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Interview with Ryohei Yamashita

This is the text of the gallery talk for Ryohei Yamashita's solo exhibition "HOPE," which started on December 10. He talks about the history of the painter Ryohei Yamashita and the appeal of his "dynamic" paintings. Please enjoy it with the video.


Ryohei Yamashita
Painter and illustrator

Born in Fukuoka and currently lives in Kanagawa. Graduated from Kyushu Institute of Design. After working as a street artist in Fukuoka, moved to Kanagawa Prefecture in 2002 and began creating art in earnest. His representative works are "Samurai" and "Athlete" series. Recent works include public art for Tokyo Metro Gaienmae Station, official visuals for the Japanese national sailing team, and artwork for Achilles Shunsoku. He actively participates in exhibitions in Japan and abroad, and won the "E-Plus Award" at the art fair "UNKNOWN ASIA" in 2015.


Gallery talk at Chignitta Space. Dec. 11.

By drawing portraits on the street, he discovered the joy of getting paid for drawing.

Taniguchi: In front of the works in Ryohei Yamashita's solo exhibition "HOPE," which started yesterday, I'd like to talk about the appeal of Yamashita's works and to lay bare his activities to date.

I've known Mr. Yamashita for quite a long time. This is the first time for you to see the original drawings, isn't it, Mr. Sasanuki?

Sasanuki: Yes, this is the first time I've seen Mr. Yamashita's work, and it's really powerful. From the moment the originals arrived, they gave off an incredible aura. This is the finale of Chignitta Space, the last exhibition of the year.

Taniguchi: You've done a lot of work as an illustrator and painter from Hakata, but I'd like to know about your "Yamashita History," starting from the beginning of your career.

Yamashita:I started by drawing portraits of people on the street and selling them on the street. It was at a big bus stop called Tenjin in Hakata. I was spreading portraits of celebrities and doing a fishy business. Laughter.

When I was a student, I exhibited portraits for the first time at school festival booths. I received one coin for drawing the person in front of me. It was the first time I realized the joy of getting paid for drawing pictures.

I had always been good at drawing. I decided to take this momentum and go out on the street right after the school festival. I guess it was rare for people to paint on the street at that time, so it became like a live performance on the street, with customers in front of me and galleries around me. It was a dreamy time in Fukuoka Tenjin a little over 20 years ago, but it existed. Nowadays, it is no longer possible due to legal restrictions, but I think that was the last time it was possible. It was a bit like a market for portraits, fortune telling, accessories, and so on.

That was when I was in my third and fourth year at Kyushu Institute of Design. At Kyushu Institute of Design, we were doing visual design in general, and I was a fourth-year student majoring in film and video. So when I was a student, I think I was more likely to be seen running a video camera than drawing pictures. I made little music videos, short films, and so on, and that's how I got interested in video.

Actually, I had already found a job at a commercial company, but then I came across portraits. Portraits in particular are created by individuals, while video is a collective art, so there are times when I get carried away. So I felt that I should focus on the world of painting, where I can build my own world by myself. So you enjoyed it. It was fun for you to receive money and reactions to your paintings.

Taniguchi: So you entered the world of painting as an outsider, rather than as an art major studying painting or drawing?

Yamashita:Yes, I did. I didn't take an elite course in painting. I was mostly self-taught. I was more of a self-taught outsider, searching for my own way of expression.

Taniguchi: However, portrait painting requires an element of performance, right? Of course you have to look exactly like the person you're drawing, but you also have to be able to deform them in an interesting way, interact with the customer, and have a sense of sales.

Yamashita:First of all, you have to get the customer to sit in front of you, so I got really into making signs, drawing examples, and other items. I drew celebrities and other famous people first, and then, as a jumping-off point, I would show them the performance of drawing with air spray, and I emphasized having them watch and enjoy the way I drew.

Taniguchi: I heard that you won a huge prize in that "portrait" contest, didn't you?

