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Interview with Sablo Mikawa: A Unique Cultural Viewpoint Through Oil Painting


Sablo Mikawa utilizes the method of oil painting to create works that connect various kinds of street culture, such as skateboarding and hip-hop. Although it has only been five years since he began his professional career as an artist, his unique painting techniques have garnered much attention. He held a solo exhibition “UNCOUTH FELLOW” at THE _____ GALLERY (THE blank GALLERY) in Harajuku at the end of February, and has since released a new series titled “Giant36.” We were able to sit down with him for an extended interview at the gallery.

― First of all, could you tell us how you first got into oil painting?

“I loved art since I was a kid, and I asked my parents to enroll me in art classes. I studied art from first to sixth grade. At first, I was drawing with crayons and stuff, but there were adults who were painting with oils at the art classes as well as some of the older kids. I told my teacher that was what I wanted to do, and that’s how it all started.”

― Why do you think you were so attracted to oil painting as a child?

“It was this profound feeling. Using a canvas felt more luxurious than drawing on paper – it felt more mature. Also, the fact that there was a certain texture to a canvas was what gave it that official feel of being an artist. It kind of started as an inspiration, something to look up to.”

― After that, did you ever attend art school at all?

“No. After those 6 years in art classes, I haven’t had formal education in the arts. I did occasionally take a few drawing lessons at an atelier, but other than that I’m self-taught. During my 6 years in junior high and high school, I concentrated on Kendo and hardly focused on my art. I’ve been doing oil painting based on whatever I learned at the art class in the early days and here I am now.”

― So that means you got back into art after graduating from high school?

“Yes. After graduating from high school, I wasn’t sure what it is that I wanted to do, so I went on a trip to Europe. When I thought about what I could do there, art was the first thing that came to mind so I started doing landscapes with people I met during my travels and also did pen sketches. During that trip, I met a French designer who showed me his notebook with all of his letterings and illustrations and I was so inspired by that. This guy was a designer, but looking through his work made me realize how important it is to pursue something more specific. I mean, it’s not like I already knew I wanted to become an artist, but after I returned to Japan, I realized there was only art for me and so I put my focus in oil painting. Then in 2014, when I was 27, I decided to fully pursue art professionally.”

― Unlike typical oil paintings, you use a certain kind of motif in your works. When did you start incorporating this in your work?

“When I first started doing art professionally in 2014, I was already creating art based on skateboarding and movies, and also figures in hip-hop. At first, I wasn’t sure what to paint, so I started painting things I liked and was interested in. Through movies, I learned about the skateboarding culture, and realized that people in hip-hop were also skateboarding and that there were artists within the skateboarding community as well. When you learn more about the art community, you realize that it’s connected to the street culture as well. So based on these motifs, I started building my portfolio and solidified my thoughts. That’s how my works came into fruition.”

― When you first started pursuing art professionally, what exactly were you doing?

“I was constantly adding to my portfolio. In 2017, I rented a space in my friend’s art studio and held my first art exhibition called “NOBINOBISHINOBI.” Later in the same year, I rented out a space in a different rental gallery and did a separate exhibition called “SAVAGE TRIBES.” As I was continuing with my career as an artist, these two exhibitions were key points in expanding my career.”

― The first series you put out was called “Clash” where you depicted a skater falling over. How did this series come about?

“Skateboarders, while they understand the risk of getting injured or hurt in the process, still challenge themselves with new techniques and tricks. To put it simply, a skateboard is a tool, but the person that uses it puts so much energy and passion into it. And to depict this intense passion, I wanted to paint scenes where the skater is falling over and in pain rather than when they succeed at a certain technique. I thought by painting these kinds of scenes, the viewer might understand how much risk these skaters are putting themselves in for the sake of their craft. Also, until the skater masters a certain trick, they’re bound to fail multiple times until they achieve success and I wanted to paint the seriousness of the process. This is something that comes from my personality, but instead of always showing perfection, I think it’s much more relatable and human to show the failures and the awkward moments.”

― By the way, do you have any models that you use for your work?

“I rely on models through YouTube videos. I’m actually not that great at skateboarding myself, so I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to watching skateboarding videos online. And sometimes, there are videos where the skater falls or messes up, so I screen shot those moments and recreate my favorite shots through oil painting.”

― The next series you worked on was called “Y.b.n.s.,” (Yabanese) correct?

“Yes. This particular series was inspired by my childhood experiences. I think I was still in kindergarten. My parents took me to Disneyland, and this is based on the pirates I saw in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The figures on the ride were so lifelike and had the creepiest expressions, and as a kid I was terrified of them. But after the ride was over, I still felt a sense of excitement from it. That always stayed with me. While I was always fascinated by how lifelike the pirates were, I also appreciated how creepy they were. I used that as inspiration and created characters similar to those pirates but with a modern twist and created my own original species. From the Japanese words for “savage” (yaban), and crazy (yabai), I called them the “Yabanese.”

