Birds for Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse Tashunca-uitco My land is where my dead lie buried. A flock of red birds or a necklace of stars. He wished to be black leaves--flying over water...

Crazy Horse Tashunca-uitco
My land is where my dead lie buried.
A flock of red birds or a necklace of stars.
He wished to be black leaves–flying over water…

Crazy Horse wanted little to do with other people, red or white. He was happiest out wandering in nature. He was as content to sleep in a cave or a hole, as he was in a camp. He loved being out under the stars and was comfortable with his own company. There was a reason the Oglala Lakota referred to him as “our Strange Man.”

His nonconformity set him apart in a tribal culture. He had much responsibility in his tribe. He was among the most fierce of warriors; a brilliant tactical fighter and a superb hunter, and to his tribe, he was necessary and he was up to shouldering his immense responsibility to his people. He hunted buffalo, he led war-parties and raids, but when the opportunity arose, he would go off by himself to be in nature and fast and seek visions. He was curious about the spirits and the next world and he sought wisdom. Like Basho, he was always searching and seeking knowledge.

In Tokyo, I visited some Shinto shrines and was struck by how much Shintoism reflects the beliefs of some Native American beliefs as well. I’m not religious at all, but do tend to cede the power most attribute to god, to nature. The Shinto teachings have an intense reverence for the natural world and the shrines are sublimely beautiful.

In battle Crazy Horse adorned his forehead with three hailstones and red lightning bolts on each cheek. He also carried a small pebble or hailstone behind his ear. These images were powerful talismans in his life and visions. When it would hail, the Native American believed it was raining stone and, depending which text you read, this was alternately ominous and hopeful at the same time.

It may sound odd that I once went to Japan to better understand Crazy Horse, but I think it helped. In every culture, there are these odd-spirited men who don’t quite fit into the world easily, yet they push that culture forward for better and ill. They are necessary people who don’t want to punch a clock or color inside the lines. There is an otherness about them. In Japan, the Haiku monks were thought to be oddballs in their day. Basho was an admirer of Li-Po, the great Chinese poet of the 8th century, another wandering spirit enamored of wandering in nature. It is not an accident that Haiku is rooted in nature and reflects the seasonal shifts of one’s lifetime.

I hope that after Crazy Horse was murdered, he went somewhere. He certainly deserved better than he got. I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I’d like it if he had one. Haitians refer to the land between the living and the dead as the “Gray World” and there is no time continuum; it is a place where Basho and Crazy Horse could meet. I hope wherever Crazy Horse went, he wore a necklace of stars.

Published in: on May 7, 2014 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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The Tiger Koi

The Tiger KoiOver eight years ago, at the completion of The Autumn Etchings, I stopped making etchings.  I’d made them for 12 straight years and made over 400 images.  I love making them; the ink, the acid, the alchemy of all of it. . .the knowledge that no matter how well you plan, about 20 percent of it is up to the fates.  My etchings were well-collected (and thank you for that).  They are in all of the major museums and led me to places I never thought I would get.

After The Autumn Etchings, I was tired.  I’d made very little one-of-a-kind work during those years and I was more and more curious about combining drawing and collage.  I also felt like maybe my tank was empty.  I needed a break and made myself the quiet deal that when I had something I felt was new to bring to etching, I’d make more.

I can’t count the times in the last few years while making something particularly graphic, I’d thought to myself, “This would make a remarkable etching.”  I began to realize how much I missed it.   Last fall, I made a piece with the peerless Teresa James, with whom I’d worked for ten years and we made a lovely five-color piece called, The Spider Music.

A month ago, I picked up the phone and bought an etching press. . .a Takach.  the only kind I use.  I hired Will Sturgis, a first -rate etching printer and Glenn Hendrick, also a terrific printer, and then Lauren LeVato, a wonderful artist who also does sales and PR and I started Black Shamrock.  So I’m hacking up copper like a banshee and I am one happy Mick.

One of the compelling lures back to etching was visiting Tokyo, a little over a year ago.  Land of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and all of the other Floating World artists who’ve made such magnificent etchings.  Tokyo itself– its odd, other-worldly order and quiet.  Ueno Park, a huge sprawling public green with ravens and storks and cicadas.  The huge koi ponds with monstrous koi, some as old as 225 years, gliding like luminous ghosts in the brackish water.

