Ukiyo-e and street culture: NAGA illustrates the intersection between the past and present

People know Ukiyo-e for influencing both western and eastern artists. Today, it’s been established as one genre of art, but initially, it was something with close ties to everyday people. As the word ukiyo-e (浮世) suggests, many of the paintings depict the daily lives of their time. NAGA is an illustrator who makes contemporary art through his interpretation of ukiyo-e, which represents Japan. His illustrations are set in the Edo era, but the people ride skateboards and track bikes, just like in modern times. His work is ukiyo-e which transcends time. We spoke with NAGA, who has updated the artform by interweaving time and culture.

Getting into ukiyo-e while pursuing to become a manga artist

——When and why did you start drawing pictures based on ukiyo-e?

NAGA: 13 years ago, when I was 25 years old. The impetus was when I started working part-time and living at a public bathhouse ran by an older acquaintance’s family; they didn’t have enough hands. That public bathhouse would use underground water in Tokyo, and it was delicious to drink too. They said they wanted to make an advertisement to sell that underground water as drinking water. They asked me to draw an Edo-themed, Tokyo-like design in the style of ukiyo-e since I was good at drawing. I knew about ukiyo-e, but I wasn’t that well-informed about it. I went to a library to read and research books on ukiyo-e to replicate them. [The family] was so happy with it. It was fun for me to draw ukiyo-e too. I’ve been drawing in that style ever since.

——Were you working as an illustrator until you started working at a public bathhouse part-time?

NAGA: I was trying to become a manga artist back then. I used to go to a vocational school for illustrations and manga. I’ve liked drawing from long ago.

——Interesting. What impression did you get when you studied ukiyo-e pictures?

NAGA: I felt like it was the same as manga. Unlike oil paintings and watercolor paintings, you draw the outlining lines first and then apply color afterward. It was easy to get the hang of it.

——I see. Ukiyo-e felt right for you because you could get the hang of it. Do you think ukiyo-e is fresh?

NAGA: I found out about this as I looked into ukiyo-e, but there was strict censorship regarding publications during the Edo period. But some of the art evaded that censorship and snuck in hidden messages. For instance, you could find another meaning by connecting the people and the background. Some have hidden messages written into the small drawings around the title. I thought that sort of discreet mechanism was interesting, so I also include hidden expressions only those in the know could figure out.

——What sort of hidden messages?

NAGA: For instance, a kimono print worn by one skater is the same as a skate brand—that sort of thing (laughs). But it’s usually hard to discern it, so I think even among skate enthusiasts, only those who notice could react.

“What if the Edo period continued until the present day?”

——There are some points only skaters could find out. Have you always liked street culture like skateboarding?

NAGA: Yes. I used to love American culture. When I came across ukiyo-e, I wanted to dig deeper, so I mixed the culture I like and ukiyo-e. For me, it was street culture, like skateboarding.

——What other cultures influence you?

NAGA: Aside from skating and biking, I also like graffiti and hip hop. I reflect things I like—things that surround me.

——Your work is so unique because of how the pedestrians are on their skateboards or track bikes. Is there anything you’re careful about when you mix everyday life from the Edo period with foreign cultures?

NAGA: I sample many famous ukiyo-e pieces usually, and I try not to change the original painting as much as possible. If I change it too much, then the ukiyo-e, the foundation, would become confusing.

——You want people to take notice of your replications instead of obscuring them.

NAGA: Yes. Also, I pursue the theme, “What if the Edo period continued until the present day?” throughout my work. I don’t change the landscapes and outfits to make them more modern, but I implement advanced, foreign things. And I picture and make everyone wear chonmage and kimonos.

——What a unique perspective! What sort of response do you receive from those unfamiliar with ukiyo-e?

NAGA: They genuinely enjoy it. Even if they’re not familiar with ukiyo-e, those who like cultures like skating and music react [positively].

——Your art is like the contemporary version of ukiyo-e. What are your thoughts on traditional Japanese culture?

NAGA: I love it. But if it remains old, then it would be hard for people to understand. That’s why I update it in a modern manner. Ukiyo-e originally depicted [how people lived] back then, so I want to draw paintings that match the current zeitgeist.

Wanting to create ukiyo-e using traditional woodblock print someday

——Is there anything you want to try in the future?

NAGA: I want to incorporate my work into utensils people use daily, like plates and cups.

——Something like practical art.

NAGA: Yes. And I eventually want to make ukiyo-e using a traditional process. The type of ukiyo-e people usually see is made of a woodblock print. But it costs a lot to ask carvers and woodblock printers to do it. I thought about using woodblock print before, and when I asked a carver, he told me that my work was too detailed and that I had to make the lines thicker. He said there were some parts I had to omit too. If I were to make my work using woodblock print, it seems like it might cost too much. It makes you realize that ukiyo-e from the Edo period was a luxurious thing.

——I learned a lot, and I’m looking forward to your woodblock print. Lastly, you’re holding a solo exhibition soon.

NAGA: Yes, it’s my first one in two years. It’s going to be held in two places; at a boutique shop called Tsugiki in Nezu, which has been kind to me from before, and Hedge8, a hamburger shop across the shop. I’ve drawn many new paintings for my Suke~to Hyakkei series, which I’ve been drawing for a while. I’ve also drawn cats as a part of my new animal series. It was postponed because of the state of the emergency announcement, but it seems like I can finally host it. I would love it if people came.

Born in Ibaraki prefecture, currently living in Tokyo. NAGA creates artwork that mixes street culture, which he respects and ukiyo-e. His original style is gaining attention, as seen in his collaborations with fashion brands and commissions for advertising firms.

■Tsugiki and NAGA
Date: June 1st (Tuesday) to June 20th (Saturday)
Venue: Tsugiki / Hedge8
Address: Nezu, Bunkyoku, Tokyo-to 1-23-14 (Tsugiki) / Nezu, Bunkyoku, Tokyo-to 1-22-12 (Hedge8)
Time: 12pm to 7pm
Holidays: Wednesday
TEL: 03-5834-2871 (Hedge8)
*Note that the opening hours might change because of the state of the emergency announcement. Please check Tsugiki’s Instagram for details.

Photography Yuji Sato
Translation Shinichiro Sato

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Shogo Komatsu

Shogo Komatsu is an editor/writer for magazines and web media who works on culture and music articles with a focus on fashion. He’s also involved in the direction of culture-related video content. He spends his days off immersing himself in the great outdoors of the ocean, mountains, and rivers. However, he is fundamentally a homebody and a slow-moving person. Instagram:@showgo_komatsu