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Sex and the Street Tagger

Gajin Fujita's graffiti-influenced, culturally erotic painting reflects his upbringing as a Japanese American artist in Boyle Heights

September 01, 2002|SCOTT TIMBERG

Gajin Fujita could be a cheery advertisement planted by the city's boosters. A Japanese American painter influenced by Latino graffiti, informed by gangland aesthetics but with the violence removed, he mixes high culture and low, East and West, past and present. If he were a musician, he'd be signed to David Byrne's genre-bending Luaka Bop label.

Fujita has earned his eclecticism honestly; he's got too much soul to be called an arid postmodernist. He grew up in Boyle Heights, an East L.A. neighborhood known for Los Lobos, mariachi bands and florid murals. His late Japanese-born father made his living as an abstract landscape painter, and his mother restores Japanese antiques. The style of his work grew from the elements of his environment; in the last few years he's learned the knack of combining them, with traditional Japanese imagery and erotica, into a striking whole.

Some of Fujita's influences, in fact, were passed down quite literally. "These are better than Playboy," he says, eyes wide, pulling down a dog-eared art book his father left him. The tome, compiled from a Scandinavian erotic art show from 1968, shows men and women from around the world, coupling in every possible combination--a multicultural version of the Kama Sutra.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 01, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 131 words Type of Material: Correction
John McCracken--Artist John McCracken was incorrectly described as deceased in a story on painter Gajin Fujita that appears in Sunday Calendar today.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 08, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
John McCracken--Artist John McCracken was incorrectly described as deceased in a story on painter Gajin Fujita in the Sept. 1 Sunday Calendar.

The artist never imagined the past as a musty place. "I've always thought that there were a great deal of sexual acts and deviances played out through history," says Fujita, his mom dusting her home, which doubles as his studio, around him. "And they probably were a bit more crazy, to my mind--inventing new moves and whatnot."

All these influences--and a turn with Las Vegas art guru Dave Hickey--have led Fujita to create the pieces that go up at his first major U.S. solo show, at L.A. Louver gallery on Sept. 12. Their most immediately striking quality is the almost reverent mix of Japanese woodblock art of the feudal Edo period (1603-1867) with urban reality. "I kind of look at myself as a hip-hopper, the way a DJ would sample all sorts of great music from the past--sounds and beats," he says. "I'm just doing it with visuals here."

The horizontal pieces, with their fervently crafted, densely decorated surfaces, range from 20 inches across to almost wall-sized. One painting--"Gold State Warriors," a 12-paneled canvas based on traditional Japanese screens--shows samurai drawing swords against a gold leaf background covered in dense graffiti: It's as if the characters in a Kurosawa film found themselves lost in a bad part of town.

In another, appropriately titled "Libido," a nobleman and a geisha make love alongside a bowing Virgin Mary of the sort that decorates the taquerias and corner bars of Fujita's neighborhood. The piece is full of visual puns (most of which cannot be described here).

Instead of trying to integrate the two worlds of his pieces--the feudal with the urban--the artist leaves the incongruities unremarked upon.

Whether painting a dragon, the stylized letters that spell out his titles or background patterns inspired by Japanese textiles, Fujita never gives the sense that he's slumming. His detractors, in fact, find his work lacking in the spontaneity of real graffiti.

Fujita's a humble, polite guy in a ponytail and a goatee who's always talking about how lucky, how grateful he is. The farthest west he typically goes is the Echo Park apartment he shares with Berkeley native Lisa Ishikawa, whom he married this spring. His painting leaves him little time to travel, play basketball or surf.

Fujita's enthusiasm and constant gratitude make him seem younger than his 30 years; his manner is almost innocent. But he's no mama's boy. He's ripping through the streets now, behind the wheel of his little Toyota, passing murals and tags on bodegas and pet stores, in awe of the iconography and the low riders that pass him on Cesar Chavez Avenue. It wasn't long ago that he was painting bridges and freeway walls instead of hunching over a canvas. "The crew that I belong to," he says proudly, as if listing an academic degree, "is K2S. 'Kill to Succeed.' " His eyes are on the traffic in front of him.

Fujita's parents came to the States from Tokyo--looking for a more liberal setting and a richer market for painting--only a few years before he was born, and Fujita grew up in what he calls a traditional Japanese home. His mother made him and his two younger brothers keep diaries and paint still lifes from the fruits and vegetables she brought in from the backyard garden. "And that really kept us in tune, really kept us focused," he says. Knowing the financial struggles all too well, his artist father, who died in 1996, hoped his son would become something more practical than a painter. ("He'd probably be rolling over in his grave," Fujita says with a laugh, about his own career.)

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