Koi are primarily carp with a better paint-job; glorious yellows, oranges, golds, pinks and in some cases, iridescent whites, floating in the ponds like ancient apparitions.

I loved standing there and feeding the koi.  At first I gave them “koi food,: which they ate politely enough. The next day I came back with a sack of Big Macs from McDonalds and started tossing them hunks of that and the koi went  bat-shit for those.  Everytime I came near the water they’d put their mouths up to the surface and make slurping noises with more gusto than Jenna Jameson.

One day, the pond-keeper walked up to me and I thought I’d get in trouble for feeding them McDonalds.  I sheepishly said, “I probably shouldn’t be feeding them these burgers.”

He smiled and said, “It’s fine.  They eat shit.  How much worse could those be?”

I realized feeding those koi and sitting in that park that for the first time in a long time, I was happy.  Whatever else was going on in the world around me; it could wait.  Taking a moment or two to marvel at the natural world around you was well worth it.  The respite re-energized me and it was good.

This is a new five-color etching and it is for sale.  The pre-publication price is $1500.00.  In 30 days the price will be $1800.00

It is in an edition of 40.


Published in: on April 8, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Spider Songs

The Spider Songs - Etching

I stopped making etchings about eight years ago.  I’d made a suite called the Autumn Etchings, and at the time I thought that was about as good as I had ever done it and that this juncture would be a good place to stop for a while. I was tired and it had been a rough ten years making nothing but etchings.  I learned a lot about how to make pictures and I loved etching, but also, having to finance a shop and sell the etchings was a full-time job in and of itself.  I was forever traipsing off to New York or New Orleans or L.A. with two portfolios jammed with etchings,flats, and interleaving.  I had a good time, but it was tiring as hell.  I also had missed making one-of-a-kind work; drawings and combing drawing and collage.  After the Autumn Etchings, I decided I’d not make any new etchings until I had something new to bring to it.  I eventually got rid of my presses and made my studio over into a drawing studio instead.

For ten of the years I made etchings I worked with Teresa James.  I hired her from a coffee shop and together, with the help of Stephen Campbell, we taught each other how to build an art business.  Teresa opened her own gorgeous studio, White Wings, about eight years ago and luckily for her, she’s not made all of the mistakes I have.  The years we worked together were hard.  Etchings sold for a fraction of what my one of a kind works did, but I was learning to be a better draftsman and expanding what I knew about drawing.  We had two shops;  one at 13th and Wabash across the hall from World Tattoo, and the one in Bucktown that is now FireCat Projects.  We had to hustle to scratch out a living, but with a shaky economy, we found a new generation of younger collectors that could more easily afford multiples and we were able to make a go of it.   Our collaboration culminated in Max and Gaby’s Alphabet, 26  five-color etchings for each letter of the alphabet that I made for my children.

We learned some bitter lessons about making art in Chicago; that a great many Chicago collectors buy their work elsewhere and that print-making had been relegated to a second-class kind of art-making here depite the rich legacy of phenominal artists who made prints in this city.

We didn’t care; we went about making our work for the best reasons possible. We had to.

In the last few months, I’ve started making some etchings again.  This time, Teresa is my publisher.  She and her assistant, Kari McCluskey, have helped me ease back into it without any difficulty.  I’d forgotten how much fun I’d had working with her.  Her new shop is bright and immaculate, unlike BigCat in its heyday.  It is a joy to work there.  We made a couple of things and I really enjoy them, so we’ve decided to make a new suite of work over the next several months and I’m really excited about it.  She and I were always a good team.  She was measured, patient and methodical and I’m a rabid ape.  Somehow, it all worked.  I’m grateful for Teresa’s hospitality and generosity of spirit.

This piece was inspired by my trip to Tokyo and a lovely, quiet park named Togo Ginga.

Happy Thanksgiving.  I am grateful for all of you.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Fish Man

The Fish ManI like drawing fish almost as much as birds.  The big cartoony eyes and odd colors and shapes–they are a ton of fun.  As a kid, my friend’s  father would buy fish from the market during Lent and the guy who sold it, no shit, looked like a grouper.  He was a hairy fucker who wore a Dago-t  and had moles all over his face and neck the size of dimes and a lower lip that protruded and always had a Lucky Strike sealed to it with spit.  His name was Louie and whenever something surprised him he’d say, “Fuckin A?”  For instance:

“Hey Louie, the Sox won.”
“Fuckin’ A?”

