The Fish Market

The Fish Market (etching)
In central Tokyo, the biggest fish market in the world attracts damn near as many people as the Grand Canyon every year. Its proper name is, “The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market,” but it is known the world over as Tsukiji (pronounced “SKEE-jee”) and it is a mesmerizingly visual, aural and sonic assault on the senses. Every manner of seafood and sea creature is bought, butchered and sold here to restaurants, markets and trawlers for export on a daily basis, and what is hauled from the sea every day is staggering to see–especially the tuna.

Every day, tons upon tons of bue tuna are pulled form the oceans and auctioned at Tsukiji. The auctions are oddly not unlike the trade in stocks and bonds in the financial markets, as there is no set price for sushi-grade tuna. It is all dependent on the day’s catch and fluctuates wildly as the blue tuna become more and more scarce. This fish has been teetering on the endangered list for quite some time and with the American appetite for sushi, which has grown wide and deep since the mid 1980s, the blue tuna is in very real danger of extinction.

The Japanese are ruthless fisherman, eradicating anything that gets between them and the tuna. For centuries, they also have imperiled shark populations with the wholesale slaughter of these fish in order to harvest their fins. The fishing culture is a very old and honored industry in Japan. The Japanese still also actively hunt whales (one of the only countries to do so in modern times) and there are legendary bloody battles between the whalers and organizations like Greenpeace. The Japanese do not fuck around on the high seas and defend themselves with great alacrity. Every day though, the haul of blue tuna gets smaller and smaller. Even the Japanese fishing industry, long opponents of regulation, are beginning to implement quotas for the mighty beasts.

Watching the tuna auction is fascinating. A man stands on a wooden box with a hand-bell and opens bidding. The bidding is brisk, polite and quietly furious. Another man walks the rows of giant tuna carcasses and paints figures on it with red dye which determines the final price of the fish bought. From there, the tuna are quickly hustled away, often to onsite butchers who have to cut the huge bluefins with a band-saw, after which the pieces are cut again–filet syle–into sushi grade pieces with a huge fucking knife called a maguro-bocho. Often times the purveyor will taste the fish as each quartering cut is made.

Watching this from the perspective of an outsider is hypnotic, as is the rest of Tsukiji. There are buckets of oddly beautiful eels wriggling and writhing, their saw-toothed mouths open as if to try to speak. Everywhere, electric carts laden with ice and the morning’s catch zip by and one must be careful not to get run over. Warnings are shouted out in Japanese and not knowing what is being shouted is more than a little disconcerting. There is a labyrinth of maze-like booths for slaughter, selling and weighing, and all of it with the smell of the sea. For as much fish as there is here, the smell is not fishy, but rather musky like the sea. I remember a whole table of wolf fish that are so ugly that they are beautiful; prehistoric and vicious, with a face like Jabba the Hut.

The tuna themselves are vicious hunters. Like wolves of the sea, able to swim up to 50 miles an hour in pursuit of prey, they are miracles of natural selection. The least likely to wind up endangered. Atlantic bluefins are warm-blooded, which helps them withstand the icy waters they inhabit around the world. Bluefins are found in almost every ocean climate, from Greenland to the Mediterranean, and used to be among the most plentiful of game fish. The American appetite for sushi, particularly toro (the red, fatty tuna) has greatly diminished the population of these amazing fish. This meat is hugely valuable. A single tuna selling recently for almost $400,000US at auction.

Tsukiji was built after the great Kanto earthquake in 1923, that devastated most of Tokyo, including the Nihonbashi market. The new market was built in the Tsukiji district in 1935 and went on to become the world’s largest seafood market.

It is a fascinating place. Me and my friends went there almost right from the airport and, at one of the 10-seater sushi huts, were treated to a raw tuna breakfast for about 12 bucks. Around every corner was something fascinating and visceral. The non-stop fish butchery, on one hand brutal, and on the other, strangely beautiful. The men and women dressing the seafood like they’ve done every morning for their whole working lives enables a virtuosity that is hypnotic to watch. I watched a man dress a giant fish, about twice his size in about four minutes. Seriously. A leviathan pulled from the depths carved into steaks, and kibbles and bits. . .skippy-chop-chop.

We were an odd collection of visitors; four visual artists and one film director hanging on every sight like children who’d wandered through the other side of the mirror. The fish market was at once otherworldly and very much of this world; where there is one great lesson and one sad moral. In the ocean, the big fish eat the little fish and then even bigger fish eat those fish. The moral?

Don’t be a fucking guppy.

This is a new etching and it is for sale.