Yamashita:Yes, the U.S. is a mecca for portrait painting, and once a year there is a contest where artists from all over the U.S. who make a living from their portraits gather. When I participated, they rented out a hall in a hotel in Las Vegas, and for about a week, hundreds of artists would draw each other's faces, sparing no time to sleep. I participated in the world competition, where artists from not only the U.S. but also Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries gathered. At that time, there were various categories, and I won first place in the "work award" category for the best portrait.

Taniguchi: That's amazing! It's interesting that even though you won such a great prize, you're not now known as "the world's portrait artist, Ryohei Yamashita.

Yamashita : That's right. I was happy to receive a certain amount of recognition in the genre of expressing people through pictures, but I wasn't thinking of competing on that basis alone.

FM802 "ROCK THE SUMMER" campaign poster

From comp writer to digmeout. From illustrator to painter.

Taniguchi: Please tell us about your next step, Yamashita-san. You moved from Hakata to the Kanto region, didn't you?

Yamashita:Yes, I joined an event agency for portrait work, and they decided to open a store in the Kanto area, so I moved to Yokohama according to their policy. In 2002, I started producing my own works little by little. I didn't have any connections at the time, so I took all the jobs I could get and did everything from design to illustration on the Internet. At the time, the most common work was product samples and compositions. I was confident in my technical skills, so I worked as a comp writer for three years.

As a comp writer, I was in a world where work was given priority to those who could do it cheaply and quickly, and I was in a constant dilemma. After that, comp work itself became scarce and I couldn't make a living, and that's when I started to look at myself again. I started to draw all the ideas that I had been saving up as a piece of work. I had to stop working for a while, so I had time to draw. If I hadn't had that time, I might still be "composing, Yamashita.

So I decided to publish the 20 or so works I had completed at once. I looked around on the Internet and found an art site in the Netherlands where you could submit your works and people would vote for them to win prizes. That's how I ended up at digmeout.

That's how I ended up at digmeout. I'd been a subscriber to digmeout's newsletter for a while, and today I received an email saying that digmeout FM802 was going to start auditioning online. When I received it in the morning, I immediately registered for the audition, and Taniguchi-san contacted me by noon. Laughs

Taniguchi: "Audition Everyday" was an online audition held by FM802's "digmeout" artist discovery site. Yamashita-san's story reminded me of a time when we, too, felt we had to do something more for artists. In addition to auditioning for exhibitions once a year, we started the "Everyday is an Audition" program because we thought that not enough artists would be found with just that. The idea was, "Send us your website and we'll look at your work. There were a lot of submissions, and the first or second one I received was Yamashita-san's work. I figured I'd call him.

I asked you to do the visuals for the FM802 "ROCK THE SUMMER" campaign that summer, which suddenly became the visuals for the "MEET THE WORLD BEAT" event at the World Expo, and you even painted a Nissan car, which was really exciting. We were paid and invited to Osaka, where our visuals were displayed in front of 20,000 people at Expo Park.

Yamashita:We also got to meet the performers of the outdoor concert. Like Fujii Fumiya and Nakajima Mika, it was like the entertainment world all of a sudden. Laughs. We also had a chance to talk with Superfly.

NIKE ID "WAZZAWALL" visual (2008)

Taniguchi: After that, I started my relationship with Mr. Yamashita by asking him to do some work for Nike, but at that time, it was digital, wasn't it, Mr. Yamashita? Anyway, he worked fast!

Yamashita: Because I'm a comp writer. you know.

Taniguchi: Yes. I thought that we had found a great talent who could present to the sponsors with ease. For a while, I remember having Yamashita do so much work for me that I would use him whenever I had a chance. At that time, I think you used the catchphrase "Illustration Master Yamashita.

Yamashita: That's right. It had a craftsman-like connotation.

