Interview with Hideyuki Katsumata: A Japanese Fantasy World Painted in Rich Colors
Hideyuki Katsumata’s artistic world is largely represented by “HANAUTAH,” with it’s strong characters and vivid use of color. At times humorous and at other times surrounded by a deep darkness, his fantasy world can seem very similar to the real world. After rising to worldwide fame through his work for popular Swedish band Little Dragon’s music video, Hideyuki has been continuously producing new work, more globally than domestically. In this interview, he talks about his background, how his artistic style has evolved over the years and also his current projects in Asia.
—-First, I’d like to ask a little about your background. Did you like to draw/paint since you were a child?
“Exactly so. I always loved manga, and I would often draw characters from Fujiko F. Fujio’s work or Gundam. I also liked Ukiyo-e and Picasso, 2D artwork that is easy to understand.”
—-How did you become an artist?
“I used to work in in a clothing store, and one of my co-workers would make clothes starting with the pattern. I knew I couldn’t rival someone like that, so I decided to do something I love and that’s when I decided to seriously pursue art.”
—-So even though you’ve been working at the clothing store, you also felt strongly about pursuing an art career?
“Yes, I did. I would doodle often in my sketchbook. But I also had this belief that you can’t do something you love as your career. I was still young at the time and thought that was that, but I learned for the first time in my life that it’s more enjoyable and fun to do something you love the most.”
—-Since you’ve started doing art professionally, what kind of projects have you done?
“The head of the clothing company I worked for was in a band. So because of that, I knew a lot of people in the music industry, and then I started designing flyers for musicians. At the time, I really liked the illustrations this guy TOM made for the jackets S.O.B. (a Japanese hard-core punk band) wore, so I started illustrating monochrome artwork, kind of in the style of strip cartoons. Then I started painting with acrylics on canvas. Around this time I was really into Gauguin so I painted in his style, or created artwork in the style of Egon Schiele. Egon Schiele and hard-core artwork actually have some similarities, like posing for example.”
—-How did your style evolve to what it is now?
“So after that, I was inspired by artists like Barry McGee, and with that I became very interested in American Lowbrow art and subculture. Around this time, I did an art exhibition in Auckland, but there were actually people already doing the same thing in the States. I realized that if I continued in this style, I’d be lost among all these other artists. So I thought, “What is it that I really want to do?” I love Ukiyo-e and Manga, so I decided to shift my artistic style to a Japanese identity. From there I started consciously creating artwork in a more Japanese style.”
—-How did you bring your most famous work, “HANAUTAH,” to life?
“When I was working on an upcoming exhibition, it just came to me in a dream. At first, this creature had a total of 5 arms and legs, pretty scary if you ask me. I remembered what I saw in my dream, and tried drawing it out and as I did, I made some alterations until it became an actual character. It looked like a Japanese demon in the earlier stages, like an egg sprouting arms and legs, but then I realized it would be difficult to attach emotions to something like that. It eventually became what it is now.”
—-What exactly is HANAUTAH supposed to be?
“It’s a creature with horns, almost like a fairy. At first, I was comparing it to the character Moomin. Also, HANAUTAH is not it’s given name, it’s more like categorizing animals by dogs or cats. So I hope you can think of HANAUTAH as a type of creature.”
—-You mentioned that HANAUTAH came to you in a dream. Do you come up with the themes for your artwork in a similar fashion, from within?
“Right. I just don’t want to do something similar to anyone else, so I blocked any kind of external input at one point. I mean, I’m always influenced by outside sources, but I try to play it back to myself, rebuilding it within myself. I want to be able to create my own work from within myself as much as possible. The world view that I’ve created is most similar to the Penguin Village from Dr. Slump. Animism, where many people and living creatures all live in harmony in one world. I really like that concept.”
—-So, your work is based on a fictional world, correct?
“Yes, that’s essentially it. It’s a fantasy within myself.”
—-Your use of color in your work is very unique.
“I’m a huge fan of color. When I illustrate, I don’t draw everything by sketching first. I’ll sketch something out midway, then I’ll start adding the color. I always prioritize color when I create my work. Like, I want this much blue here, or I want this much black, or I want to add some hair here. That’s how I go about creating my work.”
—-Also, you have this ongoing motif with eyes on the palm of the hand – what’s the meaning behind this?