Published in: on May 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sayaka’s Fish

Sayaka's FishHey–

When I travel , I try to use my ears and eyes more than anything else, and let a smile be my passport. Last year when I went to Tokyo, I went not knowing a word of Japanese.  I also had only the part-time company of a person who did speak the language.  She was a Japanese housewwife and lovely friend of a friend, who was under the impression that me and my friends wanted to mostly go to the shopping districts, which we didn’t really want to do so much.  For one full day we ran to keep up with her through Harajuku as she moved very quickly and I found myself missing the stuff I wanted to linger over and see.  She was unfailingly kind and polite; but she ran us like sled dogs.

The next day I went off by myself.  I got directions to the Ameyoko market from a lovely young woman named Sayaka who worked at the hotel.  She made sure that I knew where everything was and how to get there, often accompanying me to the taxi and giving him instructions as well.  She directed me to Jingu Stadium, Ueno Park, the Ginza district and anywhere else I was curious about.

She would not accept any kind of gratuity, as this is not part of the Japanese culture.  In fact, people can get insulted at the idea.  I gave her a book of my work and some buttons with details from my drawings on them.  The Japanese are big collectors of “flair“; buttons, pendants and little decorative details.  She was delighted by these things and went out of her way to help me navigate her city.

At night I often could not sleep so I would hang out in the lobby and smoke and read and write in my diary.  Sayaka always made sure I could get tea at night and in one case found me a Japanese sleeping tea that really helped.  We had funny conversations about our countries, even though neither of us spoke a word of the other’s language.  After seven or eight days of the best sushi on the planet, she pointed us to the Ruth’s Chris steakhouse in Japan.  She was a real friend to me and my crew of friends who accompanied me there.  A few days after I got back, I sent some etchings of bugs for her and her friends at the hotel, for their kindness.

About a month later I got a big box full of treats, including a  Hiroshima Carps baseball hat because I’d not been able to find one big enough for my giant head. I looked for days and it is one of my most treasured things.   I’ll go back to Japan in September; specifically Tokyo.  I love the kind of work I make about this place; the joy of it, the magic, and the memory of the kindnesses  bestowed upon me there.

Published in: on May 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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FireCat of the Tokyo Hotel, Chicago

FireCat of the Tokyo Hotel, ChicagoThe Tokyo Hotel on Ohio, in Chicago, is a shithole.  It’s the kind of place I once feared I’d be found dead in.  The customer reviews for this place are hysterically funny; descriptions of odd stains on the sheets and walls abound in these accounts.  Lots of kids from other countries wind up being suckered into staying there as it sells itself as a “hostel.”  They usually flee after a day or two.  The signs outside advertise fish tacos and aushi.   Um. . . no thanks.

It was originally the Devonshire Hotel years ago, but it’s been the Tokyo for as long as I can remember.  I always thought it was more of a wino SRO-type place like the Twain or the Abbott, but evidently it is one or two roaches short of that distinction, qhich is not to say it is a bad place; it’s not outside, and in Chicago weather, you do not  want your ass sleeping on the frozen ground.  So you share a blanket with some cooties–it beats freezing to death.

This is the time of year the city for which this hotel is named celebrates the cherry blossom.   The blooming of these remarkable trees happens in late April and early May for a period of 3 or 4 weeks.  It is the time of year when young men in Tokyo take their girlfriends to the park and lay a blanket under the trees and open a bottle of sake and listen to the myriad of concerts in Ueno Park in the middle of the city.  This is a very popular time of year to get engaged and this park is the place a great many couples do this.

The poor bastards.

A glance across the park is breathtaking; shimmering whites and pinks and reds, as far as you can see, music and joy and the coming of spring.  I’ve noted before that public parks in Japan are quiet places; sanctuaries for  reflection and solitude.  I wish I were there right now.   I miss the kites and cranes and giant ravens gobbling cicadas in mid-air; the quiet musicality of the place. . .the mammoth koi in the pond gliding silently, some of them so translucent they seem to glow in the dark water.   I miss Ueno Park.  It is one of those places where you feel good about the world’s chances and your own.

Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 12:24 am  Comments (1)  
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Ueno Park Red Bird

Ueno Park Red Bird

I was thinking of my friends in New Orleans as I made this piece, the beads and ornamentation, the echo of Lafcadio Hearn who left New Orleans to live in Tokyo, find much alike in those places.  Some of my collectors have whined that the Japanese things have been too decorative and too pretty.  Maybe there is something to that…who knows.  Myself, I feel like they are good representations of the Tokyo I experienced, as elegant and ornamental as that place may be.  I love the graphic sensibility of Japanese comics and graphic art; the more, more, more of it.  If it is not for you, well, this is what makes a horserace, and I give not a fuck.

