Studio Visit With Artist Ōyama Enrico Isamu Letter

Enrico Letter Studio Visit (2)all photos by kaori sohma © spoon & tamago | click to enlarge

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It took about a month for Enrico to settle into his new Brooklyn studio over the summer. And that’s not because the building was in bad shape. Rather, the particular artist left no rock unturned – and no crack uncovered – as he taped up windows, installed fans and hung plastic covers. “I work a lot with spray paint,” he said, as he walked to the back of his rectangular studio and pointed at the several fans fixed in his window sill. “I have to make sure there’s always plenty of ventilation.”

Enrico has been hard to pinpoint. On and off residency programs have kept him traveling between the US and Japan. But for now, comfortably settled in his Brooklyn studio, it looks as though he is here to stay a while. The slender, 6ft tall artist, whose full name is Ōyama Enrico Isamu Letter, is the son of a kimono shop owner and an Italian diplomat. His adolescent years were spent in Tokyo around the turn of the century, a time when street culture, hip hop and skateboarding were penetrating the youth like never before.

“There were the skaters and the break dancers,” recalls Enrico. “Everyone had their thing.” But the less-mainstream graffiti world had yet to be explored so Enrico decided to stake out his claim there. Drawing came relatively easy for Enrico, who not only spent his younger years drawing manga characters, but had also just returned from an inspirational study-abroad in Italy where the graffiti had left an impression on him. (The word “graffiti” comes from the Italian word graffiato, meaning “scratched”.)

Before long his drive to create graffiti evolved from being rooted in teenager self-consciousness to passion for art. But unlike conventional graffiti artists whose purpose it was to “tag” their names on streets and throughout the city, Enrico’s art remained confined within the borders of his notebook. This would become an important distinction for Enrico and an encounter in the near-future would make this clear in his mind.

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“I met a famous graffiti artist and showed him the work I had created in my notebook.” Enrico recalls the event with clarity and significance. “It’s good, he told me. But it’s just on paper. It’s not graffiti.” It was at this point, it would seem, that the idea of abandoning letter forms – a primary element of name tagging and, in effect, graffiti – became more clear in Enrico’s mind. They dissolved into abstraction.

He was no longer a graffiti artist. (And despite the clear influence on his practice, he never calls himself a graffiti artist, perhaps out of respect to street graffiti artists who willingly take on legal and criminal risks.) And realizing that he was also no longer confined to visual representation, colors and letters were replaced by intentionally abstracted black and white lines. It was what would become known as QTS.

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“This is Quick Turn Structure,” Enrico said, pointing to a larger canvas that hung on his wall. It’s a term coined by Enrico himself – often abbreviated as QTS – and is a derivative of actual graffiti terminology. QTS refers to “lines that slash back, spin and intercross.” It’s been a recurring motif in Enrico’s work since the early 2000s.

At around the age of 19 Enrico began doing live-painting at Milk and other clubs around Tokyo. His gigs – some of them paid but mostly unpaid – would last from about 10pm to 3am. His midnight escapades continued for about 4-5 years and became an important practice-based mechanism in evolving QTS into his own visual language.

Enrico talks about QTS as if it’s alive, with a mind of it’s own: “Its tightly‐knit structure multiplies by intrinsic order and keeps moving without hardening up. What is driving this process is not a mathematical procedure, nor a random coincidence, but a somatically acquired method through actions performed on various media of different scales and materials.”

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It’s no surprise that Enrico is eloquent and articulate when discussing his work. At the suggestion of artist and relative Toru Oyama, Enrico decided to apply to graduate school. With application deadlines approaching in just about 1 month, Enrico quickly assembled a portfolio and submitted his application to Tokyo University of the Arts. He was accepted.

To approach the subject of graffiti in graduate school is rather rare. His program at the school, “Intermedia Art,” was as ambiguous as it sounds – a place for the misfits, the etcetera; those who didn’t fall into any traditional categories. Feeling the need to critique, from an academic perspective, the yet-to-be academicized subject of graffiti art, Enrico began writing about graffiti as well.

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Enrico is often commissioned to apply QTS to walls or buildings but his work isn’t always grand. This miniscule series was created by sharpening an already pointy mechanical pencil, drawing a few lines, and then sharpening the graphite once again before continuing. They take about a week and are the most labor intensive QTS, Enrico concedes.

Click below for a better view of the astounding detail.

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After staying on for 1 additional year as a researcher, Enrico left the university in 2010. He first came to NY on an ACC grant and then again on a Pola grant. His ex-professor Kazue Kobata, an active curator in both NY and Tokyo, helped him with his move.  Now he is here on his own.

Recently, Enrico has been collecting old framed paintings he finds on his travels or at thrift shops. He pays no more than $5 or $10 for most of these. And perhaps referencing a more traditional practice in graffiti of painting over an existing canvas, he applies his QTS. “I picked this up for about 500 yen when I was in Japan,” he said, pointing to an old bookkeeping tablet that looked like it was from the 17th century.

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Enrico brings the calculating eye of a researcher to the historically improvised hustle of graffiti.

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Enrico is of a new generation of post-kawaii Japanese artists who have broke free from many of the stereotypes attached to Japanese art. “I have removed all secondary elements from my work,” he tells us. “One of those elements is wa.”

“What interests me is Enrico’s obsessive study about graffiti cultures and creation of his own visual language as “quick turn structure,” said Kosuke Fujitaka, who recently included Enrico’s work in an exhibition in Tokyo. Indeed, Enrico brings the calculating eye of a researcher to the historically improvised hustle of graffiti.

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Enrico takes his work very seriously and is not willing to compromise. In 2011 he was presented the opportunity to collaborate with COMME des GARÇONS. However, Rei Kawakubo was looking for a more traditional graffiti artist to tag her clothing collection. “That’s not my style,” he told Kawakubo in a meeting. “I can do that but others can do that too. If I work with you, I’d prefer to do something only I can do.” The next day his phone rang. He got the job.

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Enrico is currently preparing for a group exhibition at Galerie Protege in early 2014, and a solo exhibition at the New Jersey City University.  But his ambitions reach beyond the US and Japan. When asked what his dream project was: “One day I want to create a mural on an iceberg in the North Pole.”

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As usual, Huey (almost 7) had a few questions for Enrico:

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click to enlarge

This studio visit is part of an ongoing series in which we visit NY-based Japanese artists in their creative space.

(Many thanks to Masako and Kaori for making this studio visit possible!)

1 Comment

  1. Very nice feature! Enrico is included as one of the artists featured in our first book, The Tall Trees of Tokyo by Matt Wagner. He contributed to the Forest For the Trees Mural project in Portland last summer and partnered with another artist on this Clyde Drexler mural – http://vimeo.com/73439562.

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