Taniguchi: When we worked together on the Nike project, we had Ryohei Yamashita's first solo exhibition at digmeout ART&DINER in Americamura. At that time, his works were still digital, right?

Yamashita:At that time, I was in the era of hybrids, and I used a method of printing digital works and then adding brushstrokes on top of them. Unfortunately, the pictures didn't sell, but that's when I started to think of myself as a painter, Ryohei Yamashita.

At the time, I thought that there was no other way to get paid for a painting than to accept orders. I thought that exhibiting and selling my own work was a world above the clouds, a world that had nothing to do with me at all. However, when I had a solo exhibition, I experienced that people came all the way to see my paintings, gave me opinions, and became my fans, and I remembered that there would come a time when these feelings would be converted into money.

At my first solo exhibition in Amerika-mura, my works didn't sell at all, but I decided to keep working as an artist. I was so happy when I sold my first painting in the exhibition after that, it was outrageous. That feeling of joy was unbelievable. The moment I got the call that my painting had sold, I got really excited, and I thought, "If I can work for this, I should be an artist. Of course, it wasn't all good, but I thought that if I could have this moment, I could do it. As I had more and more solo exhibitions, my sales gradually increased.

The word "dynamism" was given to me by my customers.

Taniguchi: One of the characteristics of your paintings is the "sports moment," and one of your catchphrases is "an artist who draws dynamism.

Yamashita: I was not aware of the word "dynamism" itself. When I started showing my works, people would say, "Your paintings have a sense of dynamism and movement," and when I looked back at them, I thought, "Yes, they do. When I look back at my work, I realize that I drew what I felt good about, and that's how it turned out. I will continue to use the word "dynamism" as my selling point. I got the word "dynamism" from my customers.

Taniguchi: You were actually an athlete, weren't you?

Yamashita:I was a short distance runner in junior high and high school. I believe there is no lie in the scenery I saw there, the world I saw while running, and the details of movement.

Cover of "Tarzan" magazine by Ryohei Yamashita

Taniguchi: One of your most famous works is the cover of "Tarzan".

Yamashita:Yes, the work for "Tarzan" opened up my world to me.

Taniguchi: As an athlete painter who depicts dynamism, "Tarzan" is your goal, isn't it? What kind of presentation did you make?

Yamashita:My first encounter with "Tarzan" was as a "medical illustration. Since I was a comp writer, I had been drawing medical illustrations on request from hospital doctors. I also drew muscles and bones as part of that process, so the first job I got from the person in charge of Tarzan was to draw muscles. The illustrations were more like diagrams.

Taniguchi: Could you tell us about the process from comp writer  to that dynamic cover?

Yamashita:I first drew the muscle picture in 2003, and then the cover in 2011, so it took eight years. During that time, I kept getting cut illustration jobs, but I think the pictures I drew changed after 2008 as an artist. The person in charge of my work saw this and asked me to do the cover, which made me very happy. Laughter. The cover! Since then, I've drawn about six more covers.

Taniguchi: So that's how you were able to brand the dynamic Yamashita and Tarzan.

Illustrators are commissioned to draw pictures, but there is also a world of painters who can get work while drawing what they want. The last time I had a gallery talk with Hajime Sakura, he said, "I call myself an artist, but I serve the viewer. He said, "I draw pictures in between being an artist and an illustrator.

Yamashita:Yes, I do. I think I'm close to Sakurai-san. As an artist on the street, I like to look for places that make my customers happy. I think my initial spirit of service as a painter has been utilized in my illustrations and client work. I am happiest now when I work with people who understand the dynamism and light-filled world of my work through a common understanding with those who have seen my expression as my axis.

Yokohama Marathon logo 2015 and image illustration designed by Ryohei Yamashita

Taniguchi: In terms of that series of work, I think your work on the Yokohama Marathon is very impressive, and I think it has been developed into your brand.