“I’m very particular about this – to me, eyes are like an entrance and exit and thats’ what I like about them. You can take in lots of information by seeing things, and at the same time, you can affect and influence the people around you with your insight. When they’re on your face you have to turn your head to see things, but if they were to be on your hand you can see around you much easily. If you were to have many hands, you can see 360 degrees, that kind of thing.”
—-Changing the subject here – I heard you went to Bangkok recently. How did you make a connection with other countries?
“Even when I was working in Japan, it was still always client first, so whenever I was told to change something about my artwork, my discontent just continued to grow. That’s when I thought maybe I should try expanding my career outside of Japan, so I started with MySpace and uploaded my work there. Then the job offers started coming in from overseas little by little. I was also making videos on iMovie and uploaded those as well, and Little Dragon saw them and asked me to make a video for them back before they became big. So I made the video, and before I knew it they becamse so popular. That’s how people came to know my work.”
—-What do people overseas thing of your work?
“I think they actually like that I’m doing something that is uniquely Japanese and weird. You know, Yōkai(ghost)-like. Also, I get a lot of compliments about my color scheme. They say it’s psychedelic.”
—-It seems like you’re working in other parts of Asia quite frequently – how often do you go during the year?
“About 2~3 times a year now. I go to Taiwan and Thailand the most frequently. Next month (August 2018) I’ll be going to Hong Kong for the first time for an exhibition. I might also go to Thailand one more time before the end of the year.”
—-How did you start going to Thailand so frequently?
“It was right around the time Bangkok’s art scene was coming around. About 5~6 years ago, I went with two others from Japan to do a group exhibition at a gallery in Bangkok. It pretty much started from there. It’s a really interesting culture and has a fiery spirit that I like. As in the States, the artists in Thailand are so well connected, and whenever I visit I get to know more and more artists there. They come to see my exhibitions and I also go see their’s, and that’s how the strong connections are made.”
—-I heard that you’ve paired up with Bangkok artist TRK as a unit called “Stranger Twins?”
“He came to see my exhibition the second time I was in Bangkok, and that’s how we got to know each other. His artwork features a lot of Thai tradition. I’m also doing traditional Japanese artwork, so that’s where we get along well because of the similarities. Also, we both do black & white, and use a similar brush technique. When we are working together, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish our artwork.”
—-Please tell us about your activities in Europe.
“I’ve done exhibitions in countries like France and Scotland, and I do believe that the reactions I receive from the people in Europe are better than those I receive from the States. After my gig with Little Dragon, I also got an offer to work for CUZ, a unit consisting of Mike Watt of Minutemen, a legendary punk rock band, and also Sam Dook of the British band The Go! Team. I became known among punk rock fans as well.”
—-Being well-connected with the music scene is a pretty big deal.
“Music really is important. In Japan, most people don’t know bands like Little Dragon or The Go! Team, but overseas they’re very well known. Also, the artwork for big artists in Japan are different than the ones overseas. In Japan, they’re picky about things like font size, but overseas the artists have more freedom with the artwork.”
—-It does make you wish that art and music could be better connected in Japan, too.
“I actually believe the two are better connected than we think. But like with the art and clothing industry, Japan has these factions. Even if Japanese people were to do something overseas, they stick with the people they know so it doesn’t help elevate the Japanese culture, and doesn’t last long. If there’s a better way to continue sharing it with others, I feel like there would be more people who’d be interested in Japan and therefore making the scene even bigger, but most people in Japan won’t go that far as to do that. So when that happens, it’s just easier for someone like me to just freely do his own thing in a different place (laughs).”
—-Out of all the projects you’ve done overseas, which was the most life-changing for you?
“Doing an exhibition at an art gallery in Scotland called DCA (Dundee Contemporary Arts) was pretty big for me. Even though it’s called a gallery, it’s more like an art museum in this town called Dundee, and it’s just so huge. It’s like the size of two gymnasiums where you can draw on the walls and exhibit your stuff. I actually got on the wrong plane and arrived super late that time. I was originally supposed to have 10 days to get my exhibition ready, but because I was late I really had to power through it.”
—-You were a participating artist for the limited time art gallery “NAKAMA de ART” this spring which was produced by former SMAP member Shingo Katori – how did this come about?
“Since Mr. Katori wanted to do that kind of production, I talked to one of the curators I knew to recommend me as an artist, and he selected me out of many. The exhibition is over already, but I met so many new people and had a great time. I was able to sell all of my work, and I think it was very successful.”
