Interview with Dragon76: A Japanese Artist’s Success Story In New York & The Theme of Coexistence
Dragon76 is an artist who expresses himself through murals, mixing different ethnicities, cultures and messages with his own unique lines and colors, as well as improvising directly with live painting. Known for doing artwork for CD covers and producing art that is heavily connected to music, he moved to New York in 2016 and has since expanded his artistic field. And during his triumphal return to Japan this February, we were able to interview him before his live painting event set to take place at the Grassroots in Yokohama.
―When did you start drawing/creating art?
“Before I even decided I wanted to do art for a living or even consciously thought of doing art in general, I always loved copying art my favorite manga or movies. Like ‘GUNDAM,’ ‘Dragon Ball,’ ‘Fist of the North Star,’ ‘JOJO’s Bizarre Adventure,’ and such. In terms of movies, I used to buy this cinema magazine called ‘ROADSHOW’ every month, and if I found any visuals I liked I would copy those too. And like that, I just fell in love with the process of copying images I liked. And before I realized it, I would be drawing on my bedroom walls. That’s the kind of kid I was growing up.”
―From there, when did you start pursuing art seriously?
“While doing art, I was also active in punk, thrash metal or hardcore bands, and also dabbled in soccer. Then I vaguely decided I wanted to do something I love for a living. When I graduated high school and I had to choose a career path, it became quite common for my peers in my hometown of Shiga to gradually make their way to the city for work and school. And while I was thinking of doing something in Osaka, I thought, ‘Well, I love drawing… maybe I could go to art school and eventually do art for a living.’ But nothing was set in stone yet. But I did know I didn’t want to do it for the fame – I hoped to do design work or something and live a fun and happy life (laughs).”
―So after you attended art school in Osaka, is that what triggered you to pursue a career as an artist?
“School taught me about technique and art history and the like, but I just wasn’t that interested in learning. I never took my art education seriously, and for a short period, I did some graffiti art on the streets. But that’s when people around my age who were interested in doing art would gather around. I was inspired by these guys, and it was like a daily battle where I would continuously polish my technique. At first, I strived to create better art than the other artists around me, but after a while, I wanted to be more famous for my work. So because of that, I wanted to be better than all those other artists out there, like ‘I want to be better than that guy,’ and I started setting higher goals for myself.”
―When did you discover street art?
“Around the end of junior high school, or early high school when I was really active in my band. At the time, many of the CD covers of hardcore bands were illustrated, and I was very inspired to draw similar images. Because of this, I started doing illustrations for event flyers during art school in Osaka.”
―Is it safe to assume that music was a huge inspiration for your artwork?
“Yes, I think so. I used to do music, and the amount of inspiration I received from CD cover art and any art related to music was huge. And the events I would do live paintings and such would usually be at music festivals or clubbing events, places where music was the main attraction. From there, I started doing more artwork for artists’ CD covers. That’s why I feel like I will always have a special connection to music, and I’m very conscious about the fact myself.”
―How has your artistic style taken root as we know it today?
“My artistic style has always been rooted by a specific concept, not by some kind of whim. My biggest theme is “coexistence” and I’ve been creating artwork based on this theme for a long time. To express this theme of “coexistence,” the artwork will be shown differently based on a technique I’ll be using at the time or my artistic style. At first, I was focusing on the coexistence of humans and nature, but it has since then become a bigger image in my mind, like past and future and the time axis, like everything is coexisting. Especially now that I’m based in New York, I see so many different ethnicities from all over the world in one place, and everyone is creating through these different cultures. And by using my identity as a Japanese person, I hope to mix in cultures from other countries and present my art in new ways.”
―Did your participation in “POW! WOW! JAPAN 2015” trigger your move to New York?
“When I participated in ’POW! WOW!’ I was already considering moving overseas and figuring out how to obtain a visa. And even before that, I was vaguely imagining myself speaking English and working overseas. I got married in 2000, and already I was telling my wife, ‘I want to do my art in New York one day.’ It’s just that I wasn’t really concerned with the details of how I would go about doing that. I only had a general goal in mind of ‘taking on the world’ one day, if you will.”
―What was it that triggered you to want to work overseas?
“In my late twenties when I was really focused on my artwork, it was just a vague thought in the back of my mind, but after a while when it became easier to look up information about the art scene overseas on the internet and social media, I thought, ‘How much would the world respond to my work? I want to see how far I can go!’ These feelings became stronger as time passed. And as I was approaching my forties, I knew I had to take that big step forward. I talked to my family and they all supported my decision – that’s when I started thinking about the visa.”
―So that’s why you obtained your artist visa.
“When I realistically began to look up how I could move to New York and do my artwork there, I realized I would need an artist visa to do so. And in order to obtain a visa, I would need letters of recommendation from overseas companies, and show proof through job letters that I would have work during my time there. From there, I took on as much work as I could that would help me obtain the visa, such as working for big, well-known companies and prioritizing that work no matter how busy I was. In the end, I successfully obtained the visa, but a large part of that was possible with the help and understanding of my family.”
―After you moved to New York, what was the environment like for you as an artist?
“It’s a great environment for doing art. Everything moves so quickly so when someone likes your art and something fits you, you can quickly turn it into work. I get emails saying, ’There’s a new project coming up and we’d love for you to take it on.’ If it matches my conditions, I’ll do it. But if I hesitate and respond to it too late, I’ll get responses like, ‘Oh, someone else got the job already.’ But everyone is frank over here so no one gets attached to one thing. Even if you respond to a job offer too late and another person gets the job, it doesn’t mean that the client will never contact you again for future work – they will still contact you again if the job description fits you. But if you respond too late, the job flows on to other people so if I really want a job I know to respond ASAP (laughs).”
