We stopped in at Yuhi’s studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that he shares with another Non-Native New Yorker, Hai-Hsin Huang. Yuhi began painting as a young adult, after moving to San Francisco from Japan, in search of the Bay area’s well-known tattoo artists. His paintings mix elements of primal and contemporary culture and rituals; there is both an instinctive, intuitive quality in his paintings, and also a deliberate confidence. Yuhi constantly is finessing and adding layers until the paint is very thick, the color rich, and he’s made a final image of unexpected composition.


NNNY: Describe your studio practice.

Yuhi: These characters are from my imagination. I saw the movie “No Country For Old Men,” and these portraits haven’t anything to do with the content of the movie, but I really liked the title. I want to try to combine the idea of a primitive, tribal quality, like a mask, and add a beard or a decorative element.

I used to work from photography, but I quit that. I don’t work from sketches, I just directly paint on the empty canvas. It’s both my strength and weakness to be always changing my mind. Most of the paintings are covered in many layers; there is a totally different painting underneath.  Even the small paintings take a long time. I’ll do one layer, let it dry, do another layer, and if I don’t like how it looks I paint over that and make another one. So the paint is pretty thick.

Even though sometimes I finish, I leave it, and after three or four days I paint a totally different image on top of it. It is risky for me to leave finished paintings in my sight because I’ll keep adding something.

My style is totally a memory of what I have seen in my life, since I was a child until now. I started painting when I was 21, and I saw so many things as I was a child growing up. My father is a collector of masks – not high art or contemporary art, but primitive art. He travels to Africa, West Asia, and South America, and he always brought back masks, paintings and crafts. So when I was a child, I was scared of the masks. But when I see my paintings now I see that these things influenced my art.

I really like all kind of tattoos – Japanese to tribal to American. I’m interested in the primitive, instinctive quality of tattooing culture. In my paintings, I’m looking for something very sophisticated in the primal culture, and at the same time, looking for something brutal and crazy in contemporary culture. I compare and combine these two things. When I was fifteen, sixteen in Japan, everything mixed culturally, so I was kind of a first-generation of a hybrid, mixed culture. So I don’t hesitate to take something from any period and combine it together.


NNNY: What is the evolution of you becoming an artist?

Yuhi: When I was a child, I wasn’t interested in art, I didn’t do any sketches or painting. I started my art career when I came the States. I came when I was nineteen, and I was really looking for something that I really wanted to do. So I went to San Francisco, where I went to undergrad. I chose San Francisco because there are lots of famous tattoo artists, and at that time the only thing I was really interested in was tattooing.  I didn’t do tattooing, but I was a collector of tattoos. As I got more interested in tattooing, I got more interested in the San Francisco art scene. When I started seeing more art, I felt that this is something I could do.

I started painting in 2002. As a child I never thought I was good at drawing or painting, but I always had an interest in imagination and surreal perspective.

I went to undergrad in San Francisco, where they have a very formal curriculum, so I was drawing from photography and life models. I always made my representational work more surreal; photography was just the starting point. I moved to New York to go to grad school at SVA.


NNNY: What successes and difficulties have you had as a foreign-born artist in New York?

Yuhi: I can be very creative when I feel uncomfortable, but not at all in my own hometown. A few weeks ago I went to visit my family and friends in Japan, and I feel very comfortable there, and I really enjoy the time there. But during those three weeks I couldn’t come up with anything. If I feel too comfortable I can’t be creative.

When I came back I automatically switched on my creative side. I can easily be isolated or alone in the city or in my work. That’s the advantage of me staying in New York. There are so many galleries and things going on, I feel like I live in Disneyland for art.

© 2010 Non-Native New York

Selected Artists