New Orleans is also like this ñ color and shapes and sweat and nature all commingled into a lovely kind of sweet gumbo for the eyes.  I’m especially happy for my other city in the wake of the SAINTS . . . BOO YAH!!!!!!  It is the indication that this holy place is back.  My friends from NOLA texted, called and e-mailed their collective joy from all parts of the city yesterday, and I was overjoyed and over the moon for them.  I also made a neat pile of cash on the game ñ the Saints being 6-point dogs.  I’m betting more than one bookie lost his shirt yesterday.

I go to places like New Orleans, Tokyo and New York for sanity, for the joy and the mysterious poetry of those streets.  It is odd how I feel at home on the streets of New Orleans and Tokyo, and like a foreigner on the streets of Chicago lately.  At times there seems to be this untethering of my belonging to this city.  The desire to wander is more and more part of my work and make-up.  I have been the dutiful son to Chicago; I feel like I have done my bit here and I want to put the rest of the world in my work and see it with my own eyes.

I enjoyed performing This Train so much because I feel like it was a fair look at this place.  I love and hate this city, and I’ll always need it, it is my home.  But I also feel tremendously at home in New York and New Orleans, Tokyo and Austin.  You couldn’t give me other places, but these ones I dearly treasure.  This spring I’ll go to Prague and Istanbul, and I hope I love those cities as much.

In Ueno Park in Tokyo, all manner of gorgeous songbirds can be found and actually heard.  It is a magical place.  See it before you shuffle off of this planet.  You’ll thank me.

Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Emerald Fish of Toto Jinja

The Emerald Fish Of Togo JinjaIn the middle of Harajuku in the center of Tokyo, there is a public park called Togo Jinja and it is a lovely green in the middle of a consumerist barrage.  Every Sunday afternoon there is a flea market with all manner of paper ephemera and other curiosities.  Naturally, I spent a fortune here, being a paper fetishist.  I was over the moon with envy for all of the amazing and lovely things that were here and bought as much as I could to make my Tokyo pieces.

It is a gorgeous small park with a shrine in the middle of it and all kinds of small koi and goldfish ponds, some only 10 to 15 feet wide with little bridges over them.  It also has a winding path that takes one in and out of the shade.  Watching the bargaining that goes on is all kinds of fun.  I never dicker and the price they ask is the price I give.  The Japanese bargain hard.  I watched some contentious contests of will that I swore would maybe come to blows, only to be concluded with a hearty “hai” and some laughter and then, perhaps, some sharing of tea.

I like to think about that place now that I am sack-deep in a Chicago winter.  These are getting old for me and the 10 degree days of gray skies and almost no sunlight are grim and depressing.  The temperament of the town sometimes doesn’t help.  It is election season in Illinois and every slack-jawed hand-job in the village is running for something.  Of particular interest is the Governor’s race, with a bunch of haircuts promising to clean up politics.  Yeah.  The one decent guy seems to be Quinn, the sitting Governor, who seems like a boy scout and a decent guy, but I fear he has all of the political charisma of a vanilla milkshake.

There is so much to love about Chicago–its diversity and color and boundless energy. . . its proud architecture and grand theatrical and literary history.  It is a great city worth fighting for.  I often watch movies that are shot here, whether they are any good or not, just to look at the city and marvel at its raw physicality; its brick and steel and wires, its boundless grace and tempestuous history.  It is one of the great cities of this world.  But winter?  Fuck me.

It makes me miss all of the warm places I go; Japan in September, New Orleans in winter, New Mexico and Arizona in autumn.  It is 15 degrees as I write this.  You can’t walk five blocks without your crank turning into a popsicle.

I miss TogoJinja and feeding Big Macs to the koi, drinking green tea and walking foreign streets and parks.  It’s the wanderlust . . . it’s got me bad.

Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 4:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Girl of the Falling Planets,

Girl Of The Falling Planets

I’ve written a lot of love poems.  This one is kind of a love poem for Japan or, more specifically, Tokyo.  It is seductive and full of secrets . . . like a woman.  It is probably a metaphor that would perplex most Japanese ñ a very male-dominated society.  The women I spoke to in Japan seemed sadly resigned to, at some point in their lives, becoming part of a man’s life as almost chattel.  Some of the young women, who worked at the hotel I stayed at, told me that their mothers and their fathers encouraged them to find a man, rather than pursue an education or a business of their own.  The encouraging thing in these conversations was that the women bristled at these thoughts.  One young woman, Sayaka, made it clear that her parents were going to have to realize that it was a new Japan; that the cultural revolution, acted out between young and old, had already happened, albeit quietly.  The young men did not desire to be salary-men and the young women wanted lives, careers and businesses of their own.  It is ironic to view this very old culture and think it has taken this long for young women to liberate themselves from old patriarchal customs and expectations.  Of course, many young women in Japan looked to American women as symbolic of the empowerment one can achieve in the new Japan.  The image of the passive and quiet Asian woman is a quickly disappearing stereotype.

