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A solo exhibition "Shrine SKATE SHOP" will be held January 8, the first project of 2022, an art show to enjoy the world of artist SNEAKERWOLF. We visited his studio for this project, which is based on the concept of "a skate store in the Edo period, like a shrine"

Drawing is necessary to keep myself alive.

――Wolf, please tell us about the first thing that you drew that planted the seed of creation in you.

I think that's how a lot of people start out, but I've loved drawing for so long that I can't even remember. I think it probably started out as something like drawing Gundams on a blank piece of paper on the back of a newspaper ad (laughs). The people around me encouraged me, and when I entered elementary school, I started drawing things like Kinnikuman, or whatever my friends asked me to draw. I didn't get paid like now, but I was always being asked to do things, and I think even though I was a kid I had a little bit of a sense that I was taking on work. I lived with the feeling that I had to draw because I had a lot of work that was being asked of me, and that deadlines were looming. However, I won a bunch of art awards at school, so I did receive some kind of public recognition. But after that, in junior high and high school, I got into American culture like skating and music, and I started to draw less and less.

――Did you ever find it irritating when they asked you to draw things?

I think I was rather happy. They were happy when I drew stuff for them, so I raised the bar higher and higher for myself. I couldn't give them something I wasn't good at, so I worked really hard at drawing, which helped me improve my skills. I was not very athletic. When I look back, I realize that some people don't feel that they are particularly good at anything. However, I was lucky to be able to make people happy by drawing pictures, and I think that was my raison d'être.

――You mentioned that you didn't draw as much after you got into skateboarding. After focusing on other things for a while, when did it finally lead you to a career in drawing?

Actually, I had been thinking about going to art school since I was in junior high school, and I wanted to get a job that involved drawing. However, when it came time for me to decide what I wanted to do after high school, I couldn't go to art school due to family reasons. At that time, I decided that I had enough of going to art school. I couldn't go to a vocational school either, so it was hard for me to find a job related to drawing. So, I drew even less. I became obsessed with skateboarding and music, but it didn't lead to a job. However, as I fell in love with the Urahara culture through those things, I thought that I could make use of my abilities by making T-shirts just like the foreign skate brands and Harajuku brands. There were people who made graphics only with computers, but I thought I could just make my graphics by hand. That way, I could get back to drawing. I was also influenced by skaters from overseas like Mark Gonzalez, who drew pictures and played music. I always knew that I wanted to paint and do that kind of work, but to be honest, there was a long period of time when it didn't work out.

――Back when you were still in school, do you remember when it clicked in your head that you could connect your obsession with skateboarding to graphics and drawing?

I fell in love with skateboarding back when I started using hip-hop songs in my videos, and oversized pants were in fashion. Looking back now, I remember that I really liked Keith Haring when I was in elementary school and wore a lot of his T-shirts. At that time, I bought a lot of clothes and goods. I didn't think of it as graffiti art or street art, I just liked the visuals. Later, when I got to junior high, I found graffiti art, like drawing characters on trains, to be very fresh. Information is not as easy to come by as it is now. I think I got interested in both graffiti and skateboarding at the same time, because my only source was Thrasher Magazine. I thought the dirty, delinquent feeling of the streets was really cool. I watched skate videos and listened to the music and was really drawn to the graffiti in the videos, I thought that everything from Japan was lame (laughs). I just thought that American delinquent stuff looked cool. That's why I've liked villains in anime since I was a child, like Char in Gundam and other anti-heroes. I guess that's how I came to think that bad guys were cool.

―――How did you enjoy the early 90's, when the Tokyo Street scene took off?

Originally, it was an extension of the American culture, and I got to know about it through a magazine called Takarajima, where FIJIWARA Hiroshi and TAKAGI Kan had a series called "Last Orgy" that introduced interesting information about foreign culture, music, and things. There was a store called Londis that sold Good Enough and NIKE, and I liked it a lot, so I went there a lot. After that, JONIO and NIGO®︎'s "LAST ORGY2" started, Nowhere was born, and the number of brands increased. As the so-called Ura-Harajuku culture was gaining momentum, I thought I might be able to use this field to express my urge to draw, and that I would like to get into it myself. In the same way that young people in the U.S. who couldn’t go to art school sought salvation in graffiti art, t-shirts may have been the answer for me in Tokyo.

―――How did you get involved in the fashion industry from there?

When I was frustrated because I couldn't go to art school, I felt that fashion was the place where I could make use of my drawing ability, but I couldn't work for the brands that were out there, so I tried imitating them when making my own T-shirts. At first, it didn't sell at all, so there was no way I could keep doing it (laughs). But at that time, the market itself was growing, especially in Ura-Harajuku, and there was a rapid increase in the number of brands, so much so that even people like me were able to create brands. Gradually, I started receiving requests from people who were trying to start up their own brands to draw graphics for their T-shirts. In retrospect, it really started out the same way as when I was in elementary school and was asked to draw pictures for my friends. After that, I was asked to do graphics for various companies, and eventually I was able to make a living. At the beginning I wasn't able to make a living at all, so I was still working part-time. But then I started to be asked to do big jobs, such as graphics for NIKE AIR FORCE1 UENO SAKURA and a window painting for Supreme.

――When did you start using the name "Sneaker Wolf"? Also, why did you start exhibiting your art pieces?

