Conversation with Kosuke Kawamura and Satoru Arai (Gallery COMMON)

A gallery that showcases the punkish creativity and "Harajuku art" of artist Kosuke Kawamura

Edit&Text by Yukihisa Takei(HONEYEE.COM)
Photo by TAWARA

“TRY SOMETHING BETTER", a solo exhibition of work by Japanese artist Kosuke Kawamura, known for his collage and shredding style, is being held to celebrate Gallery COMMON's reopening in a new location in Harajuku. HONEYEE.COM caught up with Kosuke Kawamura and Satoru Arai, the gallerist at COMMON, to find out more about the exhibition. We asked them about Kawamura's underground background and their relationship as an artist and gallerist who aims to make Harajuku a center of art culture.

The meaning of spreading art from Harajuku

- Gallery COMMON has moved to a new location and the space has become much bigger.

Satoru Arai (A): Our company, en one tokyo, has created various sites such as The Mass, Stand By, SO1, BATSU-AR GALLERY, etc, and has been promoting art culture with a particular focus on Harajuku. Originally, Gallery COMMON was a small cabin in the place where TheMass is located now, but that was actually the first property of our company.

Kosuke Kawamura (K): Oh, was that the first one? I didn't know that.

- What made you decide to expand COMMON this time?

A: I was running COMMON in a different place in Harajuku for about two years, but when I started to feel that I wanted to work more seriously on art, that place was not big enough. So I started to look for a place a year and a half ago and I found this place.

- What’s the reason for sticking to the Harajuku area?

A: That's because we are influenced by Harajuku culture. In my case, it was more about music than fashion. When I was a high school student, I bought a lot of vinyl from labels like MAJOR FORCE in Japan, Mo'Wax and Ninja Tune in the UK, and that's how I was drawn to Harajuku culture. At that time, BAPE® and Mo'Wax made vinyl records together, and Sukeshin-san (Sk8thing) and Futura designed the covers for them. I got to know the world of art and graphics with music as a background first, and then I got into Harajuku culture. In the last few years, the idea of " spreading art from Harajuku to the world" has become stronger within our entire company.

Satoru Arai, Director of Gallery COMMON

- When we recently interviewed Nanzuka-san from Nanzuka Underground in Harajuku, he said "Harajuku fashion culture was cooler than art. In fact, people from Urahara were doing something artistic", and I think this story is relevant to that?

A: Right, Nanzuka-san was talking about something like that.

- In recent years, art has become more and more hyped, and Kawamura-san's work has become popular all over the world but why do you think this kind of "Harajuku art" is growing both in Japan and abroad?

A: We used to do a project called "Print Show", where people could buy their first artworks. We were selling prints for around 10,000 yen and trying to figure out how we could make art take root in Harajuku. I don't think it had any influence, but what I can say for sure is that people who came through the same culture as we are now becoming great collectors, and a new generation of art collectors is being emerged. I think that the market is starting to match what we think is cool.

K: Traditionally, art has always been a hard and expensive thing to buy in Japan. I was familiar with art just as an audience, but when it came to buying art, it was a bit more difficult. But as art has become more borderless with street culture, I think there are more opportunities to come into closer with them. In the past, even if you put artwork on a t-shirt, it wasn't linked to the original artwork. In the past, even if you put artwork on a t-shirt, it wasn't linked to the original work, but as the people who were buying the t-shirts at the time were able to afford it, the original work started to sell. I didn't really think about the timing of it at all, it just happened that the circumstances coincided at the right time.

Kosuke Kawamura, artist

- When do you really feel that?

K: The growth of social media is a big thing. The only way to present my work overseas in the past was to bring it myself and build my own network there. But with Instagram in particular, we can communicate through images, so I think there are more opportunities for people to find out about me and my work, even if it's not their intention. Even outside of Japan, I've had conversations with people like "I'm following you on Instagram”, "Thank you".

Collaboration with Katsuhiro Otomo and the changes in the art environment

- When do you think you had your breakthrough as an artist?

A: Yeah, that's what I want to hear. I feel like you've been around a long time.

K: By the time I was about 25, I was finally able to make a living just doing graphics without a part-time job, but even then it wasn't like my artworks were selling. I was recognized in certain underground scenes, but when I did the "GENGA Exhibition" with Otomo-san in 2012, it really changed things. I thought to myself, "I never thought this could happen", and suddenly I started to get a lot more jobs.

A: When it comes to Otomo-san, you get a lot of international attention, don't you?

K: Even then, my work didn't sell at all. Since around 2015, I and other artists of my generation started to make some money. But back then, the price was still 50,000 yen or 200,000 yen at the highest. If I could sell half of my work at a solo exhibition, I was happy.