In Japanese art there is no small amount of erotic content; the woodcuts and paintings of artists like Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi are full of geishas and courtesans.  Manga is full of some of the most brutal porn you’ll ever see, replete with rape-fantasy storylines that are degrading and sadly very common.  For centuries, women have very often been sex objects in Japanese art.  There are young women artists in Japan who are turning these paradigms on their head.  Mariko Mori, who seamlessly cobbles together Eastern myths and Western cultural motifs, often makes videos and photographs using herself, more often than not, as a goddess.  Work like hers points to a newly realized “Girl Power” that emboldens other young women artists.  She is a big deal–a real role model to young Japanese women . . . a woman in control of her own art and her own image . . . a woman who owns herself.

I also found out that the cherry blossom season of spring in Japan is a time when many young men propose marriage.  It is a beautiful time of year when the blossoms are in full roar and the parks are full of bright, gauzy whites and pinks, plum wine and music.  It is a lovely thing in a lovely city.  This one is for Tokyo.

Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Spider Music

The Spider MusicWhen my daughter Gaby was small, I used to read her my favorite children’s book, Charlotte’s Web. it was a gorgeous allegory about right and wrong by E. B. White.  It gently explained the mystery of the life-cycle without all of the punitive religious horse-shit.  Charlotte’s legacy were a hundred little parachutes with her babies tethered to the end of them with silken threads.  Charlotte is alive through her children and the kind lessons she bestowed upon her friends in the barn-yard.

I am still kind of a pussy about spiders, but I don’t immediately kill them like I used to.  Now I sweep them out of whatever place I am inhabiting, but I don’t stomp on the poor fuckers like I used to.  Spiders are among the most useful of creatures; eating flies, mosquitoes, nits, centipedes and other harmful bugs.  Still, they give me the willies; especially the big fuckers–they still spook me.

In Japan, of course, spiders are looked on with favor, as useful makers of silk-like thread and as nature’s artists. Much Japanese art references the glistening geometry of spider-webs.  It appeals to the Japanese sense of elegant order.  All through the wood-cuts and etchings of Hiroshige and Hokusai there are hints of spiders and their webs as benevolent elements.  In haiku, Issa, Buson and Basho all write of spiders and the rigorous mathematical poetry of their webs.

My friend, Steve Earle, told me a couple of years ago that after reading a lot of haiku that he didn’t want to kill things anymore.  He used to hunt deer and fish for trout for eating.  Now he is content to merely humiliate the cutthroat trout he catches and lets them go.  After visiting Japan and reading a lot of Japanese poetry, the reverence for life is something I share.  I don’t want to kill anything either.  In New Orleans recently I let a cockroach saunter by me without stomping his ass.  He was a big motherfucker and he walked by with no urgency.  It was if he were daring me, like, “Hey….Want some of this?”   In New Orleans, they want to pretend cockroaches are something else, so they call them pretty names like “palmetto bugs” or the banal “waterbug.”  Bullshit.  They are cockroaches. Granted, they are the size of a Buick and they fly, but they are still fucking ROACHES.

And I still have no desire to kill them anymore.

And this is something.

Published in: on October 13, 2009 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Yellow River

The Yellow River

Do you not see the waters of the Yellow River
Come flowing from the sky?
The swift stream pours into the sea and returns never-more?
– Li Po,  An Exhortation

Li Po liked to get hammered on wine and write poems.  His “Exhortations” (there were many) find their modern counterpart in poems like Baudelaire’s Get Drunk, in which the poets celebrate life’s rich bounty of wine, words and love.  Li Po was not adverse to what he called “reckless revelry,” which is not to say he was not serious about anything.  He was very devoted to  nature and would tear up at the sight of the constellations.  He was a sensualist and spent many days and years by rivers and under the stars.  He was in awe of all of it.  In his poems, he would state, “We never grow tired of each other, the stars and I.”

I’ve not spent a lot of time in nature and lately I’ve had a desire to be by the river or the lake.  I like watching birds and in Tokyo, I really loved watching the whir of carp and koi and goldfish in the ponds in the public parks.  Tokyo still  looms large in my thoughts and day-dreams.  I want to go back.  I miss it; much the way I miss New Orleans when I’m not there.  It is a dream-city full of color and blinding imagery and light.  It is an urban reliquary as much of the imagination as it is a city  of order and clock-like efficiency.  I love the way the Japanese blend images and words  and architecture and light.

