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Sex, Violence and Funny Jokes

The work of Japanese Illustrator Tsutomu Nagashima (1974), known on the streets as Keroman, at first seems disturbing and confusing.

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Keroman - Hungry?One of his prints shows a beautiful young woman in sexy black underwear. You immediately notice the traditional hairdo befitting a geisha and a drawing style that reminds you of ukiyoe, traditional Japanese wood block prints. That combination in itself seems unsettling enough. But then you notice the sharp kitchen knife in her right hand and the provocative title. “HUNGRY?” it asks.

Another print of this voracious woman shows her with the same hairdo and sexy black lingerie holding a traditional paper umbrella. This time she holds a smoking gun. There is blood on the floor.

A third print shows a similar looking woman getting strangled. Others show people drowning or unsuccessfully trying to escape a burning house.

Just when you have made up your mind that Keroman’s prints seem only to be about sex and violence, you see other prints that appear soft and friendly, almost feminine. And others, like Keroman’s parodies on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, are in spite of their high cuteness ratio, painfully serious.

Keroman - Just after the rain Keroman - Tora Tora Tora Keroman - Girl

Style

“My style is that I don’t have a style,” explains Keroman modestly. Yet, he does. In all his prints hides a very sharp sense of observation mixed with his unique humor. So sharp it is often way too edgy for the casual observer.

Like the print of a winking leader Kim carrying a big bag on his back. It seems just cute. Until you see the body parts falling out of the bag. The print is an extremely sharp commentary on the North Korean leader’s bloody dictatorship. Few street artists dare to push the envelope this far. For the painfully shy Keroman it is just what comes out naturally. “I don’t have a plan or inspiration. I just start drawing,” he explains. “The image and concept grow step by step. I just keep on making lost of patterns until I am satisfied.”

This is a laborious process. To produce two or three usable prints he often makes over a hundred sketches. Keroman looks for effect and simplicity. “I want my work to be simple. That makes it easier to understand. I want to create work that people have never seen before, yet can embrace immediately.” Keroman’s use of effect and humor must catch his observers by surprise: “I will draw a cute little angel, but it kills people. A drawing looks like an ukiyoe wood block print, but shows a woman in lingerie holding a gun. I will draw something very cute, but it depicts Kim Jong Il. Instead of my prints being beautiful, I want them to draw laughs.”

Keroman - Kim

New and Old

Like many Japanese illustrators, Keroman first draws his illustrations by hand. He then scans them and uses Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Streamline to add colors and finish his drawings.

Although he has completely adapted modern technology he is not in love with this world of computer graphics. “It is removed from the hand of a real living being, so the feelings that people have when they see this kind of art are less intensive. I would love to work with Japanese wood block printing techniques or watercolors. With computers I just can’t do exactly what I want to do.”

One of the reasons for this dissatisfaction is his love for traditional Japanese art. “When I see old wood block prints I feel freshness in them. But if I just make them the same way I am actually drawing the past. I want to create work that is rooted in the present but still makes use of a ‘sense’ that existed in old Japan but has never existed in the West.”

Keroman - Hanabi

Street

To Keroman the streets where he now sells his prints as postcards are a learning school. They are very educational, but they are not where he wants to stay. “I used to work as a designer at game developer CapCom (of Biohazard fame). I actually used to look down on people who sold their work on the street. I couldn’t see them as real professionals. Then one day I quit my job. When I applied for a new job I realized I had no portfolio to show potential employers. So I made lots of material. I figured the streets were a good place to try out these new prints.”

He finds the streets challenging. “This is the lowest rung on the ladder. I hope I can ‘graduate’ from the streets soon. It bothers me when people pass by with their minds already made up and ignoring me. I want them to stop and have a look. I want to know what they think of my work.”

KeromanIf and when Keroman does leave the streets he won’t be returning to creating characters for games. “I want to create work that is truly ‘modern art’.” His parents play a large role in these dreams for the future. “Now they are worried about my future. I would like to be able to get my wok accepted so that my parents don’t need to worry anymore and I can do something back for everything they have done for me.”

With his thirtieth birthday approaching next year he must be feeling the pressure. Yet his dreams carry more weight than this pressure. “No matter how old you are, you can make your dreams come true. I think that if you give up, it is because you expect results to come too quickly. Do what you want to do when you want to do it, he says philosophically. “Do it at your own pace and according to your own capabilities.”

Kjeld Duits About the Author

Inspired by the stunningly creative street fashion that exploded on the streets of Tokyo and Osaka in the late 1990’s, photo-journalist Kjeld Duits launched JAPANESE STREETS in 2002. This makes JS one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the very first to cover Japanese street fashion.

Recent articles by Kjeld Duits:

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