Hubert Burda Media

Art Basel 2017: Tomokazu Matsuyama

The work of this trans-pacific Japanese artist goes far beyond East meets West.

Growing up in the historic town of Takayama, known as “Little Kyoto”, Japanese artist Tomokazu Matsuyama had a childhood steeped in culture. As a boy, he was exposed to traditional lacquer artisans, sake brewers, potters and kimono dyers. When he was eight, however, his father uprooted his family to move to Orange County in California. It was the early ’80s and the surfing and skateboarding scene was taking off . “From living on a mountain range running around catching beetles, going to Southern California and seeing teenagers drinking and smoking was a huge culture shock,” he recalls. But Matsuyama assimilated quickly. “I got into skateboarding, that’s what completely messed up my life in a good way,” he recalls with a grin. “I saw all this graffiti around and skateboard graphics that instantly caught my interest.”

But just as he was settling in, his family whisked him back to Japan before he finished sixth grade. “I had completely become an American kid so it was much harder to adjust to going back,” he remembers. “I was picked on very hard. I was very Westernised and opinionated about everything.” Matsuyama found himself in limbo. He didn’t fit in even though he was in his own country. “I had to go through that struggle for my entire life,” he says. “Not having an identity.”

This tussle between cultures and the struggle with a sense of belonging became the seed from which his art works stem. After a brief career as a professional snowboarder in Japan – curtailed due to a severe accident – he returned to the US to study graphic design and began his career as a street artist before crossing over into the world of galleries and museums. Today, he has become known for his loud and hyper-saturated paintings, which capture the clashes and commingling of different cultures in today’s globalised world.

“I don’t want to discuss East and West,” he says emphatically. “We’re so layered in this hybrid age. I’m trying to combine bipolar aesthetics.” For his first major show in Hong Kong, titled Oh Magic Night and opening this month, Matsuyama and his vibrant paintings are taking over an 11,000-square-foot pop-up space at The Pulse. Matsuyama, who is now based in Brooklyn, says Hong Kong is the perfect city for his art: “It has a unique history of being ruled by both UK and China. The more hybrid the culture the more that people get [my art].

Connecting with his audience is at the core of Matsuyama’s work. “I started as a street artist and graphic designer, but when I began showing in more established places, I felt a bit distant [from people],” he says. So for his show, organised by Hong Kong Contemporary Art (HOCA) Foundation, he wanted to avoid the context of a white-cube environment. Taking a visceral approach, he is transforming the exhibition space into a wonderland of sorts, one that bombards the viewer with a shock of colour, intensely patterned paintings and playful sculptures. The works unfurl throughout a series of rooms, each with a different theme. In some cases, he even wallpapers the space with imagery. His aim is to lure viewers into his trippy, near-psychedelic world through densely detailed works so they lose the awareness that they are merely looking at a painting on the wall.

Aptly titled works like You Need to Come Closer (2014) are a mix of entangled abstract forms with glimmers of the figurative. Hidden behind jagged lines, splattered paint, melting Dalí-like forms and a patchwork of patterns are birds and other creatures. The effect is almost dizzying. Matsuyama likens the slick surface of the work to a computer screen. To achieve the smooth surface it takes a whole week of sanding the painting, which is layered in more than two dozen coats of gesso. He says his approach is rooted in traditional compositions from East Asian artists. “The beauty of many of their works is that there’s no focal point. Lets say you have a big landscape, one single petal could be as detailed as the main feature,” he says. He also compares his works to Blu-ray: “The first time I saw Blue-ray it was too high resolution, I couldn’t absorb the information because everything was so crisp and sharp – and that’s what I’m trying to hit.”

Offering a relief from the paintings in the show are sculptures, including the Bon Voyage series based on wooden Buddhist celestial warriors that he found in an antique shop in Madison Avenue. He made replicas of the Buddhist sculptures, enlarging them to around 1.2 metres high, double their original height. “They were probably in some temple 300 years ago and the maker had never meant for them to be in New York.” So Matsuyama added a playful spin to the works by carving a Mickey Mouse silhouette on one figure’s chest to indicate the ancient warrior time travelled to Disneyland and turned into a tourist who bought a T-shirt. Another wears an “I love NY” logo on his chest, suggesting a holiday in New York. “Being humorous makes it accessible,” he explains. The way in which he blends high and low art makes his work at once jarring and compelling.

Unexpected collisions of cultures abound throughout his oeuvre. This idea emerged early in his career when he was struggling to find his way as a street artist. While graffiti artists often use text, Matsuyama struggled with this idea. “Being Japanese, using English as my platform really felt awkward because my mother tongue is Japanese,” he explains. “I thought, what could be another visual vocabulary that I might be able to reference?” Ironically, it was during a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he rediscovered the traditional Japanese art that is so prevalent in his hometown. He was fascinated by intricate woodblock prints. “I also saw Itō Jakuchū’s work and it really blew my mind.” The artist’s vivid avian imagery inspired Matsuyama to incorporate birds and other symbolic creatures into his street murals.

Matsuyama’s solo exhibition will be at the Hong Kong Contemporary Art (HOCA) Foundation from 19 March to 9 April 2017 on between Wednesday to Sunday 12 to 8pm. The Opening Reception will be held Sunday, 19 March from 5 to 8pm. Please RSVP at

On later trips to Japan he began digging deeper into his country’s  history, exploring artists like Shōhaku Soga, an eccentric Edo-period artist known for his paintings of fantastical creatures. “I found these artists who were extremely eclectic and extremely modern. [Around] that era anywhere in the West they were still painting portraits for the aristocrats and painting was still [mimicking] a photograph, but in Japan they were so advanced, making this crazy imagery.”

Traditional Japanese art represents an underlying thread that runs throughout Matsuyama’s Hong Kong exhibition. One of the works, Baby it’s Cold Outside (2017), for instance, is a direct reference to a landscape piece by a great Kano School master. “It’s a painting typically composed with floral imagery called Kachou Fuugetsu, a term that means flowers, birds, moon and wind,” he explains. “Within these artworks there are
no figures.” Yet Matsuyama disrupted this tradition by incorporating human forms in the landscape scene based on models culled from American fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle. Adding to this odd juxtaposition is his unusual colour palette. “You see very muted Japanese tones from  kimono patterns, then you also see these vibrant pop colours which I got from Disney because when I came to the US, I was extremely heavily influenced by all the Disney animations.”

For Matsuyama, works like this evoke the cultural hodgepodge that exists not just in his world but that can be found everywhere as a result of globalisation. He likens this situation to flattening layers in Photoshop. “With one click all these cultures become hybrid and become one layer,” he says. “I find the idea of organic chaos interesting – that certain aspects of [different] cultures never blend in but they live with one another on a single plane. These are the ideas that I’m interested in trying to portray with my work.”

More importantly, for him it’s essential that different art forms coexist on the same playing field and that his work isn’t relegated to a narrow audience of insiders who frequent museums and galleries. “I think you can have a $50,000 work in museums and galleries and you can still make a T-shirt and sell it for $14 and make it legit,” he says. “You don’t necessarily have to translate yourself to become this ‘fine art dude’ … I’m just trying to be honest to what I do and still maintain an academic side and say, ‘Hey, this is art, but it includes subculture. It includes this edgy side of being young, but what’s so bad about that?’”