An Instagrammable Twist on Traditional Japanese Art - OZY | A Modern Media Company

An Instagrammable Twist on Traditional Japanese Art

An Instagrammable Twist on Traditional Japanese Art

By Dan Peleschuk


Because you haven't seen Donald Trump depicted quite like this before.

By Dan Peleschuk

When most people ditch their humdrum day jobs, they might go backpacking through Europe, or maybe take up a new hobby. In a way, the Japanese artist known as Ukiyoemon Mitomoya did the latter. But that’s only if you consider interpreting a centuries-old artistic tradition, then thrusting it into an entirely new direction, merely a hobby.

His explosively colorful works depict fantastical warriors, poke fun at political leaders and muse on the absurdities of everyday life. Throughout it all, the 37-year-old taps into one of Japan’s most recognizable art forms, called ukiyo-e, for inspiration to produce stunning prints that seem straight out of the 19th century — if not for their comical modern touches.

However, Ukiyoemon’s work gets more interesting as it gets more personal.

Ukiyo-e, which translates to “pictures of the floating world,” first emerged in the late 16th century as an artistic interpretation of the more decadent elements of Japan’s social world, particularly brothels and theaters. Later, artists adhering to the tradition branched out to depict fantastical imagery like warriors and landscapes, while the art form underwent a profound transformation, and traditional paintings gave way to more colorful woodblock prints. It further evolved during the Meiji Restoration, when Japan opened up to Western culture, to depict the social transformation.

Throughout, ukiyo-e remained an accessible and inexpensive “form of escapism” that was meant to fascinate and entertain, explains Rosina Buckland, curator of Japanese art and culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. After all, she says, today “we don’t buy magazines that show scenes of everyday life.”

With some of his work, Ukiyoemon borrows directly from legendary ukiyo-e masters such as Kuniyoshi. Consider, for example, the tattooed warrior clutching a bloodied dagger between his teeth. But vaulting ahead several centuries, Ukiyoemon appeals to viewers’ sense of humor with his comical takes on modern politics — such as showing ex-British Prime Minister Theresa May shackled to a ball and chain emblazoned with the euro sign, or President Donald Trump as the Japanese Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-o, angrily hoisting a sword.

However, Ukiyoemon’s work gets more interesting as it gets more personal.

Several years ago, he quit his customer service job at a television company shortly after getting married. The reason? He couldn’t bear to teach any would-be children to follow their dreams if he hadn’t done that himself. But even before making that decision, Ukiyoemon tells me through an interpreter, he had become fed up with the rigidity of the Japanese business world, in which workers are treated “like objects.” So he turned to art.

His own frustrations are reflected in the harried businessmen that comprise much of his recent work. Exquisitely drawn prints capture these downtrodden workers in moments of difficulty and dissatisfaction, or simply struggling to survive the day. There’s the businessman nervously trapped inside a transparent shell, and another triumphantly breaking free from his presumably oppressive suit.


It’s far removed from what’s considered to be strict ukiyo-e tradition, Buckland says. But she believes Ukiyoemon — whose work has appeared at exhibitions and galleries across East Asia — effectively captures the often overwhelming commitment required by Japanese companies. Buckland adds that he’s carved out an interesting niche: “It’s pretty out there.”

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