Japanese underbelly

In a culture renowned for its pulsating urban districts, emblazoned with imagery selling lifestyles of every sort, it’s strange that it has taken this long for the first book dedicated to Japan’s graffiti movement to surface. The argument, say the writers, is that graffiti arrived relatively late – only by the early 1990s when young people headed to the US and encountered hip hop did this global subculture start transforming the sprawling suburbs of Tokyo and Osaka. The book’s title, RackGaki, is a pun on rakugaki, the Japanese name for graffiti, and the American term for ‘racking’ (stealing) spraycans, giving a nod to its roots. Of all the Japanese graffiti ‘writers’, usefully catalogued here by city and by ‘crew’, most prefer to tag using English lettering, only experimenting with the pictorial forms of Japanese characters occasionally – there being less international praise for indecipherable Eastern scripts. Having said that, there’s certainly a unique aesthetic that characterises the animated faces and decorative swirls in these tags, throw-ups and huge collaborative production pieces. Most effective is how the book shows off a vastly different side of Japan to the images we are used to seeing – Tokyo’s suburban fabric of crumbling concrete and motorway underpasses comes to life thanks to these street scribblers, a far cry from the skyscrapers of Shinjuku.

RackGaki is published by Laurence King. An exhibition with live painting runs from 10-20 May at Stolenspace, The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1

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