―Are there any connections between artists?
“My English isn’t that great yet, so I can’t communicate the way I want to most of the time and I have to use gestures and the little English I know. I do get offers from American artists to collaborate so I get to work alongside other artists quite frequently. And also, when it comes to art we use the same artistic terms despite the different languages so we know what the other is trying to communicate. Creating art with other artists is always fun for me.”
―Also, can you describe your work environment, your atelier?
“I live in Queens, New York with my family of 4, and I use one of the rooms in our house as my atelier. But last year actually, when I was commissioned by the World Trade Center to do a mural, they really liked my piece. That time, I was able to use an entire floor in the World Trade Center as my atelier where the wall was. At first, I was thinking of using the space for something else, but I received advice on how I could best use the space. I ended up sharing the whole floor with a female Korean artist. It’s a very large space, and it’s actually quite hard to use it all (laughs)!”
―That’s really amazing you have an atelier inside the World Trade Center… Can you please tell us about your piece “HOPE” that you created for the World Trade Center?
“After the Tōhoku Earthquake in 2011, there was a charity event in Yokohama. I used the artwork I did for the event at the time as the base but updated it with my current artistic style. In addition, I included the different languages of the different people living in New York and transcribed it into music. I imagined a scene where different people of different ethnicities are gathering, armed with different instruments and playing one melody, and traveling together as one group. There are so many immigrants in New York and while there are permanent residents among them, others will continue traveling to other places. I made an analogy to a journey. People with different identities coming together and producing a universal sound, creating something together. So essentially, all these different people creating a culture that is New York – this is what I had in mind when creating the piece.”
― Winning “Art Battle” really triggered your path to fame in New York. Can you tell us the story behind your participation in “Art Battle?”
“When I first moved to New York, I immediately found out about ‘Art Battle.’ I pretty much went to New York with no concrete plans, so I thought I should try anything I could to get my name out there. So when I applied for it, I passed. Apparently, there were a lot of applicants and then there was a judging panel. Only about ten participants were selected. The participants were divided into two blocks, and five of them had to paint on stage at a time in a 20-minute time frame. There was no particular theme for the artwork, as long as it is finished in 20 minutes in whatever style the artist chooses. 1st place and 2nd place was awarded within the 5 participants, and the remaining four competitors from both blocks entered the final round based on the audience’s vote. So that’s how I won my first ‘Art Battle’ in New York. And after that, I also won a championship tournament in New York with former champions. Last November, the first American National Championship tournament took place in LA. I competed as the representative from New York and I won that too. That’s how I became the first American Champion for ‘Art Battle.’”
‘Art Battle’ in New York, 2017
― After winning your first New York tournament, you haven’t lost any since then. What do you think is the reason for your victorious streak?
“Live painting is actually more advanced in Japan. Americans want to paint on bigger walls and in reality, have more opportunities to paint on big walls. But in comparison, there are fewer opportunities to take the time to paint on large walls in Japan, which is why doing live paintings in short time frames became the norm. I’ve been doing live paintings in that style in Japan for over 10 years, so I think that’s why it was easier for me to allocate the short time frame of 20 minutes smartly during the competition. Artists who do live paintings in Japan encourage each other and better their own craft in the process. When it comes to large murals, there are so many talented artists in America but when a time limit of 20 minutes is added, I know there is no way I could lose.”
― For example, the graffiti culture is strongly ingrained in America, but this is different from what you were asked to do in “Art Battle,” correct?
“Yes. In “Art Battle,” they prepared the materials for the participants to use. With only paint and brushes – no spray paint was allowed. The materials provided were my specialty so it was definitely in my favor.”
―What makes live painting so interesting?
“The amount of improvisation that comes in during the time crunch, or the ‘air’ of the space where the live painting is taking place is very important. Whether it is the music playing in the background, or the atmosphere. Accessing the atmosphere and imagining what I can create is what excites me. I mean, I do have my own artistic style, but on top of that, you have to factor in what you can come up with in that day, what will come out of it. I think that’s what the audience and I look forward to. I think it’s most interesting when you can come up with a unique, one-of-a-kind piece that can only be created that particular day.”
― Before you do live paintings, how much do you prepare in advance?
“Sometimes I don’t prepare at all. On days where I want to try out a new style, I do a quick sketch first to see what it might look like. But there’s no fun in deciding 100% what I’m going to paint beforehand, so I’ll go on stage with some room for improvisation. Sometimes, I’ll draw a line or something that was not what I imagined, but afterward, I’ll actually think it looks cool. A lot of good stuff comes from accidents. And from these accidents, I’ll create new styles. There are many things I learn about myself through this process, so live paintings are very good for experimenting. Today, for example, I’ll be able to use a lot of the skills I acquired in New York for the first time in a while in Japan. I hope to showcase my style with everything I’ve done so far.”
― Do you have any goals or challenges you’d like to take on?
“Right now, I’m really interested in 3D. I’d love to create characters from my works and put them out in a lot of places. I’m actually in the process of creating figures, and I’m interested in displaying large-scale versions of my figures. One other thing I’d like to do is do an immense mural. The biggest mural I’ve done by myself is one that I did in Denver, Colorado at a mural festival called ‘CRUSH.’ That one was 12 meters tall and 35 meters wide but I want to make something even bigger than that. Also, like at the World Trade Center, I’d love to create art at symbolic places around the world to spread a positive message. This June, I’m planning on doing my first solo art exhibition in the South Bronx. I’d love to do more exhibitions in the future as well.”
【Information of Dragon76】
Translated by Samantha Mariko
writer： Kiwamu Omae