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Track Light Interview #11—> Natsuki Otani (Japan)

“Land of the Rising Zine” cover art by Natsuki Otani from the charity zine for the Japan tsunami appeal by Illustration Rally blog.

 

The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery from their various places around the globe.

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Today, I talk with Japanese born/Sweden-based illustrator Natsuki Otani.

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Journey to the West

 

John: Kon’nichiwa and Hej! Let’s start with your growing up in Japan and eventually ending up in Sweden.

Natsuki: Sure. I was born in Tokyo and was living with my parents and brother when I was very young. Unfortunately my father passed away when I was fourteen and I guess that event shaped me to be a bit more independent than other girls my age.

When I was twenty-one, I enrolled in Norwich University of the Arts (in England) to study graphic design, and that’s where I met my husband. He’s a game designer, and people in the games industry seem to work everywhere in Europe. So the same happened with him. After getting married in England we moved to Portugal, Germany, and then finally Sweden because of his work. And all during that time, I was freelancing as an artist.

 

“Ryo” collaboration with La Mode Outré.

 

John: When did you begin drawing?

Natsuki: No one in my family was the artsy type, so I’m not sure where my interest in art came from! But I remember drawing some anime characters for friends when I was a kindergartner, and getting some nice praise! That definitely encouraged me to like drawing more.

Most of the prefectures in Japan have some high schools that focus solely on music or art courses. So when I was in my teens, I decided to go to an art high school in Tokyo. My first formal art training would have actually been in preparation for this school’s entrance exam. It involved pencil drawing and still life watercolor painting.

In my art high school we studied all kinds of art, including sculpture, oil painting, and traditional Japanese painting. I originally intended to go to a Japanese art university upon graduation, so again I focused hard on drawing for several years. I would need to pass yet another entrance exam for university! It was common back then for Japanese art student wannabes to spend years training before they actually got into an art uni. But at that point I had had enough of it, so I decided to study in England instead.

By the way, I really liked the first year of the graphic design course at Norwich back then. It allowed students to experience graphic design, editorial design, photography, animation, and illustration before choosing one to continue further in our second and third years.

 

Natsuki’s hand-painted Classic DrawBag.

Style & Influences

 

John: Your work interweaves floral patterns, figures, and animals using a dreamy mix of vibrant, yet muted colors. How did those technical elements come about for you?

Natsuki: I think I always try to create something that can exist only in a piece of artwork. I try to draw visions that I can’t see in the real world but I wish I could see.

John: And you seem to combine elements of the real with the surreal… or beauty with the sinister. What’s the motivation for these sharp contrasts?

Natsuki: The contrast is intended to give viewers something that is familiar amidst the unrecognizable. I think familiarity is very important for illustration and design. That isn’t always the case for fine art. But for design I always like to embed something “real” no matter how surreal my drawings can appear.

 

“My Sweet Boy” illustration for Saji Magazine.

 

“Secret” illustration for the group exhibition, ‘Stephen Chan and Friends Presents’.

 

John: What other artists have influenced you in your journey?

Natsuki: There are countless artistic influences over time, but I try to avoid looking at others’ drawing when searching for inspiration. Instead, I look to things like the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the music of Perfume Genius. They give me so many ideas without limiting my thinking about how to express myself.

John: Several generations of westerners were impacted growing up with Nintendo, Akira, and Studio Ghibli films. Can you comment on the fertility of these unique Japanese creators and innovators?

 

Akira promotional image
Cover of 1988’s animated film Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo.

 

Natsuki: I think Japanese creators are quite fortunate. They have an accepting environment in which to enjoy anime, manga, or even computer games without being discriminated against. They’re also able to use these subcultures to express their artistic creativity.

Playing Nintendo never categorized me as a geek girl. Hiyao Miyazaki’s films were on TV regularly. And Takashi Murakami started collaborating with luxury fashion brands, causing his anime/manga influenced art to enter the mainstream just like Andy Warhol. It’s all quite in sync with the overall culture, rather than against it.

Engineering a Lunchbox

 

John: You and I began brainstorming months ago about a print for the LunchKraft lunchbox. We talked back and forth through various ideas, and you sketched about a dozen possible designs over three rounds of development. The final design will be released in early September 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

John: Ultimately, you settled on one that incorporated a fantastical taiyaki fish bearing a boy and a girl aloft. How did you navigate through that process of development?

 

 

 

Natsuki: Originally you and I had discussed creating a design with a theme like “girl power”. But this then shifted to a more inclusive design for both boys and girls.

John. Yeah. I liked the idea of encouraging boys and girls to really partner together in adventures to make the world a more beautiful place.

Natsuki: Right. But I still wanted to draw something to say that girls can be leaders or heroes in a subtle way. It’s great to have a story that has a clear strong female character such as Wonder Woman but I think it’s also nice to see a more natural representation of girls in leadership roles. Hopefully in time this will simply become the norm.