“Hey Louie, It’s going to rain.”
“Fuckin’ A?”

“Hey Louie, the precinct captain is banging your wife.”
“Fuckin A?  Poor bastard.”

He was a funny guy who really knew his fish and once taught me how to eat a smoked chub right off of the bones.  I loved the fish section of the market; all of the different colors and pungent smells and pink fish flesh seemed alien and otherworldly to me.
When I went to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, it was an all out assault  on the senses; a  blinding sensation of motion and temperature and speed and ice–the fish laid out for the restaurateurs, often still writhing in ice-bins, their scales a repository of refulgent, shimmering light.

Fish are mysterious and beautiful to me-.  Later in my Tokyo trip, I spent time feeding the koi in Ueno Park, which are considered the royalty of aquatic life in that culture even though they are basically carp.  I love looking at fish and the way they move.

My dad took me to watch the smelt fisherman on Lake Michigan as a little boy once.  He told me to notice how many different languages I heard at Montrose Harbor as we walked the dock.  There were Greeks, Mexicans, Poles, Ukrainians, Slavs, Swedes, Italians.  It was one of those activities that brought out all of the tribes in a peaceful collaboration rooted in their native countries.  It was also magical.  I remember looking under the dock and seeing the silvery whir of bait fish, moving so quickly as to be indecipherable.  My dad was not a fisherman, nor am I.  It was just something he knew about and shared with me.

I love watching those fishing shows like The Deadliest Catch, even though they’re fishing for crabs, it is dangerous and hard work.  In the fish market in Tokyo, I saw any number of guys up to their elbows in fish-guts; butchering tuna, amberjack and eels.  It is hard dirty work.

It is also a reminder that the seemingly pastoral world beneath the sea is actually  around-the-clock  murder-.  There is nothing gentle about the ocean.  The truth of it is  little fish get eaten by bigger fish.  Those fish are devoured by still bigger fish and on and on.  The salient lesson seems to be, “Don’t be a fucking guppy.”

This piece is called, The FishMan.  His super power is he eats the shit that falls into the pond.

Published in: on June 20, 2010 at 11:51 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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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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The Black Carp

The Black Carp

Carp are sacred in Japan.  My friend, Duncan, told me of one that was a gift from a 17th century Emperor.  It lived for 250 years.  They are hardy fuckers; eating and drawing sustenance from all manner of shit, garbage, and aquatic detritus.  Frogs, minnows, paper-bags, pretzels, and any other gunk that falls in the water, all ring the dinner bell for carp.  It is the very definition of a garbage fish, yet they are beautiful and fleet in the water, growing as large as their environment will let them.   They have been a mainstay of Japanese art and literature since the beginning of the written and painted  story.

My dog, Chooch, is kind of like a carp.  He eats whatever falls on the floor.   He was an orphan stray when I got him, eating from the garbage and starving when he was delivered to PAWS.  He is a tough little bastard who found a way to survive, just like a carp.  When lakes get polluted and all over the other fish go tits-up, not the scrappy carp.  In fact they thrive.  Most wildlife agencies consider the carp an “invasive” species meaning they wreck the aquatic neighborhood for the sexier fish like trout and  perch.  In the U.S., carp are considered inedible.  In Asia, they are heavily fished as a food-stuff.  I know guys down south who make carp-balls and swear they’re good.  I guess if you deep-fry anything with enough cornmeal and spices, it will become palatable.
Though a freshwater fish, every once in a while, someone catches one in the ocean.  There are stories of the ever-adaptable carp surviving saltwater.

Goldfish are basically carp, as are koi, which are the pretty carp and highly prized as ornamental accoutrements for ponds in Asia and Europe.  In Europe, fisherman love them because they are an intensely hard fish to hook and once you hook them, you have to fight the fuckers.  They do not go quietly off of this mortal coil.  They live for as long is there is  a steady food supply.  Despite being a universally maligned fish, they are found in the art of almost every culture, including ours.

The MCA in Chicago had a koi pond in their downstairs space.  Years ago, I had my exhibition of the alphabet etchings there and opening day was a family day where every swinging-dick in the city who had kids showed up.  One little boy climbed into the koi fountain and took a shit; much to the delight of the koi and several onlookers.  Nice of the tyke to serve the koi a hot meal.