― And the series after that, “Hard liner,” has a very Showa Period feel to it. How was this series created?

“I depicted the 70s and 80s eras that my father grew up in. At first look, they look like delinquents, but they’re supposed to be tough Japanese male figures who depict the cool & tough guys from the Showa Period. They’re all wearing some version of the “gakuran” Japanese school uniform, but I’ve lengthened or shortened the hem, made the pants with a round silhouette, etc. I thought it was very Japanese that all these versions of the uniform were all grouped together as the gakuran. Very simple and very minimal. This is uniquely Japanese and is actually quite interesting as an element of Japanese culture. And through this vision, I sought after this “tough” image and created “Hard liner.”

― Please tell us about your other series “Kung fu.”

“While I was attending art classes in elementary school, I was also learning Shorinji Kempo, which is the modern Japanese martial art based on Shaolin kung fu. I was a huge fan of Jackie Chan and kung fu movies at the time. In my late tens, I discovered the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, and I was so inspired by their music videos. The fact that these American artists incorporated Asian kung fu in their music, while being high-quality and unique was so new to me. I thought this was an excellent example of a certain ethnicity utilizing elements from another culture. I personally loved kung fu, the relationship between master and apprentice, the fights, the training, and I wanted to incorporate all of these elements into my artwork. Also, after being inspired by Wu-Tang Clan, I also borrowed from the idea of certain ethnicities utilizing elements from other cultures, of Japanese in B-boy outfits, or black people doing kung fu.”

― So, how did this new series “Giant36” come about as the main attraction for this exhibition “UNCOUTH FELLOW” ?

“At first, I went with the flow. I really like large creatures and figures, anything huge in size. I used something dynamic like that as my motif and wanted to create something that would be iconic. So I photographed myself and transformed myself into a giant through painting. The reason why I made my head look smaller was to make myself look more like a giant, and went to the extreme. I was trying to make it look cool in terms of balance, but when I really looked at my creation, it didn’t look as strong as a giant might normally look. But this sense of unbalance kind of creates an uncouth feel that can be seen in humans and I liked that.”

― Change of subject – you were responsible for the artwork for Dengaryu’s E.P. “Simple Man.” Could you tell us how this came about?

“One day, I received an email from Dengaryu’s manager asking me create the artwork for his E.P. cover. I immediately responded in the affirmative. I didn’t ask details at the time but I think they learned about my artwork through Instagram and it seemed like they appreciated my “Kung fu” series. He requested artwork in the black and white style and the rest being up to me. But whenever I get requests from clients, I always want to make sure they are satisfied with my work, so I asked him if there were any example images he had in mind. He then sent me a photo of Dengaryu in a parka holding an umbrella and said, “I’d like something that would make me look like a samurai holding an umbrella like this.” That’s why the final product is mainly based on Dengaryu’s initial proposal. Although the back and forth was between the manager and me, I was told that Dengaryu himself was very satisfied with the final image. I felt a huge sense of satisfaction.”

― What would you like to express through oil painting?

“Right now, I really want to paint people at their most awkward or charming moments, but in unique ways through oil painting. All of my work displayed at this gallery depicts exactly those things, and there are always human figures in each piece. Even in my “Giant36” series, I’ve painting a person’s most awkward traits, or a man’s uncouth characteristics, which is why this exhibition is titled “UNCOUTH FELLOW.”

― In the very beginning, you mentioned that you never had formal art training, but now that you are a professional artist, do you think this was a good thing for you? Or not so good?

“I think it was better for me. Because I didn’t have proper art training, I believe my art is a bit rough on the edges. So when I have to come up with a new idea, I really have to think hard about it and that’s actually the fun part. Even with “Giant36,” I of course don’t know the proper way to draw a human body because I didn’t have a formal art education, so if someone who did saw my art they might think, “This looks weird!” But this is the motif in which I want to paint my figures and it’s the only way I know how and that’s probably why it’s uniquely my own.”

― And lastly, please tell us if there is anything you’d like to do in the future.

“I want to strengthen what I already have of this current series, and do even more exhibitions in the future. Also, this might not happen anytime soon but I’d love to look into art history and just art itself a little bit more. Up until now, I’ve always just painted whatever I wanted or whatever popped up in my mind, so with a little more knowledge I’d love to compare it with what I’ve created so far and figure out what it is exactly that I should do.”

【Infromation of Sablo Mikawa】

Instagram: @sablomikawa1987

writer: Kiwamu Omae