For a city of its size, and the capital of a country with such a strong graphic art tradition, it’s surprising not to see more street art in Tokyo. When you consider the open-air art galleries of Chelsea in New York, Shoreditch in London or Fitzroy in Melbourne, you have to wonder why Tokyo is so lacking in spontaneous, freestyle creativity.
But that would be to overlook the particularities of Tokyo. The murals you see in big western cities might be celebrated by the mainstream today, but until quite recently, street art was criminalized and marginalized there too. Graffiti, street art and murals emerged as responses to living in neglected, rundown parts of town.
Street art would probably have remained a pretty marginal art form, were it not for the western art world. Under a barrage of accusations of being either elitist or obscurantist, the art market has embraced street art as a way of giving itself a shot in the arm.
Japanese artists must look on in wonder at so much bickering and self-consciousness, not to mention so much urban neglect. Tokyo has never had to contend with the kind of urban blight that has disfigured so many parts of London and New York, and as a result, only a handful of Japan’s young artists developed the DIY punk ethos of their peers in the United States, Europe and Australia.
Many of the most talented contemporary artists in Japan are unable to make a living through their art alone. This is partly because small private galleries featuring the work of rising Japanese artists are few and far between.
Manga and anime are so popular in Japan that many artists can readily find work. But that still leaves a lot of anonymous, uninspiring cityscapes, not to mention a lot of artists with ideas that don’t fit in with manga or anime formulas.
The Koenji Mural City Project is an ambitious scheme to cement Koenji’s reputation as a creative hub by beautifying some of its walls in the west Tokyo neighbourhood. Starting in 2016, seven street artists were invited to decorate walls around Koenji. The idea is to turn Koenji into ‘a city of art’ and attract more tourists to the area, while giving local artists a chance to express themselves freely.
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