OYAMA ENRICO ISAMU LETTER
PORTRAIT CITY SERIES
OYAMA ENRICO ISAMU LETTER
New York, 2014
Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter was raised in Tokyo by a Japanese mother and German-Italian father. After discovering graffiti in his teens, he became well know in Tokyo’s underground art scene for his graphic black and white style that he would later term the description “Quick Turn Structure”. In 2011, Letter collaborated with Rei Kawakubo and COMME des GARÇONS on their 2011 collection.
He is currently living and working in NYC as both an artist and a critic, and we got a chance to catch up with him on the latest. Champ Fam & NYC creative Tyler Askew and photographer Jason Lewis visited the artists’ Brooklyn Studio, on Enrico’s latest show at ISE in Soho NYC, plus inspirations from even the figure skaters during the Sochi Winter Games!
Some of our readers may be learning of you and your work for the first time. Could you please give us a brief introduction?
My name is Ōyama Enrico Isamu Letter, a visual artist. I’d say my style is heavily influenced by New York graffiti lettering tradition. I also do writing essays, articles about graffiti and street art in some sort of theoretical frame. I was born and grew up in Tokyo, and moved to New York in 2012.
What was your first introduction to graffiti and street art?
I think when I got into high school; there was huge trend of street culture in Japan. Many of my friends were skateboarding, breakdancing, DJing, around 2000. But nobody was really into graffiti, maybe because it was a little more underground. That’s how I first had interest in it. At the same time, there were some culture magazines that introduced new movement of next generation European and American graffiti / street art to Japan. I started learning about it like that. Also, I lived in countryside of North Italy for one year at the age of 16 to 17, and I developed my interest in graffiti there too.
...and after your fascination and interest in graffiti developed, did you immediately start tagging and participating in the Tokyo street art scene?
Well, I did tagging in the street of my neighborhood in Tokyo a couple of times in the very beginning. But I encountered police trouble soon and you know, I felt a need to shift in a different direction, and kept doing graffiti drawings on paper. At the same time, I started knowing people from the Tokyo club scene, especially Drum’n’Bass parties. So I started designing party flyers, T-shirts for them, and also doing live-painting in those parties. I knew that drawing graffiti images on paper, or reproduction of them in the form of live-painting, is different from the act of graffiti itself in the street. So I was struggling to invent my own style out of graffiti tradition. Eventually, I established my signature style called Quick Turn Structure and developed it through live-painting performances in Tokyo underground club/party scene like 2003-2007.
Yes, can you please tell us more about Quick Turn Structure?
To quickly describe, it’s abstraction and minimization of graffiti lettering, out of letterforms. It’s a moving body consisted of very essential lines called Quick Turn extracted from graffiti lettering and expands endlessly in multi-direction as opposed to graffiti that usually expands only horizontally because of its character as lettering.
What defines the act of graffiti is the fact that it’s name writing, and so it’s lettering. Importantly, the streets, as supporting media that graffiti writers place their tag onto, is essentially associated with this fact, and they both together form the regulation of graffiti culture – if it’s not name writing, or if it’s not on walls in the streets illegally, it’s not graffiti. So getting rid of letters means getting out of graffiti convention, and also gaining flexibility of application to various surfaces of different media, without rooting itself in one specific medium. That’s basic idea of QTS, and how it gets around beyond the borders.
With your connection to letterforms and graffiti, it would seem that “Letter” would be an appropriate alias for your work, but I heard that it’s actually your real surname?
Yes. My father is German-Italian and my mother is Japanese. So I have two names and two surnames from both parents. Letter is my father’s surname. The interesting thing is that graffiti is all about writing your name in the streets, so its visual language is based on letters. And what I do with Quick Turn Structure is extracting the very essential motion of lines out of letterforms of graffiti and repeating it to form an abstract body. Also the term “graffiti” derives from an Italian word “graffiare”. I feel sort of coincidence on those facts.
Did you have a different name when you began tagging?
I used OEIL, short for Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter, around mid-2000s. It was not for tagging in the streets though, it was more for live-painting.
Why did you decide to move from Tokyo to NYC 2 years ago?
I am interested in the historical aspect of graffiti culture. Now, graffiti became so global, and also a new generation, usually described under the term “street art”, emerged. In the contemporary perspective, graffiti and street art are multi-cultural, multi-centric phenomenon, sometimes in parallel to the function of global capitalism. I am not against to this situation at all, but on the other hand, giving graffiti a historical position in broad cultural context is also urgent task. In that sense, New York is still the center of graffiti culture. Being also a researcher, I am interested in this kind of thing, and New York, as birthplace of modern graffiti culture, is obviously richest environment to pursue this subject.
The art scene in NYC seems to be bubbling in Brooklyn these days… so, are you a Brooklyn or Manhattan guy?
That’s difficult to answer. Maybe I just simply say I live in Manhattan and have studio in Brooklyn.
Where else besides art do you find a major source of inspiration?
Many things. I was watching Sochi Olympic figure skate on TV the other night with my friend, and that was very inspiring as well. Reading books have also been my important time for inspiration.
What are some upcoming projects or shows to let our readers know about?
I have just finished a solo show at New Jersey City University that ran until 5th March 2014. Then I have some more exhibits coming up in New York this year, including solo show at ISE CULTURAL FOUNDATION in SoHo in October. I will also publish my first theoretical book in Japan. It’s going to be about graffiti and street art, covering from the very beginning period of the movement in late 60’s and 70’s in New York to the contemporary global situation.