In Japan, the carp move like a fleet, sad song under the water; drifting to the top when visitors appear to mooch food.  They put their mouths to the very surface and make a sucking sound that is to say the least, disquieting.  They have remarkably amiable personalities and are a whir of indecipherable oranges, browns, blacks and silvery whites.  hey are luminous and sublimely beautiful.

Published in: on September 27, 2009 at 4:37 pm  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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Tokyo Diary – Ginza District

I’ve taken tons and tons of digital shots and I have no earthly fucking idea how to load them onto my computer, because I am a moron.  I walked at least 5 miles today all over Sinjuku and Shimboyu and tonight in the Ginza district.  I also spent a little time in one of the parks which are gorgeous in Tokyo, and oddly quiet.  Public space is revered in this city because there is so little of it and parks offer respite from the crowds.  People are very quiet in the parks and these immaculately manicured places are sanctuary and lend themselves to reading and meditation.  The trees are carefully pruned and sculpted and every park is tended to like a giant garden.  They are beautiful.

I walked a great deal today and saw a lot of Tokyo in a shopping district right by Shiboyu.  There is a youth culture that is hard to discern the look of; part punk, part slacker, part skate-kid.  It is an amalgam of all of these things.  I have stumbled onto something  my host country really likes though–buttons. They are bat-shit for buttons.

My friend, Beth Keegan had a button made from a detail of one of my Drawing-Collages for the publication of Polyphony, an anthology of writing by high school kids that I provide the cover for every year.  After the opening party of the new issue, Beth gave me a baggie full of these buttons and said I ought to hand them out to friends.  On a whim, I brought them with me.  They were in my bag anyway and just for the hell of it, and I started handing them out in Tokyo.  Tipping is not accepted here, so mostly I’ve been giving out the buttons and, Jesus Christ. . .you’d think I was handing out the Hope Diamond.  They LOVE them.  And I began to notice lots of people have buttons with manga characters, Hello Kitty, monsters, anime, comics; these are some seriously button-happy motherfuckers.  From sushi chefs, to doormen, to hotel maids, to art-kids, the buttons are a huge hit.  Every time I hand one out I make a friend.  I speak no Japanese at all and I’ve managed  some marvelous conversations with people about these buttons and Tokyo and art and what they like.  I am so grateful to Beth for giving these to me and I think I’m going to have some more made.  We’ve been treated with such kindness here and such amazing goodwill.  I think to our hosts, maybe the buttons represent a talisman of goodwill.  I certainly mean it this way and it is understood.

Tonight, I ate the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.  Back home I am a middling fan of sushi. I can kind of take it or leave it.  My daughter loves the stuff, so I go out for it fairly frequently and the experience varies from pretty good, to just okay, to dog-shit.  I never got what the big whoop about sushi was.

Once I got it here, I understood.  This place is the mecca of sushi and a sushi chef here is a combination of things; an artist, a dinner companion, a griot, and, the good ones, educators.  You learn a lot about the Japanese in a really good sushi restaurant.  One learns of the high premium placed on the idea of civility and kindness; that over the sushi bar, one does not merely have a meal, but also forges a communal conversation and fosters goodwill.  At Kyubey in the Ginza district, I ate with my friends and had another of those marvelous conversations  in which neither participant spoke a word of the other’s language.  Oh,I know,  “Ka ni chi wa” and “Arivato,” but the conversation I had with the sushi chefs was more nuanced than many I’ve had with people I’ve know for 10 years.  It was a conversation held almost in pantomime and smiles and gestures and nods.  And it was warm and fine and good.  Watching these guys prepare food was like watching Yo Yo Ma play a cello, or Oscar Peterson, the piano.  It is the difference between watching an artist and a hobbyist.  There are no wasted movements in the preparation; every element is prepared with an economy of motion and speed  and temperature.  Every bite was different.

