Visiting Atsuo studio, he’s not only known for his monsters, dragons and cute creatures, but also for being a very high energy person!
Enchanted with the “mess” and diversity from here, Atsuo left his hometown Kyoto to come to live as an artist here in Brazil. But the theme and inspirations for his work are clearly a reflection from his origins.
Atsuo had the opportunity to make his own interpretation of the Mexico Delegation for a Onitsuka Tiger collection called “The Art of Mixing”, which reunited 4 artists from the japanese origins to celebrate the Brazil and Japan’s connection, where each one of them were able to apply their art in one siluet, and create their own interpretation about the impact of the two cultures.
“I’m Atsuo Nakagawa, and I was born in Kyoto, Japan. I first came to Brazil 13 years ago, in 2006, for a project for a gallery called Choque Cultural. Titi Freak, a major graffiti artist, together with Yumi Takatsuka, also an artist, invited me to come to Brazil, and I did. And I liked it; I thought it was different. I had never thought about Brazil and didn’t know anything about it because there are no Brazilian magazines in Japan. And wow, funny enough, there’s a lot of graffiti here. I also liked the Choque Cultural gallery; at that time, they were just starting, everybody was young, even I was young (laughs). And then I decided to move here because Brazil was a massive shock, and at that time, everything was very cheap. Nowadays, things are so expensive, but it was very affordable back then, and art sold more easily here. It’s great, there’s good food, lots of fruit, it’s cool.
So in 2011, I moved here and started working at Choque Cultural Gallery. In 2012, I left the gallery, and I was on my own. It was very complicated because, at that time, I hardly spoke Portuguese. But my graffiti friends helped me a lot. Now it is a little less complicated, I can understand Portuguese (laughs), but I still struggle with speaking. Then, Asics found me in 2012; at that time, I was a mess; I had no money, and it was very complicated. I had no gallery, no job. They went to visit a restaurant, and this restaurant had my graffiti. Then a person from Onitsuka Tiger called me, and we talked, and in 2013 I started being sponsored by them.”
“In Japan, your word is already a commitment. Here, it’s “I forgot,” or it’s late. The difference, I think, is cultural. It’s two very different cultures. And here, the culture is very mixed, Japanese, Italian, many Africans, Koreans, and Asians. This I think is cool, the cultural mix is very interesting, very crazy. And I think that here it’s more relaxed. In Japan, it’s correct, it’s cool, but it’s much more stressful because you can’t make mistakes, you can’t be late – like robots.”
For you, what was the biggest shock in leaving Japan and moving to Brazil?
Atsuo Everything is different. In Japan, everything is very correct, you know? Everything is precise, clean, and organized. In Japan, your word is already a commitment. Here, it’s “I forgot,” or it’s late. The difference, I think, is cultural. It’s two very different cultures. And here, the culture is very mixed, Japanese, Italian, many Africans, Koreans, and Asians. This I think is cool, the cultural mix is very interesting, very crazy. And I think that here it’s more relaxed. In Japan, it’s correct, it’s cool, but it’s much more stressful because you can’t make mistakes, you can’t be late – like robots. But what is different is that in Japan, there is a lot of cool art, but selling it is a little difficult because there is a lot of stuff there. Tokyo is the capital, the center, it’s crazy, fashion changes in a month, desserts, clothes, everything. In Japan, in one year, everything changes. And the young people in a year say: “it’s already old, I don’t want it anymore. It’s very crazy, and it’s not good. Everything new, you know? In Brazil it’s slower, I like that.
And how did you learn to illustrate? Was it that came naturally, or was it a learning process?
Atsuo I’ve been really into movies and films ever since I was a child. My mother also enjoys them, and the first time I went to the movies was with her. And I love a director named Ray Harryhausen, he’s American, but he’s from the old days, and he used to make stop motion movies of monsters with people. And since I was 5 years old, I thought: “Wow, that’s really crazy! I liked the monsters, and then I started to illustrate. And in Japan, there are a lot of monsters, and it’s a little scary, ghosts and everything, it’s though (laughs). There are ghosts in Brazil, but they are not scary, whereas, in Japan, they are scary. Here the ghosts are calmer, cuter (laughs).
Later on, I worked as a window designer, putting clothes on mannequins. So I know brands, and I like fashion a lot too. But I started as an artist 20 years ago; I worked on weekends with art, painting, and sculpture. I worked for 10 years in Japan and another 10 here. It’s been 18 or 20 years, more or less, doing my art.
It's cool that you can see a lot of your evolution as an artist. You changed from one style to another.
