from the East Coast - Philadelphia and New York, but the imagery is first and foremost Japanese, which he mixes with western icons such as Bugs Bunny only to bring us back to Asian culture with the title, Year of the Rabbit.

The 2007 documentary, Bomb It, about the global phenomenon of graffiti, does not mention Fujita but there is an interview with the Los Angeles artist Robbie Conal who explains that California is seen as a superficial place but what the world does not understand is that Californians are "deeply superficial." If graffiti is a superficial art, Fujita’s paintings are certainly deeply superficial.