Ryu Itadani


Ryu Itadani and I share a fascination for the City; for the buildings and skyline of Tokyo, old and new. This also explains a lot of the deceptively simple attraction of his colourful urban art: it captures a certain vision of the city. We have just been eating some cheap yakitori over a couple of beers in an underground dining bar in Shibuya full of unhealthy looking, tired but happy salary men. “I see the lines, then I see the colours,” he says, as we step outside, pointing to an unremarkable glass, steel and plastic Shibuya building, which turns out to be a completely surreal construction when you look at it closely. This is a quote he often uses to summarise his art. It’s why architects and designers appreciate his work so much. Some of his biggest successes have been commissions for urban development firms. He did a magical large scale “cartoon” version of Omotesando Hills, that decorated and improved Tadao Ando’s controversial building in 2007, and has done similar work for Sanrio and J-Wave that play with the icons of an idealised Asian skyline.

He is worried I won’t find this great, albeit grimy, underground place again, but I say I will. I collect places like this too. I met Itadani first in fact after turning up at the artist’s show in the basement of Omotesando Hills during that 2007 commercial breakthrough. He had just started being represented by the Marunouchi Gallery, who have developed a steady fine art profile for the artist. Itadani’s does large scale works that are drawn, then scanned and coloured online. Although difficult to sell to purists, over time his work has found its place in the growing global practice of technologically enhanced crossover design/art. If it’s not buildings, it’s landscapes, or sometimes flowers and vegetation. More recently, he has been experimenting with painting objects in acrylic on little canvas squares – favourite things from a global lifestyle, like Walkers’ Cheese and Onion crisps, Hellman’s mayonaise, or Hoegaarden witbier – a collection of warmly appreciated, random modern acts of consumption from his time abroad.

Itadani’s career is emblematic of the dynamics of Japan’s new generation of returnee artists. He grew up partly in Canada, in a family connected by work to IBM, then moved to start studying art in England, after studying economics at university in Tokyo. His destination was the famous St. Martin’s College in London. “I was impressed how they took you seriously. They’d look seriously at your portfolio, not like at a Japanese art college”. At St.Martin’s Itadani had the freedom to experiment with all kinds of media and methods, only to return to the technique of drawing and colouring he was doing before he went there. In a sense he also became an artist in London, honing skills and a craftman’s professionalism, while a lot of the students around him would rely only on ideas and concepts. “They’d arrive for supervision with just a crumpled piece of paper and an idea. They’d then talk about the work so impressively. But I was embarrassed to do it that way”.

Despite staying 4 years in London, he felt it was important to return to Japan, to connect again culturally with the place. A partial outsider, he also has a certain particular vision of the place, that helps his work combine global and Japanese influences. He cites the key turning point in his technique as when he started working with an Apple Mac – about the time Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1998, 1999, when Macs became cheaper and easier to use. In a way, the resultant style he has developed combines the pop charm of so much Japanese graphic work, with a certain traditional elegance – that fits the Marunouchi Gallery well. His dealer, Yukihiro Hoshi – who has a background more in modern art, such as Giacometti – has been hugely supportive. He wants the gallery to grow with the artists, and has concentrated for a long time on only a small number of young, highly talented artists from diverse backgrounds. Itadani has travelled with him to major European shows, and gets support for his studio and design operations. It’s a typical Japanese trust based relationship that has seen his prices rise steadily, with prints selling for above Y200,000 each. They are now currently planning the show for the upcoming Tokyo Art Fair in early April.

While it is difficult to make a full living out of art sales only, Itadani has a steady line of commercial design-related commissions that also give his work distinctive visibility. It is all a one-man operation, but similar in some ways to successful groups like Groovisions and Enlightenment, who also cross the art/design line. As well as the work for major corporations, he has done book covers, illustrations for magazines, even special branding designs for snack foods. A series of works were also commissioned for buses in Miyazaki City in Kyushu. He has an uncomplicated attitude about doing this commercial work. It pays for the rest, he says, and it’s all part of the practice. The only drawback is that, in Japan, unlike in countries where everything is a lot cleaner and contract based, it can sometimes be difficult getting paid. The professionalism shows. When I visit his small studio in a one person apartment in Yoyogi Uehara, it is incredibly tidy and organised – a designer’s space, with numerous projects on the go.

Perhaps my favourite work of all is his wonderful rendering of Arakawa’s To-Den tram (top above). The romance of the shitamachi coming alive in vivid multicolour. Itadani, like me, also just loves being in the City. When we’ve met to catch up, and hear about new developments in his part of the Tokyo art and design scene, it is always in some great hidden izakaya or dining spot. How else can someone like me ever get to know about the joys of Hoppy Beer, or how and when to order Shochu, or how good and cheap Tokyo food can get? I might draw the line at another favourite, though – Yoshinoya – for which the late night working Itadani admits to having “an addiction”. Usually we meet late in the evening, it’s my final stop of the day. For Itadani, he hasn’t been up many hours and there’s a long night of intense work ahead. He unlocks and unfolds his portable bike, and heads off back to the studio.

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2010/03/14 16:03



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Ryu Itadani
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