Tipping is not allowed, so we bought the chefs beers (and so did everyone else) and these guys toast their benefactors and then hammer the whole glass down in one sip.  Though I’ve not had a drink in 25 years, I still admire guys who drink like they absolutely mean to, and they mean to enjoy it, as well. After their toast, they go right back to work preparing delicately realized, and perfect sushi.  My friend, the chef, John Hogan, once told me that every great meal teaches you a new lesson. I’m beginning to know what he means.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – Tsujiki Fish Market

Bird Of The Falling PlanetsTsukiji Market is the biggest fish market in Tokyo.  It is aisle after aisle of all things writhing and aquatic and edible.  It is massive with a business that is blinding; Japanese men zipping around on forklifts and 3-wheelers full of every kind of fish one can imagine.  It is marketplace, slaughterhouse, and auction block all under one tin roof.  It also hosts the freshest and best sushi to be found anywhere in the world.  You think you’ve eaten tuna until you’ve eaten it here.  We sat  at a 10-seat counter at 5:30 in the morning and ate the most buttery tuna I’ve ever eaten and then walked across the perilously slick and massive warehouse to the tuna auction and watched the Japanese version of laissez-faire capitalism at work.  Chefs and seafood buyers are given an hour or so to inspect the tuna for purchase and promptly at 5:30 a.m. the auctioneers start furiously ringing handbells and taking bids.  When a lot is sold, a man with a bucket of red dye goes around to each massive frozen bluefin tuna and designates an owner and a price.  The price of tuna is variable, like any other commodity, depending on that day’s catch.

It smells remarkably like the sea and not rank at all, but briny, in a way.  There are huge scallops, wolf-fish, monk-fish, buckets of live eels, cartoon-like, big-eyed redfish and octopus, all manner of oysters, clams, and mussels and seafood butchering going on all around you .  This is a real Tokyo experience.  Almost everyone I know who has been in this city has told me to come to the fish market.

What is striking to me is not how different Japanese and American culture are, but how alike.  The Fish Market, for me, is not different than watching traders on Wall Street yelling and screaming and trying to get theirs while the sun is out.  Our cultures do not differ at all when it comes to profit-motive initiatives.  Like America, Japan has an arduos  work-ethic  in that it is thought that work dignifies one’s life and provides one with identity.

I will say that the fish market seems infinitely more civilized than the trading pit.  As we walked around this morning smiling at the melange of activity and colors and scents, people smiled back at us.  They were well-aware that we’d never seen anything like this before and were as polite as their schedule would allow.  It is a remarkable place and has been part of Japan for centuries.  When we think of the South Street Seaport and the Fulton Markets back home, they probably have their genesis in this place of brine and grime and work.

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 10:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Bird of the Falling Planets

Bird Of The Falling Planets

In the Haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson, as well as other Japanese monks, there are sometimes passages about death. In fact, on their death-beds, most Haiku monks wrote “Death Poems” and many of them are haunting and beautiful and not at all sad. . .on the contrary. . .more often they are sublime affirmations of life.  The Chinese and Koreans also write death poems.  It is an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to write a “jisei” on their death beds.

Poetry in Japan goes hand in hand with religious practice.  Haiku poets were almost always monks.  The poems were rooted in nature and emotionally neutral, with the spirituality of Shinto and Buddhist teachings being a thematically unifying element.

After the passing of my father I wrote about 50 Haiku.  They were, in my mind, his death poems.  My father wasn’t much on poetry, though for some reason he could recite The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by heart. I think maybe it was a sailor thing.

Many “jisei” are written before ceremonial Seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide).  In fact, Yukio Mishima, the great Japanese writer and playwright, wrote one before committing Seppuku.

I’ve written about 40 death poems, in case at the moment of the “big Adios,” I’m not feeling it.  I didn’t write them out of any morbid notion; just curiosity and the idea of being able to exercise an economy of words and emotions at the wet-ass hour.  I like this one:

Glad Reunion:
Me, Red Birds, White Flowers
And Falling Planets.

I always loved that the Japanese pared down the human experience to the idea that we are part of nature; no bigger in the universe than rocks, birds or flowers.  ‘m not a Buddhist, but of all of the religions (and I adhere to none of them)  they seem the most sane.  This one is funny too:

A bath when you’re born
A bath when you die
How Stupid.
– Unknown

I’m going to Japan in a couple of weeks.  I’m not sure what I am looking for; I just know I need to go there.  I’ve been reading Haiku most of my life.  I know about Edo (What Tokyo used to be called), I know about the gardens and temples, I know Ronin stories and the code of the Samurai, the honor. . . I’ve read the tale of Genji.

I’m 50 years old.  It is time to see an older world.

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 10:13 am  Comments (1)  
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