Atsuo It’s funny, when I was young, I didn’t like Kyoto, my city. Because it’s very old. It’s nice, but when I was young, I liked the messiness of Tokyo or Osaka, big cities, I liked the craziness. Then time went by, and now that I’m older, I want something more peaceful. And Kyoto is much more beautiful; it has about 300 or 400 temples. Kyoto is an ancient city; it’s 1,200 years old, it was the capital 1,000 years ago, and it’s a small city. I found a great artist there – an ancient artist – and he does large paintings of dragons on the temples’ ceilings. Wow, it’s stunning, kinda like graffiti, right? From the time of 1,650 or so, it is very old. So I liked it. Gee, I wanted to paint, but graffiti is more complicated in Japan. Here it is easier to paint. This year I’m not quite sure because the mayor here doesn’t like it, I think (laughs). But even today, you can do graffiti; there are several projects. And then I painted dragons on the street. Here in Brazil, dragons are evil.
But it’s interesting, in Japan, there’re temples with dragons, large drawings, and sculptures. The meaning is different. There, it means success, happiness, and protection too. And here in Brazil, it’s regarded as something dangerous.
Last month you had an exhibition here in São Paulo, at the Alma de Rua gallery. Tell us more about it.
Atsuo Yes, in Beco do Batman, there is a gallery called Alma da Rua. I did more or less 50 works with Duoarte Print and Fito Design, which is a furniture brand. I have also launched two beer labels called Oak. And on the opening day of the exhibition, I invited graffiti artists from Curitiba for a group show at Local Estúdio, which is inside the Beco do Batman. There is a gallery, and in front, there is the studio. So I brought everyone together.
“But it’s interesting, in Japan, there’re temples with dragons, large drawings, and sculptures. The meaning is different. There, it means success, happiness, and protection too. And here in Brazil, it’s regarded as something dangerous.”
What inspired you to make this exhibition? There is a uniformity in the colors and also in the elements you use.
Atsuo Yeah… I like red and blue a lot. I use it a lot in my clothes as well, almost only blue, red and black. And this exhibition is about “oni wa soto,” which means something like “the devil is out,” it’s protection for the house. And my town is old, so it has a lot of monsters, they call them Youkai. There are several Youkai and several meanings. I don’t know all of them; there are many, and Kyoto is very old. And there are several characters; the fox is an ancient one, there’s also evil and good. And the fox looks like a Japanese woman, and sometimes she’s evil. Still, she is a goddess too – so if you respect it, she can mean the safety of the household, the town, the neighborhood. I think that monster is like that; when you respect it, it’s a friend, it makes you safe, it protects you. When you don’t, it harms you.
“Each one received a model, and I got the Mexican one. To make the sneaker, I was inspired by the flags of Brazil and Japan – both have circles; here in Brazil, it means earth, and in Japan, the sun.”
Now, let's talk about your sneaker and the collab with Onitsuka. How did this invitation to participate in the project happen?
Atsuo I have been working with them since 2013. I think it was when Asics started working here in Brazil. Onitsuka Tiger changes artists every year, I think. So first, they chose me, and then they chose Titi, then an artist from Rio de Janeiro, Lovefoxxx, and then Japinha, who is the drummer of CPM 22 and a personal friend of mine, and finally Felipe Suzuki.
Then, during the Olympics, the Americans from Onitsuka came to Brazil and chose four artists. We agreed on making Onitsuka Tiger again, sneakers and collaborations. Each one received a model, and I got the Mexican one. To make the sneaker, I was inspired by the flags of Brazil and Japan – both have circles; here in Brazil, it means earth, and in Japan, the sun. Here it’s the Moon. The earth needs the Sun and the Moon together. And for the dragon, I thought of a character with two sides. It’s stunning and mysterious, but the other side is dangerous. Because in Japan there are a lot of problems, earthquakes and nature is very strong there, sometimes it destroys everything. So I thought that the dragon is like: you have to respect nature; otherwise, you will suffer. But happiness is also present, the dragon is kind, but you have to respect it. This sneaker was sold worldwide in Japan, the United States, Europe, Korea, China, and here in Brazil as well.
Before you did this, did you already like or were interested in sneakers?
Atsuo Oh, I like them a lot. Even other brands, Nike, Adidas. And now I know Öus, they are 10 years old, very young, and very good. And they have a factory here. I don’t know yet, I have already talked to Narciso and people from Asics, and I’d like a collab with Asics and Öus. It’s complicated. But I’d like to; I think it would work out well.