—-For someone as famous as him to start something new – I’m assuming that must be a very good thing for the art scene in Japan?
“Precisely. I’ve painted alongside Mr. Katori, and I realized his immense passion towards art. With someone like him, we can approach art in a completely different way from what the art industry has always controlled up until this point. That’s why I think it would be amazing if there are more people like him.”
—-Is there anything new you’d like to try?
“I’m thinking of trying oil painting. When I went to Thailand I participated in an artist residency, there were a couple of artists that did oil painting. This was the first time I saw someone doing oil painting and I thought maybe it’s something I could also do myself. It might even be interesting to create something in the Japanese style with oils. There was also an artist doing 3D art – that artist let me try out the clay and I really enjoyed it and I might eventually try creating something that is 3D.”
—-Have you ever received formal art training at all?
“Not at all. I’m a high school graduate. I actually wanted to major in art during high school, but since it was Mammoth school only a select number of students could take art classes. When I did the artist residency in Thailand, there were so many famous artists there that graduated from art school, and they were surprised to learn that I’ve never went to college, saying I’m a special case (laughs). Also, when I was once a lecturer at Central Saint Martins, I thought, ‘Is there really anything I could teach these students? If anything, I’d like to learn from them!'”
—-But here you are now, tackling so many projects globally. Is there anything else you’d like to do in the future?
“I’d love to do a large piece of artwork. Like, fill the walls and ceiling in a room with art that is about 400 square feet, kind of thing. Nothing like the Guernica by Picasso, but I’d love to focus all my attention on art based on the theme of peace & love. In reality, if I can eat what I want and can make a little bit of money, I don’t mind being confined in a space like that. I’d gladly work without rest.”
—-By the way, do you constantly work on your art?
“When I have an exhibition coming up I’ll work non-stop, but even if I don’t have deadlines I still create for myself. This is something I’ve been doing for a while, but when I run out of ideas, I sometimes turn to self-portraits. When I do that, I can see myself as I am at that moment. Also, when I’m bored of using acrylic paint, I’ll start drawing with pencils. I’ll also feel like drawing something else when I get bored of continuously drawing HANAUTAH. I’ll trying to find a change of pace for my artwork, but I still go back to it. All in all, I just love art. I’ll just change the materials, the themes. Maybe it’s because I never had a formal education in art. Because I didn’t study art, it’s fun for me to try other things. I get excited over really simple things, like ‘If I create this shape in this way, it turns out really well!’ That kind of thing.”
—-In the beginning of this interview, you mentioned that you’re where you are now because you decided to pursue something that you enjoy the most. What was the best thing that has happened for you after you chose this path?
“Being able to work with Kiyoshiro Imawano. The person who used to be Mr. Kiyoshiro’s manager was also his stylist. He came up to me and said, ‘I’m making boots for Kiyoshiro, and you have really good taste in color.’ I took the drawings Mr. Kiyoshiro drew, traced them and chose the color scheme for the drawings. Then the leather-maker cut the drawings out and created boots out of them. We ended up making 3 pairs of boots that time, but one day, Mr. Kiyoshiro said, ‘Let’s put Katsumata in charge of the next T-shirt design,’ and basically recommended me out of nowhere. So I ended up designing the concert T-shirts, right before he took a hiatus due to cancer. I’ve always looked up to Mr. Kiyoshiro since I was in elementary school. I learned that if you keep on doing something with passion, you may be able to meet the people you most want to meet.”
This interview was brought to you in collaboration with: RFW
【Hideyuki Katsumata Profile】
Japanese artist currently based in Tokyo specializing in Japanese-style art in the broader sense of the term. Creator of “HANAUTAH.”
Katsumata has done exhibitions and mural paintings in cities such as Sao Paulo (Brazil), Oakland (US), Dundee (Scotland), Nantes (France), and Bangkok (Thailand). He has also created art & video content for musicians such as Little Dragon and CUZ (Sam Dook from The Go! Team & Mike Watt from Minutemen).
In 2017, Katsumata did a lecture for South America’s biggest art festival TRIMARCHI DG (Mar del Plata, Argentina) in front of over 2,000 people.
In 2018, he was a participating artist for “NAKAMA de ART,” an art exhibition produced by Shingo Katori.
Since 2015, Katsumata and TRK of Thailand have been holding anual exhibitions in Bangkok as art duo “STRANGER TWINS.”
Translated by Samantha Mariko
writer： Kiwamu Omae