Yamashita:I was asked to participate in a competition for the Yokohama Marathon at the time when the event was changed to be open to the general public in 2015. I entered as one of the candidates for the symbol mark designer. I won the competition and was selected, and at that time I told the person in charge that I could also draw pictures. I also did the cover of "Tarzan". I asked if I could do the poster as well, and they said yes. I laughed.

I ended up doing all the branding, including the mark, medals, and posters, from 2015 to 2021. I also did some live painting at the goal site.

Starbucks Coffee Ekimarche Osaka Store Mural

Taniguchi: Live painting is also one of your main features. I've also done murals for Starbucks and the conference room at Nike's headquarters, but could you tell us how you shifted to this kind of work?

Yamashita:In 2009, there was a project called "Sonic Art" where people could paint pictures at the Summer Sonic venue, and I was selected for it. I was selected for the project and started to draw large pictures. I felt like I was a rock star, because the audience who came to the concert saw the paintings. When I drew pictures linked to the music there, the response was great, and I think that experience has been utilized in my later murals. It was at that time that I was invited to work for Starbucks.

Painting a large picture is really physically demanding. I was exhausted every day. I had come to Osaka to work for Starbucks, so I thought I would eat delicious food every day, but after a day's work, I just went to a convenience store to buy lunch and went to bed. I struggled with the wall for a week. That's how much I put my heart and soul into this work.

Nike Japan Headquarters, Conference Room Mural

Taniguchi: After listening to Ms. Sasanuki so far, I'm sure you have an idea of how Ryohei Yamashita rose to the top, but I think there are many useful hints for creators in what you have done.

Sasanuki: This is the first time I've actually met Mr. Yamashita and I was looking forward to meeting him. I was very impressed to hear that it took eight years for a medical illustration from 2003 to be featured on the cover of Tarzan. More than anything, the fact that you never gave up on anything makes you a "hot person. He had originally studied film and video, and I wondered if that was part of the reason for his dynamism.

Also, yesterday, an artist who came to Chignita for a meeting on the first day of the exhibition took one look at Yamashita's work and immediately said, "I saw it at the Nike Japan headquarters. I thought it was your ability that your works left such a strong impression even though you see so many things every day. This is my first time doing this, so I have a lot to learn.

Yamashita:Thank you very much. I'm glad to hear you say so.

Work in progress at the studio in Shonan

I put into "HOPE" the feeling that I want the fleeting moments to last forever.

Taniguchi: Now, about this exhibition, "HOPE," after visiting Tokyo and Hakata, I also had the chance to see the exhibition in Daikanyama, and I thought it was another big turning point for you. The size of the works has increased, the prices have gone up, and the response from the customers has been good. I thought that this was a step forward for the artist Ryohei Yamashita. Please tell us about your thoughts on this exhibition "HOPE", or rather, your determination.

Yamashita:The "dynamism" that I draw depicts moments. I named it "HOPE" in the hope that the fleeting moments and the shining moments will last forever. That's what I wanted to convey behind the "dynamism" and "power" in this title. I hope it will give people a chance to see Yamashita's works in a deeper layer.

What made me most happy about the Tokyo exhibition was that the works sold better than I expected. After a solo exhibition, I usually think about what to do if I have to take them home or if there are any left over. Laughs. At the "HOPE" exhibition in Tokyo 2020, about 70% of the works were sold. I've never had an exhibition where there were so few to take home. Laughs. And in January this year in Hakata, we sold 90% of the works. There was almost no inventory.

Taniguchi: It's a lot of pressure in Osaka. Laughs

Yamashita : Please do! Laughs.

I was moved by the series of "HOPE" exhibitions and felt that this is what it means to continue, and I really felt the response.

Taniguchi: When I saw Yamashita's works at the Tokyo exhibition, I had the feeling that his enthusiasm was different this time. At that point, I hadn't even decided to open a gallery at Chignitta, but I offered to do it at my place in Osaka. This time, they responded and this exhibition was born. I would like you to take your time to look at the works again later, but this time there is a new development that was not seen in the series of "HOPE" exhibitions, isn't there?