There is a stretch of subterranean business district called “Piss Alley” (named so because at one time they all shared the same restroom) filled with bars, restaurants, clip-joints and bazaar-like shops that is so dizzying in its claustrophobic stalls and stores, it feels like an above ground river of human excess and activity.  It is hypnotic.  Like the rest of Tokyo, it is dreamy and exotic in its otherness. The kind of place I’m very comfortable.

I love places that challenge what I  know.  Places where I shut up and look and listen and let it teach me their rhythms and sounds and colors. Tokyo is a quiet city for one as large as it is; hell, for any city.  It is odd and wonderful to me, and I want badly to go back.

I like its quiet kindness and inescapable poetry.  It has connected me with an instinct to seek a kind of peace with myself.

Published in: on October 9, 2009 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Koi for Li-Po

Koif or Li-PoLi Po has been the best known Chinese poet in  Asia for about the last thousand years.  He was a huge influence on the haiku poets — and is credited with being the seminal influence in the language of Tanka and Haiku.  He was one of those wandering, searching poets who worshipped nature. He was so great a poet that there are volumes of poems by other poets proclaiming their devotion to him:

Today I laid bare before you
all things stored in my heart.

are the final lines from an anonymous poet in a verse dedicated to Li Po.  His poems are like an electrified arcing kite-string connecting him and Basho to modernist poets like Ezra Pound who was profoundly influenced by  the writings of the Chinese poets of the 6th and 7th centuries, but in particular, Li Po.

One must remember that Li Po was a poet of what was considered the cultural age of enlightenment in China; the 300 years or so that constituted the Tang Dynasty.  The greatist artistic attainments of this age were poetry.  There were no plawrights or novelists; only poets; and  there were poets up the wazoo.  As the quote goes, “If there was a man, he was a poet.” The Chinese  held poetry in very high regard, and Li Po was the best of the best back then. When one reads Basho, one cannot help but realize the restraint and acuity of Li-Po hovering over the totality of Basho’s output.  That one was Japanese and one Chinese and separated by a thousand years does not deter the idea of these two spirits being distant mirrors of the other.

My friend Beth Keegan taught Chinese for years at the Latin School and she is forever correcting me on the pronunciation of Li Po’s name.  She pronounces it “Li BOUGH” and ennunciates the second syllable as if it were two.  Those who revere Chinese writing are very protective of it. After reading Li Po, I  get it.  It is a cultural treasure; one largely forgotten and one that, regrettably, nobody gives a fuck about anymore.  It’s a shame.  There is such joy and earthy gratitude in Li Po’s, “To Tung Tsao-Chiu:”

And comlier still are the green eyebrows when the new
moon shines.
The  beautiful girls sing anew and dance in robes of thin silk.

Li Po liked a good time.  After writing a letter in which this verse appears, he “sends it a thousand miles, and years, remembering.”  It is lines like this that make me feel alive.

Published in: on October 3, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Hungry Ghost

The Hungry Ghost

When you look into the ponds found in many Japanese parks and shrines there are always koi and carp.  From time to time you’ll spot an almost translucent white carp, an albino of sorts, gliding like an aquatic white ghost.  Japan and Asia, for that matter, are fairly lousy with ghosts.  One of the most haunting spook stories is that of “The Hungry Ghost.”  It pops up in Thai, Chinese and Japanese folk-tales and ghost stories.  It goes that if one has led an unscrupulous life, he, or she, is doomed in the after-life to roam the world as a hungry ghost for 800 years.  The Ghost is said to have a mouth so small that no food can fit in it.  I’ve heard this story, or variants of it, many times.  To wander, hungry, is thought to be the worst of fates.  Perhaps this is because, all over Asia, starvation is a very real-world problem.  In all of these folk-tales and parables, hunger is akin to madness.

Tokyo has made an impression on me.  It is another world that lingers in the imagination long after one returns home.  The ease with which I was able to navigate Tokyo was a surprise to me, as well as the feeling of comfort while wandering that city.  It is good to get away from one’s landscape.  To experience new sights and sounds and ways of living is a great blessing.  I spent years making work about the wonder of my own city and now it is time to let the rest of the world into my work.  I’ve thought long and hard about just what it is I want, and the simple truth of it is, I don’t want much of anything.  I pretty much have what I want.  What I’d like now is to spend my  money and time on experiences rather than “stuff’.”  I want to see more of the world and get out of  my land-locked existence as an American.  We often just see the world through our own myopic scrim and when we view ourselves from another country, our whole picture becomes exponentially more visible.  We wonder why other countries fear and distrust us, but when you view the U.S. from Asia or the U.K., we look awfully big and reckless.  I’m always  curious to know what America means to the rest of the world and very often, we are an enigma to foreigners in their countries.