I think it was for a special feature on sneakers in a magazine, and I was asked to do a feature on Mita Sneakers and some of my friends in the area. When I filled out the questionnaire, I wanted to use something cool, like a stage name. I just took the name of a hip-hop group I liked at the time called PEANUTS BUTTER WOLF. That was probably about 20 years ago. It's just a random name. I could have stopped using it whenever (laughs). I've never had anything that triggered a sudden increase in work for me. It's always been the people around me who ask me for work, and I've lived my life by doing my best to respond to them and make them happy, like a craftsman who paints commissions. During that time, I also drew on walls and did some small exhibitions, but I never thought of it like being an artist. I was just doing it as an extension of graphics. On the other hand, I made small art pieces and drew in my sketchbook all the time, although I never published them.
However, I have respect for artists, and also some cynicism and jealousy. I also felt that I should not call myself an artist because I didn’t go to art school. Besides, I could get away with it by saying, "I'm not an artist”. If I didn't like what I made, I would say to myself, "I'm a craftsman, not an artist”. If the client is okay with it, then it's okay. In extreme cases, you can get away with saying I'm just doing what I'm told. But, in my case, there were many jobs where I was allowed to express my own style, so I was treated as an artist even if I was only drawing what was asked of me. Even if I wasn't satisfied with the work, as long as the client gave the OK, it was done. But if it's not good, you have to take responsibility for it.
The people around me think I'm an artist, but If I said that, it would seem like I was running away. I really don’t like that, and I think I was in between; I didn't want to have to explain that I wasn't an artist, and I didn't want to feel like I was responsible for what I was making because I was only drawing what was asked of me. Around then, I happened to read a book and found out that YOKO Tadanori was 42 years old when he declared himself a painter. At the time, I was the same age as him, so I decided to stop messing around with annoying things and do what I liked. That's when I started doing art like painting on canvas.

――What is the difference in enjoyment between creating art for yourself compared to creating art for a client?

Creating an art piece is interesting and fun. I just have to take full responsibility. I guess I'm happy with the work I'm commissioned to do, but it's not fun. However, I don't have to take all the responsibility. I do it while thinking it's not fun, but drawing is necessary to keep myself alive. It was the only way I could do it, or rather, I had a lot of bad experiences when I was young, and the act of painting, which has been with me since I was a child, is the only thing that is essential for me to keep myself alive. Even if I am asked to do something as a job, the act of drawing is what saves me. I don't really enjoy the act of drawing when I am asked to do so. However, as I have been doing since I was in elementary school, it is absolutely necessary because it is like proof of my existence. But maybe it's easier. It's easier than setting up a concept and taking full responsibility for it (laughs). As I said before, I don't have to take responsibility (laughs). Besides, I'm always happy when I'm asked to do something. That hasn't changed since I was in elementary school.

The simpler the better.

――I think the art pieces in this exhibition come with a lot of responsibility, is that a painful thing?

Painting is a necessity, yet creating an art piece is tremendous suffering (laughs). Happy suffering. I am very grateful to be asked to do a solo exhibition, and to be able to exhibit my work for a living. However, every time I try to do something new, it makes me very anxious. I also have a responsibility to the people who see my paintings and feel something about me. I am a very craftsman-like person, so I am very particular about the quality of my work, and I feel a responsibility not to produce something that is not good enough. For example, I think about the people who buy the T-shirts I make, the people who come to see my paintings, and the people who buy my paintings. Regardless of whether it's about me or about anything else, I'm always concerned about the background and the shadows. If a college student were to buy one of my T-shirts for 5,000 yen, he or she would have to work for five hours to earn that amount. For me, it might be 5,000 yen that I get from a quick drawing. I am conscious that I want to make sure I don't make that mistake. That 5,000 yen is just an exchange of money, but I think it is an exchange of time in a person's life. Maybe it's five hours of work under a boss you don't like, but you have to do your best to make sure that the person is happy with the purchase or the visit. Since I have such a strong sense of responsibility and awareness, in areas other than production, I feel more pressure than suffering, but I think this is also essential.

――Is there any meaning or significance in holding the exhibition at the beginning of this year?

Personally, I could have done it any time, but I didn't want it to be a self-indulgent exhibition. I don’t feel like I'm making “Japanese” things at all, but people look at me as a Japanese person, and I wanted to liven up DAYZ, so I suggested holding it in January, during the new year celebrations. Rather than having a special reason why I really wanted to hold the event there, I decided to hold it in January because I thought everyone would simply enjoy it.

―――How did you come up with the theme for this exhibition?

I have been making a lot of large pieces lately, so I wanted to make something with smaller pieces. The time of the exhibition was going to be around New Year's Day, so when I was thinking about a work related to that, I realized that when people go to a shrine for New Year's, they buy an ema (votive tablet), write their wishes on it, and tie it to the shrine. That's how I first came up with the idea of making the art piece the size of an ema. In this exhibition, I felt that the act of buying an already decorated ema, which is the complete opposite of the usual practice, was very street-like. I thought it wouldn't be interesting if I made it with ema, so I made it with used skate decks to express myself and Miyashita Park, and I fleshed it out from there. It was more of a concept than a work. DAYZ is not a place to look at pictures one-by-one, and since it's New Year's, I hope to put everyone in a happy mood.

Interview & Text : Yu Yamaki
Photo : Ryutaro Izaki