A: It was like a big success, wasn't it?

- On the same street culture context, MADSAKI-san's situation changed drastically around 2017 when he started to show his works from Kaikai Kiki Gallery. I heard Kawamura-san's work at this time has been already all sold out, including some very expensive works, so it's like a parallel universe compared to the situation 10 years ago from my perspective. But of course, it's a very positive move.

A: That trend has been accelerating over the last few years.

- It seems to me that Japanese fashion used to be much more globally popular like the Urahara brands, but now art is becoming more global. I have the feeling that Japanese fashion has become a bit closed culture, and I'd like to help change that as a media. So how did you see Kawamura-san amid such an upsurge art market?

A: Kawamura-kun has a strong style or technique using shredded collage. It's easy to recognize him when you see his work, and he can collaborate with both fashion brands and other artists. I thought he was an artist who could cross the barriers in a way that ordinary painters couldn't.

- As Arai-san says, art is all about originality and context, isn't it? Where did you feel such aspects from Kawamura-san?

A: Kawamura-kun has a background in punk and hardcore. In that kind of culture in the old days, they used to cut letters and make flyers, and it's still reflected today. It's a different genre, but I felt something close to that. Both in what Kawamura-kun went through and in what I went through.

"It's great to be in a magazine and be famous."

- Kawamura-san, how did you get into Harajuku culture?

K: I was really into it from the beginning. It was Harajuku culture that introduced me to graphics. I was a high school student in Hiroshima at the time, and I found out about graphics through Sukeshin-san, Hikaru-san from BOUNTY HUNTER, Jonio-san (Jun Takahashi from UNDERCOVER) in magazines, and the origin of these cultures were created by Hiroshi Fujiwara-san. But my initial motivation was very impure.

- Which means?

K: I didn't really go to high school and I was always thinking about how I could live without working. I couldn't even last a day at a part-time job, and I couldn't possibly find a job. I was thinking about how someone like that could make a living, and then I read a magazine interview between Sukeshin-san and Hikaru-san. I thought to myself, "Wow, these guys must be rich enough to be in a magazine, but all they do is have fun!”. I even thought it would be great to make money making graphics, be in a magazine and become a celebrity (laughs). So I told my teacher, "I'm going to Tokyo to do graphics". I didn't even know what graphics was.

- That's just so spontaneous (laughs).

K: I finally got into an art school in Tokyo where I only needed to write an essay to apply, but I wasn't sure if I should wear a suit to attend the entrance ceremony or just go in normal clothes, so I ended up not even going to the ceremony (laughs). Even when I went to the class, it was about drawing neat colour gradations, and I thought "This is not what I want to do, I want to do graphics like Sukeishin-san!”, so I quit the school right away.

- Everyone laughs.

K: After quitting school, I was wandering around and I found something super cool at my rich friend's house. It was a Mac G3, which I thought it makes me popular with girls if I have it in my room. I wanted one, but it would have cost me 500,000 or a million yen. So I called my grandfather in Hiroshima, who didn't know that I had quit school yet and asked him to send me 300,000 yen because I had to use a computer at school (laughs).

- It's like a family phone scam! (Laughs)

K: I managed to learn to use Photoshop a little using that Mac. Then, I went to a live music venue to show my work to someone there. I actually wanted to give it to Naohiro Ukawa, the VJ, but I couldn't find the right time. But when I looked at the door, I saw someone I had seen in a magazine, so I asked, "Can you please take a look at this," and it was Ichinose (Hironori) - san from VANDALIZE. Then he said, "That's nice, come visit our office sometime”.

He let me make the graphics for the t-shirts, often treated me to dinner, and helped me with many other things. That was how I spent my years. So I was always hanging around Cat Street in Harajuku, and it's still my favorite spot.

The “punk” story behind the collage and shredder works.

- When did you start using the collage technique?

K: I've been doing collages digitally pretty much from the beginning as I could only use Photoshop to collage different images and put logos on them.

- In other words, you came up with that style because you didn't study graphics properly.

K: Indeed. I didn't learn it from anyone. I started this shredder style about 10 years ago when I made a book of my work. I did it as a way of "escaping" when I published my first book.

A: Is that so?

K: If I was going to publish a book of my work, I wanted it to be thick. So I asked for the maximum number of pages I could afford, but I didn't have enough works for about 10 pages. The deadline was getting closer, and the printers were starting to chase me, and I was like, "Right. I came up with the idea of using a shredder and doing a kind of sand painting to make it look cool somehow". In my mind, I thought the paper would come out of the shredder like a piece of paper, but the shredder in the office I was working in at the time was a vertical type. I thought to myself “Shit, it’s over”.

- Everyone laughs.