I’ve never been treated with anything other than kindness when I’ve traveled to other countries.  People are curious about us.  They do tend to think we’re all rich, which is kind of funny, but by and large, most of the people I meet are surprised that Americans are as nice as we are.  Given what they see of our government’s policies, I understand this.

Published in: on October 1, 2009 at 1:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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Shinjuku Sparrow

Shinjuku SparrowIn the Shinjuku district, there is most of the cool shopping in Japan, with bold graphics and bling everywhere.  You can walk by a window of a dizzying variety of Nike shoes, complete with every color of the swoosh one can imagine.  There are watches upon watches upon watches.  The weirdest ice-cream cones imaginable; not really cones the way we know them, more like sweet, thin wraps  stuffed with every kind of sweet cream and fruit and nuts and syrup.

Shinjuku is blinding color and motion, though not nearly as loud as other cities.  It is a culture of consumers, just like ours.  There are odd knock-offs of American products and Hello Kitty shit everywhere. I have to admit, I rather like the Hello Kitty stuff, as it is very comics-like.  There are a lot of young Japanese artists whose styles are greatly indebted to comics and manga.  It is the visual lingua-franca of their culture; much like comics, tattoos, Mad Magazine, and horror movies were for me.

As a kid, I remember having a Ratfink figure, one of those masterpieces of hot-rod culture that Big Daddy Roth gave us.  I was seven or eight and this was my favorite thing in the world.  I remember having to fight this oafish asshole who tried to take it from me on the playground.  Eddie Josephi tried to  grab it from me.  The prick. Needless to say, I left the playground with my Ratfink and Eddie ran home like a bitch with a bloody nose.

Shinjuku made me think of childhood a lot.  This part of town is very rooted in youth culture and you can find comics and books everywhere here and in the Chiyoda district, I found three volumes of gorgeous Japanese birds and paid a fortune for it and lugged the heavy bastards back to Chicago.  But what a score!  Whoever illustrated this book really loved birds.  As a kid, I drew birds incessantly.  Our yard was full of sparrows and finches and cardinals, red-wing blackbirds, and mourning doves.  The birds of Japan are exotic to me.  I don’t know a lot about them, and when I look in these books, it is like being there.  The parks are full of ravens and cranes and every kind of songbird.  In Ueno Park you can watch ravens gobble down cicadas in the late summer, and see cranes standing still as glass in the lagoon.  I think Japanese parks are quiet so one can hear the birds and the water.  In what little public space there is in Tokyo, nature is observed and revered.

Small ghost singing
In a Tokyo alley
Broken mirror songs.

Published in: on September 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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Ueno Park Goldfish

Ueno Park GoldfishIn Tokyo, there is a lovely, lush public green named Ueno Park.  It is full of beautifully sculpted trees; pines pruned to mimic bonsai motifs and ponds full of koi and carp and goldfish who come up to the surface and make sucking sounds that entreat tourists to feed them.  They will eat anything; hot-dogs, crackers, pretzels, cigarette butts; you name it.  The turtles also come over and mooch food as well.  Ueno Park was established by an imperial land grant in the 1920’s by Emperor Taishō. The official name of the park is “Ueno Imperial Gift Park,” lest anyone forget the largess of the Emperor.

It is a huge park complete with shrines, museums, a concert hall and a lovely grotto. If you are homeless in Tokyo, you probably live here. Though I didn’t notice a huge homeless population, people assure me it exists there.

Every spring, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, the park is a magical burst of pinks and reds and the Japanese travel from near and far to sit under the cherry blossoms and picnic and drink wine and listen to music.  This is a centuries old celebration.   My next-door neighbor, the fine Chicago photo-based artist, Doug Fogelson, went for the spring this year and told me how magical it was.  Doug’s enthusiasm for this is part of why I went to  Japan and I’ll be forever grateful to him for  making me aware of this.

Ueno Park figures prominently in much of the native fiction and manga.  It occupies the former Kan’ei-ji,  the temple of the Shoguns, who’d built the temple to protect the Castle of Edo.

The carp are huge and beautiful and have as much personality as a fish can have, they have it.  One is struck by the reverence the Japanese have for their parks.  They are very quiet places; serene really, and not full of douche-bags throwing Frisbees to their dogs. Nor does anyone let their dog shit in the park.  Or if they do, they probably toss it to the carp.

Flying back from Tokyo is sad; first because I’m sad to leave that place I am so fascinated by.  Secondly, because the movies on the plane were Sandra Bullock movies, and my iPod ran out of juice an hour into the flight.

When I got back, my dog, Chooch, jumped all over me and was thrilled to see me. . .at first.  About an hour later, he started giving me the shit-eye for being gone so long.  Three pieces of salami fixed that.  Once I left Tokyo, I started missing it.  It is one of those places, like New Orleans, where square-pegs like me actually kind of fit in.