So I simply drew the girl in the front of their taiyaki airship, to show that she is the one who leads this food adventure they are on! It’s a really simple bit of visual language, but I’d prefer to leave the space for people to read or think about what the design could mean.

I also knew you liked the idea of something a bit like Howl’s Moving Castle so that was one of the visual inspirations. My idea was to draw something to encourage children (and adults) to enjoy lunch or any mealtime, so I drew the boy and the girl in this taiyaki airship as explorers and… evangelists of food in some way to represent that.

Getting Off-Topic

 

John: You know, my interest in portraying boys and girls this way comes in part out of a sense that the sexes don’t seem to get along very well these days. The expectations on one another have grown more and more unrealistic, while the satisfaction in what is delivered has diminished. Things like social media, pop music, Hollywood, and mass media advertising could be blamed for this. But I think these are just the outward expressions of something that has gone wrong inwardly.

A few years ago, I read an article where a number of Japanese young men were expressing great anticipation for better AI and sex-bots. They hoped new advances would produce female companions indistinguishable from their human counterparts (except for being more compliant). This feel a part of movement in recent decades away from flesh-and-blood relationship through on-demand internet pornography, virtual reality, and simulation in things like Gatebox’s “virtual girlfriend” Azuma Hikari. 

 

John: And I know this is not just an issue in Japan, with its decline in romantic relationships and birthrates. We seem to be wrestling at this moment with a tension between the virtual (or imagined) and the real. The former entices us with the promise of engineered perfection to replace the challenges and natural “shortcomings” of our everyday experience.

Our minds have always been able to imagine a more perfect partner when engaged in a dualistic kind of overthinking. But now technology is poised to realize those imaginings through physical forms. But I think that will only lead to more disappointment in the end, rather than satisfaction. I believe that deep satisfaction in life comes from letting go completely of expectations and enjoying the journey, rather than trying to guarantee outcomes we imagine will bring us pleasure.

In short… adventures are what make life meaningful and satisfying! And adventures must have significantly difficult challenges along the way.

Attempting to Define One’s Culture

 

Getting back on track, haha… you’ve travelled to, lived in, and interacted with a number of other cultures. How much do you feel a part of, or not of, Japanese culture?

Natsuki: It may be that I didn’t know how to appreciate my cultural background in my artwork until I started living overseas. For some time I avoiding drawing things that were overtly Japanese in my work unless I was specifically asked to include them. This was because I felt I was taking advantage of something I hadn’t earned myself.

However, now I think Japanese culture is a part of me whether I intend it to be or not. And that culture is something to both cherish as well as experiment with. My artwork is ultimately more an expression of myself than of my country or nationality. But I wouldn’t have learnt this without traveling outside of my own country.

John: And how does that specifically play out in your work?

Natsuki: That’s such a hard question, and I honestly don’t know if it has changed anything in terms of my visual style. It’s definitely influenced my way of thinking and seeing things, though. I think only viewers of my artwork could comment on this, and it would all depend on their personal perspectives of me.

People often find something they would call “Japanese” in my work even though I’ve had no intention of doing this. I left Japan thirteen years ago and rarely speak Japanese these days. It seems to me that my real life journey is lost in translation. But it’s fine to me when this kind of interpretation happens. I like people to interpret my work in their own ways.

 

“Zashiki Warashi” illustration.

 

John: As creative people, do you and your husband want to get all kinds of fantastic art  into your daughter’s life? So she can say she did have an “artsy” family?

Natsuki: Of course we do, but we also want her to experience everything else! As a kid I used to learn about and enjoy Math, English, calligraphy, piano, tennis, kendo, and softball outside of regular school time… some of them I was pretty bad at, but it was still awesome to get to experience so many different things. I’d actually be more than happy if she ends up being sporty instead of artsy!

John: Do you think having a daughter will affect the substance of your art-making in any way?

Natsuki: It’s only been two months since my daughter arrived in our life so it’s a little hard to say what impact she has made to my creativity. I think I’m purely focused on making sure she’s alright at the moment! I never thought about my work being seen by my own children before her, obviously. I’m guessing I’ll be more conscious about creating work that she can be proud of or inspired by.

The design for LunchKraft is the first job I’ve finished since her birth, and I have some wishes for her future within that. I do want her to be a strong girl who can stand on her own two legs, lead her own life, and be able to enjoy and appreciate what she eats. To my husband and me, cooking and sharing a meal together is very important. I believe it’s a celebration of our life so I really can’t wait for her to join us and start using her lunchbox!

Following Up!

 

You can find (and buy) more of Natsuki’s work by checking out her Portfolio,Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook.

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Track Light Interview #10—> Mario Jin (Italy)

Wall mural by Mario Jin in Milan

The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery from their various places around the globe.

<- – – – – 

Today, I talk with Italian graffiti artist and illustrator Mario de Stefani aka Mario Jin.

