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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Book Review: RackGaki

落書き

RackGaki, by Ryo Sanada and Suridh Hassan

Having grown up in Philadelphia in the 1970s, I approached a book on Japanese graffiti warily. That period was the heyday of Cornbread, who is still something of a legend in the city. He was the first “bomber,” and his distinctive tag could be seen on buses, trolleys, trains, police cars, and many, many buildings all over the city. Cornbread and his imitators essentially defaced the city. After his arrest—his many arrests, for multiple crimes—he began tagging prison walls. With the exception perhaps of churches, nothing was sacred.

From Cornbread to Japan.

RackGaki documents the tagger and bomber scene in Japan, which got a relatively late start. By the time Cornbread was an in-and-out of prison drug addict father of 10 in the early ‘90s, graffiti was just debuting in Japan.


Rackgaki
Authors Ryo Sanada and Suridh Hassan trace the origins of tagging in Japan and introduce the premier Japanese “writers,” mainly in Tokyo and Osaka. Much of the showcased work makes use of abandoned buildings and highway underpasses and other relatively unobjectionable spaces as canvases. (Though, of late, the amount of graffiti in Japan is clearly increasing on private property and public places. A recent trip to Nara was notable mainly for the shock of black chicken scratch that blotted many of the storefronts in a heavily touristed area.)

The work in RackGaki is clearly “Japanese” in that it is influenced by anime and manga, and also uses Chinese characters. Most of the writers though would not pass muster among serious muralists. Among them, though, are several who might find paying work in another medium: Tenga, Esow, and SCA Crew (all based in or near Tokyo), and Zen One and Very from Osaka. In particular, Tenga’s characters are stunningly beautiful and powerful.

The authors subscribe to the school of thought that tagging is an oppressed art form. Whether you agree or not, the photos in RackGaki are worth the price of the book. As in so many fields, Japanese taggers draw on Japan’s visual culture to borrow and create something new.

One wonders what Cornbread, now in his 50s and working in anti-graffiti programs in Philadelphia, would say to his Japanese brothers.

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