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 11:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary — Jingu Stadium

My last night in Tokyo, I wanted to see a baseball game.  Luckily, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows were hosting the Hiroshima Carp at Jingu Stadium.  It was a beautiful night for a ballgame and Jingu Stadium has the feel of an old-time ballpark; the kind where people go to watch the game, instead of each other.  There are no skyboxes or hundred-dollar box seats or any of that kind of horseshit.  It is a real ballpark.

There are a surprising number of Americans on both teams and one wonders how they wound up here.  It is a different game in Japan.  It is the very definition of “small ball;” the emphasis being on playing like a team.  Hit to get on base.  The most valuable players in Japanese baseball are the guys with the highest on-base percentage.  There are also a ton of women fans here; not girlfriends who got dragged to the game, but real baseball enthusiasts who wear the hats and bang the plastic bats together with  a rabid alacrity.

Me and John McNaughton are the children of lifelong White Sox fans.  Both of our fathers dutifully followed the Sox their whole lives without ever seeing them win it all. The closest they came was in 1959 when they lost the World Series to the LA Dodgers. We discussed our fathers in the cab on the way to Jingu Stadium.  It seems like we almost had the same father; both men being hard to please and somewhat suspect  of their sons’ chosen career paths.  One of the reasons I came to Japan is my father’s having fought in the Pacific in WWII.  He invaded Okinawa and witnessed a bestial, awful battle that forever colored the way he thought of  the Japanese.  I wondered, really, what this place was?  Our countries did grievous injury to each other almost 65 years ago.  Who are they now?  And who are we?

Part of the answer came to me tonight.  A man sitting next to us was wearing a Carps hat and, after a bit of conversation, told us the Carps were his hometown team.

Hiroshima.

I’m not used to thinking of Hiroshima as a place where people live. . .a community. . .but rather as the exclamation point of our war with Japan.  Hiroshima was an action, not a place.  Yet here we are, on a warm summer night in Tokyo talking with another baseball fan about our teams.  He asked us about the Cubs.  Of course we said “Fuck NO!” and he laughed.  We explained that we were real baseball fans; White Sox fans. On this night, almost three quarters of a century after our country tried to erase this man’s city from the earth, I met a  guy from the town of Hiroshima.  He’s lived there his whole life and he likes baseball.  He comes here for the same reasons I do; to try and remember what is good about where we live and who we are.

Published in: on September 10, 2009 at 2:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tokyo Diary — Tokyo Giants Hat

I have walked like a goddamned Sherpa and eaten more tuna than Flipper.  I love Tokyo; its dreaminess, its civility, its attention to beauty and detail.  I wake up here and I am in a city with more people than almost any other on earth, yet, it is quiet.  You rarely here a car horn or a siren.  There is a premium placed on the idea of calm, efficient motion.  One does not expend an ounce of energy one does not have to; life is  lived in a kind of measure.

I went to some art galleries on the outskirts of Tokyo and saw some contemporary art and it was mostly stuff one could see in Chelsea last year.  I was surprised.  There were no Japanese artists in any of the four places I looked; only New Yorkers and Europeans.  I met a very opinionated American trust-fund brat with a gallery in Tokyo who, within the first 3 minutes of our conversation, trashed every artist in Tokyo and New York, and Murakam (the novelist) and Murakami (the artist),  referring to him as an “Orientalist” whatever the hell that means.  He was an annoying, pedantic, name-dropping, ass-wipe who also had nothing good to say about Tokyo, despite the fact he has lived here for nine years.  He also “had a gallery on the lower east side” and spent another 5 minutes trashing everyone and thing in NYC as well.  I wanted to compliment him on his ability to be an unwelcome asshole in TWO hemispheres , but it was clear we’d never get a word in, so we escaped the art district, having given it 40 minutes, and I decided my time would more productively be spent finding the dome where the World Champion Tokyo Giants play and get myself a hat.

I’ve wanted one forever and I suppose I could just snag one off the internet; but I have this memory of my father and uncle buying me a White Sox hat at Comiskey as a kid and I have this particular fetish for buying my hats at the stadium.  So I took the 3000-yen ride to Giants Stadium and found the coolest, most boss, fitted Tokyo Giants hat; and I look like a cool motherfucker in it.  I had to go all the way to Tokyo to get one.    Does that make mine cooler?  Damn skippy, it does.

