Meguru Yamaguchi doesn’t live within any one world - he’s of Japanese upbringing, but he can’t say that he truly identifies with the culture. Even arguing that, “Japan doesn’t have any original culture,” because much of what they adopt and reinterpret derives from movements outside of Japan - especially from New York, he explains.
Growing up in Shibuya, Tokyo, during the 1980s, he felt a heavy influence from the New York City street culture all around him. Discovering downtown street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat in high school served as early inspiration for Yamaguchi - an introduction that undoubtedly set the tone for his future.
Although it wasn’t until his first trip to the city in 2007 when visiting the Jeffrey Deitch ‘The Gallery’ (known for a strong street art curation), that Yamaguchi truly realised his fate had been sealed; he had to be a part of New York City street culture.
Arriving in New York eight years ago, Yamaguchi began developing what he has defined as the “cut-and-paste” technique that he uses today, absorbing elements of collage acrylics, spray paint and traditional painting within his work. Through apprenticeship and self-training, Yamaguchi ultimately bypassed the need for schooling, finding an audience to support his work in New York.
Among his many shows of the past, he has upcoming exhibitions at the Ace Hotel, and Reed Space in the Lower East Side. Despite having tapped into the art scene and taken such influence from New York street culture (his Bronx studio was blaring hip hop sounds throughout our entire interview), Yamaguchi explains that he doesn’t quite identify as an American either.
So who is Yamaguchi?
One could call him a millennial impressionist. His work is pieced and layered together, somewhat taking note from the traditional technique of Van Gogh, although his outcome appears entirely modern. Some of Yamaguchi’s most notable work, in the same way as impressionists have in the past used their own surroundings in their work, is based on profile photos that he finds on the social media accounts of his friends. He says that he finds social media really funny because people can choose a profile picture that looks really different from their real self, or different from one photo to the next. We can choose how we want to be seen vs. how we really are.
Yamaguchi explains that Van Gogh painted what was relevant in his time, and that similarly, he uses a subject relevant to millennials: social media persona. Additional pop-culture inspirations can be seen in his colour palettes, taking subconscious influence from Tomica toy race cars that he once painted as a kid. However, his work is far more sophisticated as a final project than these inspirations, creating an effortless high/low concept that fascinates the viewer.
Born into a creative family, Yamaguchi’s parents are well known in the apparel world of Tokyo, having founded the iconic labels Hysteric Glamour and the now defunct Ozone Rocks. They had intended for him to join the family business as a fashion designer, but Yamaguchi prefers other mediums to express his vision. Explaining that fashion is so fast and often disposable, he appreciates that art has the ability to exist at a slower pace with longer appreciation due to less turnover.
However, he has found that collaborating with various streetwear brands on limited edition pieces and collections can serve as a way for him to combine his art with his family legacy. These collaborations utilise direct components of his “cut-and-paste” technique, applying them as a print to the apparel, footwear or accessories. It is an ideal combination for Yamaguchi who feels that “too much collaboration can be a bad thing,” because each party can end up compromising too much of their original vision.
Yamaguchi has always had a strong affinity to streetwear, dating back to adolescence, so is fully able to get behind the product when collaborating. Likewise, his fast brush strokes and vibrant colour palettes naturally lend themselves to the streetwear and the active brands that seek him for collaboration. The combination is mutually beneficial and allows for both parties to come out with something to gain and nothing to compromise.
His most recent collaboration with contemporary womenswear line, PRAE, is something new and elevated for Yamaguchi, who had previously partnered on men’s active and lifestyle pieces. The SS15 PRAE complete collection demonstrates the range of Yamaguchi’s relevance, adding a sophisticated pop of colour to the sharp minimalist fashion silhouettes.
Yamaguchi feels that the “strongest point of Japanese culture is mixing things together, and making something new,” which is exactly where he excels. Perhaps his ability to live in a space of cultural limbo allows him the freedom from allegiance. Serving as a personified bridge between very different worlds, he is able to create by pulling from a range of influences, some apparent and some deeply rooted. Not knowing quite what he is actually gives him the unique lens to see, and therefore create, without bias.
This fresh perspective has been his key for entrance into New York City street culture, which has only ever accepted sincerity. Yamaguchi is just being himself, and it’s working.
Words: Savannah Todd
Artwork: 'Mythology of Urban Future' 2009, Meguru Yamaguchi