K: I was keeping the printer waiting, so I said "I'm working on it now", and I was thinking about it while I was putting the shredded paper together, and I started thinking "this is ...... good". So, I scanned it and used it for the front page.

- I didn't expect it to start that way.

K: But there's more to the story, I was going to throw it away when I got home. I didn't even think it was an artwork. But on the way home I got a phone call from Otomo (Katsuhiro) - san and he asked me " where are you? Let's go for a drink together". By that time we were working together on the "GENGA Exhibition". At the pub, Otomo-san asked me "What do you have there? I told him what had just happened, and he said, “You're still silly as ever. He said, "Let me have a look" and I showed it to him and he said, "It's really cool". I was like, "What? Is it? (laughs). I said, " I'm going to use this as the cover then, can you write the obi ( endorsement ) for it for me and he said, "Sure". That's why the endorsements for my first book were written by Katsuhiro Otomo san and Sukeshin-san. It was a great honour but chaos (laughs).

- Well, that's an episode I can only say "you've got it".

K: So if we talk about how much is my talent or effort and how much is other's help, in my case more than half of it is other people's help.

- How did you come up with this striking "multi-canvas" style?

K: I've been doing this sort of work for a while now, but it came about because I didn't have the money to buy a big canvas at first. I could afford a 30cm square canvas. But in the end, I found that this style matched what I wanted to do. My theme is to create visual bugs in an analogue way, and the multiple canvases make it easier to create those bugs. I think this may be the final form of expressing the bugs created by shredding, digital and analogue.

- I think it's a very “punk" idea to create a way out of “I didn't have the money".

Outsiders create the future

- You're now exactly where you thought you'd be when you were in high school: having fun while doing a cool job and making money, just like Sukeshin-san and Hikaru-san.

K: I don't think I've gotten to that point yet, but I've learned that it's really hard when you start getting into it (laughs).

A: You're really busy, Kawamura-kun! You always have several projects going on.

K: I didn't want to work that much, but now I'm a super workaholic. But I feel weird if I don't go hang out, so I still do. I go out every day, I sleep well, and I work a lot.

- But I think people someone like you create the times. I think it's the way of the world that "outsiders create the future.

A: That’s true, people being active at the forefront are all outsiders.

- Have you changed the way you feel or think now that you are sought after by the world as an artist?

K: I don't think anything has changed. I am not sure where I stand now, and what I am doing is the same. But it's a strange feeling that people who don't know me know me.

- If this exhibition is your "present", do you have any plans for the next one?

K: Yes, I think so. And I feel that I have to continue to make progress.

A: When we were talking about this project, we actually had something completely different in mind. But we both forgot about it and only just remembered it earlier.

K: We were like "Oh, yeah, ......!" (laughs).

- Then maybe we can see it next time you have a solo exhibition at Gallery COMMON.

K: Let’s do.

A: We were talking about it a lot and the conversation took off.

- Then I'll put this in this interview for sure (laughs).

K: If we read that article and we don't remember it, we are so screwed (laughs).

Kosuke Kawamura
Dates: Saturday 20 November - Sunday 19 December 2021
Address: Gallery COMMON
B1F, 5-39-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-6427-3827

Kosuke Kawamura

Artist / Graphic Designer

Born 1979 in Hiroshima, currently based in Tokyo. As a collage artist, he collaborates with various artists and participates in many both solo and group exhibitions in Japan and abroad. Notable projects include a collage work using Katsuhiro Otomo and AKIRA for the Shibuya PARCO Art Wall project "AD 2019" (2019), and the "AKIRA ART WALL PROJECT" (2019), which toured Tokyo, LA and Milan. He has also done graphic work for many fashion brands, ERECT Magazine, flyers for live performances and events, DVD and CD jackets, book design, advertising design and art direction.

新井暁 Satoru Arai

Vice President, en one tokyo inc. / Director, GALLERY COMMON

Born on March 17, 1983. He has been involved with en one tokyo, a creative agency based in Harajuku, since its early days and is currently the Vice President and Director of Gallery COMMON. He also works with galleries and cultural spots in Harajuku, such as The MASS, SAI, SO1, BA-TSU ART GALLERY, The Corner, Menchirashi and Fuminyugi Lion.

Editor’s Afterword

It's not always the best way to categorise things with words, but I've use the word "Harajuku Art” in the title. Whether it will make it into the mainstream or not, the current situation seems to be a case for giving it that name. Harajuku art has been attracting so much attention, but it is interesting to note that its origins are not in the context of art, but rather in the fashion culture of the Urahara area, and this is probably a fact that is unique even in the world. It’s not that Kosuke Kawamura and Gallery COMMON were born out of nowhere. They are the result of a cultural flow that has been developed in the town of Harajuku. (Takei)