I’ve had a lot of time to think while I’ve been here and I’ve come to the conclusion that while I love making my work, I don’t much care for the culture that surrounds me as an artist.  It’s like being on a bus full of mental defectives.  The art world’s culture is almost entirely about itself.  There is a curious lack of curiosity about the way rest of the world lives, and an appalling lack of  literate knowledge.  They don’t read much, other than magazines about art, fashion and movies.  They interview each other and they all talk like a roll of toilet-paper; the same banal platitudes wrapped the new buzzwords.  This season “contextualist” is a popular important sounding term that actually doesn’t mean anything.

I’m fortunate.  I have very good dealers who know it’s best to just let me be me and everything will be okay.   But still, I look around and listen to the conversation in the art world and when they discuss “the crisis,” they’re not talking about the huge percentage of our fellow citizens who are without healthcare or a job.  “The Crisis” is about slow art sales and galleries closing.  Really.  I hear this shit regularly.  Maybe it’s time the art world realized that it is part of the real world and embrace a larger set of priorities and step up to a larger responsibility in the community; have its artists mentor kids, do out-reach in the schools and the juvenile detention centers; the other world. . .beyond the  billboards.

Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary–Ameyoko Market

They don’t want to be salarymen.  The 4 or 5 young men I am standing with are tattooed, nattily-dressed punker types with gangster hats and highlighted hair.  We are standing at the entrance of the Ameyoko market where you can by everything from big-eyed, cartoony redfish, to primrose-colored Ramones T-shirts, to epicurean green tea.  It is a bit of the new economy’s Wild West, with guys hawking everything out loud , specially the fish guys, who pick up their catch every morning from Tsukiji market.

These young men want none of the  stoic and sober countenance of the quiet, brief-case carrying commuters they eye walking briskly toward the trains.  They walked up and started asking me about my tattoos and we, as best we could, talked about what they were up to.  One young man with a DMX T-Shirt told me he was an aspiring rapper, and his first love was American hip-hop and rap acts like 50- Cent and Snoop Dogg.  He even did a bit of Snoop for me; “Snoop upside, Snoop upside,  Snoop upside  yo head. . .”  Seeing this from an earnest Japanese teenager is screamingly funny, and even he thinks so.  The other guys weren’t sure about what they wanted.  As much as they understood what I was getting at.

I showed them a book of some of my work and via the miracle of pantomime, we were able to communicate.  These guys all love Scarface.  I know this because when I told them my name was “Tony,” they started saying “Tony Montana. . .Say hello to my lil friend. . .bang, bang, bang.”  When I told them I was from Chicago, they said “Al Capone,” to which I nodded and replied “Fuckin’ A. . .except now we call him Mayor Daley.”

I got a lot out of talking with these kids.  In some ways they want to be like us.  In other ways, they’re rightly appalled by us.  One of them went to great pains to show his dismay at the reports of people showing up to our President’s speeches with guns.  This idea  gives him the idea that we are crazy.  And they are aware  of the racism cloaked in much of the anti-Obama sentiment.  Outside of our borders, I thought, maybe people are able to see this better than we, ourselves do and perhaps able to take a longer view of us.

These guys are also bat-shit for comics and were trying to ask me why I didn’t do comics.  I tried to explain that this was what I’d wanted to do as a kid.  In this culture it is not unusual for grown men to read and buy comics and Manga.  In fact,  it is a bumper industry over here and sometimes the fans dress like the Manga characters and get together in the parks.  Get on any train and you see men reading comics.  The comic stores in Chiyoda are always full of mostly men and boys and they  wait with baited breath for each new installment.

The market here is almost impossible to describe as it sells everything.  A young man with a shaved head and a Drop-Kick Murphy’s T-shirt is hawking styrofoam cooler after cooler of eel’s, remora,and baby octopus.  Two stalls down there is an older women offering seaweed and kelp; next to her is a guy with knock-off Dolce & Gabana products.  There is no rhyme or reason to how this thing works, but it is wonderful and I realize that for about a week, I’ve not been chained to my cell phone or e-mail, and I have the luxury of watching like a fly on the wall; granted a 6’3″, 250 pound fly (it’s not like I go un-noticed), but nobody knows me here and beyond my freakish large size, nobody pays me much attention and I am able to use my eyes and ears and decode what is going on around me in my own way and on my own time.  I don’t know that I completely get Japan, but I like it.  There is a dreaminess about it that I respond to and a lot of this population often seeks its own world to disappear into.   Nobody understands this desire like I do.

There is a term used to describe certain elements of Japanese art called “the Floating World.”  It was often used to describe narrative art in this country over the last few centuries and it is thought that a great much of Japanese comics and manga come out of this  tradition.  It is not unlike how European whites describe some Latin-American writing as “magical realism.”  The two are not unlike each other.   There is a real world feeling of that in this country; that amid the salarymen and a culture that seems to adhere to almost arcanely comformist behavior; there is a wild imagination woven into the human experience.

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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