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John: So where did the name Mario “Jin” come from?

Mario: When I started to do graffiti as a kid in Milan everyone had a tag. So I decided to start with Jin, like the character from the PlayStation game Tekken.

Mario Jin graffito tag on wall
A bit more than a throwie.

Mario: But later I discovered a different meaning for this word: jin, jinn, jinie.

John: You’re sounding like David Bowie there.

Mario: Haha. I mean the djinn or genie. A demon or spirit… like a soul. For me, the meaning was like another way to be myself. Another form in which to express myself.

John: And where did you grow up and do that early tagging?

Mario: I was born in Milan and grew up in the southwestern suburbs there. Now I’m living right here in the city as a senior designer for my firm. It’s my home for now. But I’ve been feeling the need to travel and find and live in new places, too. In the future I don’t know where I will call home.

Wall mural painting of Indian by Mario Jin
A wall mural painted by Mario Jin in Milan, Italy.

John: if you could paint a wall anywhere in the world, where would that be?

Mario: Anywhere! Really. Anywhere.

John: Who do you collaborate with in Milan?

Mario: In Milan there are a lot of great artists I regularly work with. Most of the time it’s Foskia, Yems, Prosa, Daste, Trust, Plinio, Zelig, Draks, Close, Tawa e Dada, Poms, Mr. Pollo, and the 10G crew. We just paint walls together for fun.

Wall mural painting by Mario Jin and Tosk
A wall mural painted by Mario Jin and Tosk in Milan, Italy.

John: And how did you get started painting?

Mario: My aunt was a painter and teacher of art. When I was in her home as a kid I would get alot of inspiration. I was also influenced by manga and hentai growing up. And I started with graffiti in the streets in 1998.

I first started by copying the heroes and protagonists of manga or hentai and cartoons that I read or saw on TV. Some of my favorites were Lupin the Third, Kenshirō from Fist of the North Star, and others from The X-Men and Dragon Ball Z. I remember drawing them everyday on my desk at school. 

Later I started to redraw my friends and brothers in an anime style. And when I discovered graffiti, it opened a new world of inspiration, colors, and ways of expressing myself.

Wall mural painting by Mario Jin
A wall mural painted by Mario Jin in Canarias, Spain.

John: And being Italian, have you been influenced by any of the greats from the past?

Mario: A lot influenced me. I don’t have any specific preferences, but for sure I remember moments like the first time I saw Caravaggio’s paintings or one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces.

John: What are you communicating through your work? Are you?

Mario: Sometimes I work in freestyle simply as pure expression. Other times I think about the sick world in which we live and how I would like to change it. Or maybe that’s just a way I take refuge from it.

John: What do you mean by the world being “sick”?

Mario: I’m talking about a world full of pollution causing global climate change. I’m talking about bad vibes like hate and racism. I feel many people are thinking only for themselves these days.

LunchKraft lunchbox print designed by Mario Jin
LunchKraft Lunchbox screen printed design by Mario Jin.

John: Yes, I remember our first conversation about your design for the LunchKraft lunchbox. I asked you to just come up with something you felt strongly about and would want to communicate even through the canvas of a lunchbox.

Mario: I was thinking about our overuse of natural resources at the time, while also the respect for nature that people can and do have.

John: So the gas-masked figure is trying to protect that fragile bit of nature under the domed glass.

Mario: Yes.

John: I also asked you about drawing that LunchKraft lunchbox into the design itself, because I have some of the same concerns about our use of resources in a consumer culture. Sometimes I wonder if I’m helping or harming by manufacturing anything at this stage in history. I’m hoping to change a certain consciousness about fashion in small ways, but I still wonder.

Mario Jin's Classic DrawBag
A Classic DrawBag hand-painted by Mario Jin.

John: Currently, we don’t really play up the eco-friendly elements of the bags much in marketing. We focus on the art. But maybe we should. It’s been more of an attempted baseline rather than a marketing angle, and in some ways using it to market would feel deceptive to me.

Anyway, yeah… I’m trying to figure these things out.

Changing topics… you and I were talking recently about Playdead’s video game Limbo as well as their (somewhat) more recent release Inside. I brought it up because you had devoted a wall to the former. What is it about these games that have inspired you to reinterpret them in your work?

Wall mural of Limbo video game by Mario Jin
Wall mural painting by Mario Jin inspired by the video game Limbo.

Mario: Yes, I really like these games. The world and characters are so simple yet wonderful at the same time. But the gameplay and the stories are the best things about them. You have to think about how to overcome puzzles all the way up to the end. And the stories are speaking into the darkness of the world that the characters are entering.

I like how their stories inspire my imagination… and not in a way just meant to get you to buy the next episode. They really made me think. I did a piece of work based on Limbo. I think I’ll do another one about Inside also.

John: Cool. You can check out more of Mario’s work on Instagram and his official website.