In front of the collaborative work of Kingdom.

Collaboration with "Kingdom". I received the order directly from Mr. Hara.

Taniguchi: This collaboration with the manga "Kingdom" has already become a hot topic on twitter and other social networking sites, and many people have come to the exhibition to see it.

Yamashita:Yes, that's right. It is unique, isn't it? People wonder why there are paintings of Wang Qiye and Shin in this exhibition. It's not that I drew them on my own. Laughs

I received an order directly from Yasuhisa Hara, the writer of "Kingdom", and I drew these two works. You'd be surprised, wouldn't you? Why from Mr. Hara? You must be surprised.

To tell you the truth, Mr. Hara is a fan of mine. (laughs). Actually, Mr. Hara and I are graduates of the same university (Kyushu Institute of Arts and Design), and he is two years younger than me, so we didn't have much contact when we were students. There was a big 50th anniversary reunion in 2018. I was really nervous that he would be there, and when the day came and I was in the waiting room, I was wondering how I could talk to him, when he came to me and asked, "Are you Ryohei Yamashita? He asked me, "Are you Ryohei Yamashita?" He said, "I've always liked your paintings. I laughed.

He said, "I've always liked your paintings.

He told me that he really liked the dynamism of my pictures, the expression of light and color, and he even told me the reason why. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask him, but he kept asking me questions. I had a lot of questions to ask him, but he kept asking me questions like, "How do you use acrylic paints?" and "How do you make a color plan? I was really happy. Asking questions to Mr. Hara helped me to organize my mind and made me more aware of "how I paint. That was the first contact that brought Mr. Hara and I closer together.

After that, we had a vague idea that we could collaborate on something together someday, but it didn't come to fruition. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the serialization of "Kingdom," and I was asked by the artist if we could collaborate on something to commemorate the occasion, so I created these two works as a starting point. I'm sure the next development will come as we see the response to the works.

The artist didn't make any particular request for the creation of the work, but said, "Please draw the Kingdom as freely as you like, Mr. Yamashita," and then I read the manga again.

Taniguchi:Also, in addition to Kingdom, there are paintings of the sea in this solo exhibition, and I feel that there is a different approach from the "dynamism" of Yamashita's works in the past.

Yamashita:Actually, I moved from Yokohama to Fujisawa City in Shonan, where I can see Enoshima Island, which is a 15-minute walk to the sea. It was the first time in my life that the sea was involved in my life, and naturally the motif of the sea increased little by little.

Taniguchi: I was shown this work in your atelier, and I felt that the moment when the waves come and go, each one repeating itself even if only for a moment, could be linked to the "moment" that you mentioned earlier.

Yamashita: There are very few pictures in my mind that don't have people in them, but this time I took the courage to eliminate them in the work "Blue Ocean. The word "Shonan" immediately conjures up images of "surfers," and I thought that if I put a little surfer in the picture, more people would buy it. But I held back and tried to paint on the theme of "the sea and myself. I tried to express the colors of the ocean and the surface of the water with just my strokes.

Taniguchi: I also thought that this was one of those paintings that I could look at for a long time, and I thought it would be even better if it was hung on the wall like this and confronted.

Now that this solo exhibition marks the end of Ryohei Yamashita's 2021, what kind of year do you have planned for next year?

Yamashita:Basically, I don't really have a plan for what I want to do. However, the people I meet and the stories I receive at each milestone often determine what I will do next. Also, one of my paintings is going to be used as art for a very big movie.

Taniguchi: That's amazing. If you don't start collecting Yamashita's works now, you might only be able to do so at museums. Laughs. Could you give us a few last words?

Yamashita:Thank you very much for coming today. With so many of you here, I feel like a rock star. Laughs.

Posing as a model on the beach in Shonan, near his studio.


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