Through a chance meeting at Seattle’s First Thursday Art Walk, I recently had the opportunity to interview Jonathan Wakuda Fischer, an artist whose fine art practice has roots in street art culture. It all came about when an upbeat fellow named Charlie Salerno approached my friend and me with his camera ready, complimenting us on our outlandish attire—me in my finest ascot, my friend in his faux fur-trimmed overcoat. This led to a conversation about the abundance of talented artists residing in Seattle. Charlie is particularly keen on street art, and he is so excited about some of Seattle’s street artists that he has brought them into his fold, a national collective known as The Factory New, to showcase their work in New York—a city known for its street art. The Factory New goes beyond visual art and includes musicians and promoters, all spearheaded by Liam McMullan, a young man frequently spotted in Manhattan gossip columns who holds the legal rights to Warhol’s ‘factory’ in name and property and some grand ambitions.
Jonathan Wakuda Fischer is one of the artists whose work is being presented in NYC. Wakuda, as he is called, had a solo show titled Digital Superstitions at ArtXchange Gallery just last year, and he has since contributed to several group shows around town. His work had also caught my eye when it was displayed at Miro Tea, a loose-leaf tea house in Ballard where ArtXchange rotates art periodically. His fresh, intriguing work stands out with pop imagery rendered in spray paint and airbrush, often metallic in tone, in classical compositions derived from Japanese woodblock prints. Wakuda has a firm grasp and sincere understanding of the traditional forms he is appropriating, but his work is fiercely original and distinctly of his own time and place.
I met with Wakuda at his home. The walls are filled with his own work—a great reference when discussing his progression and his influences. The garage has has been fitted with sufficient ventilation and serves as his studio, only a few steps away from his living area. Wakuda is hospitable and highly articulate; he has a polished way of explaining his work and an ease in relating the connection of his influences to his own art. He informs me that he is not a classically trained artist or art historian, yet he has approached his work with an intense curiosity and is nothing short of a self-taught scholar of ukiyo-e.
Half-Japanese, Wakuda’s heritage plays a crucial role in his work. He grew up in the Midwest, but traveled frequently to Japan, understanding the link to his lineage but existing somewhat apart from it. That link has now worked its way fully into his art, driving him towards personal discovery and leading to new forms of expression. His work is all about dualities—different cultures and different times, brought together to make something new.
His first foray into art, not too long ago in 2007, combined old and new, repurposing antique katagami stencils—used in the dying of fabric—as stencils for his spray can. These patterns provided a vivid background and an inspiration that would have Wakuda uncovering more and more aspects of traditional Japanese art. Moving beyond the antique mulberry katagami to precision cut acetate, Wakuda began layering his stencils and producing distinct pieces through unique coloration. In a woodblock print, this may be achieved with a hand-painted gradation (bokashi in Japanese) or the colors chosen. For example, in Utagawa Hiroshige’s prints of the 100 Famous Views of Edo the skies might be a different tone in different editions, altering the mood between prints of identical subject matter. Wakuda uses gradation in colors and the placement of numerous, layered stencils to create unique prints with extremely different moods despite identical forms.
The first prints that Wakuda produced expressed this subject of duality with astounding clarity, forming a framework that he continues to build on. In one of his original series, he combined Japanese beauties clad in traditional garments of kimonos with iconic imagery from pop culture. In a print titled “1988” a young lady, perhaps an imperial courtesan, sits on her tatami mat selecting vinyl from the likes of KRS-1 and Public Enemy, while in another a portable boom box or ghetto blaster completes the anachronism. It wasn’t long before Wakuda was referencing one of the great masters of ukiyo-e, Katsushika Hokusai and The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Already working with a recognizable style of patterned stencils layered throughout and a smooth free-hand spray technique, Wakuda created an homage to Hokusai firmly rooted in modern aesthetics and easily identifiable as an original, complete with overspray and metallic flourishes.
Using stencils as a medium has allowed the artist to move from print to mural and bring his themes to life over large expanses. Wakuda says that his studio work improves each time that he paints a mural, and he is eagerly pursuing mural commissions around town and internationally. In addition, Wakuda is collaborating with fellow Factory New members and local hip-hop sensations Kingdom Crumbs. (You might notice a redesign of their name in crop circle style stencils.) There is even talk of an upcoming show with artwork being created live, a true merging of street art at the top of its game.
This month Wakuda will be spending some time in New York City where he has a show titled (UN)known Icons and a mural project at a location chosen by Salerno and The Factory New. The show will be a hybrid of his print and mural work—large canvases incorporating free-hand spray painting and stenciled elements. The show features four large portraits of pop legends. Drawing cues from woodblock prints of kabuki actors, Wakuda transforms David Bowie, Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones), Andy Warhol and club-owner Steve Paul—an unfolding story in each portrait. Steve Paul and The Scene, the androgynous Ziggy Stardust are presented as icons transcending cultures and time.
Wakuda’s work is about disparate cultural connections, historical parallels and layers, all of which are strengthened through a truly modern process and intense curiosity in history and his own heritage. Japanese art has long been appropriated, but in Wakuda’s work I see an authenticity that comes from ownership as well as appreciation, and the desire to share a culture merges with a creative mind in new and beautiful ways on paper, canvas and street walls.
Jeremy Buben goes to art galleries, museums, performance dance shows and the best gumbo restaurants in Seattle. All of the time. You can read more of his suggested events and short subject posts at his blog Le Dandysme.