Gajin Fujita returns to Venice’s L.A. Louver with a clutch of new works that meld street art and ancient Japanese iconography
By Michael Aushenker
Incorporating symbols of his urban Los Angeles upbringing into scenes drawn from traditional Japanese art, painter Gajin Fujita’s cross-cultural mashups achieve an identity uniquely their own.
With a LACMA spotlight already under his belt, the internationally renowned artist — barely into his mid-40s — has come a long way in a short time from his days at Otis College of Art and Design to his fourth L.A. Louver show, “Warriors, Ghosts and Ancient Gods of the Pacific.”
Fujita’s layered, spray-painted pieces, from massive wall-consuming murals to smaller works no less colorful and eccentric, are peopled with samurais and geishas and peppered with graffiti scrawl and Dodgers logos.
It’s a mix that represents Fujita’s multiple streams of artistic education: his time tagging with the KGB graffiti crew while attending Fairfax High School’s fine arts magnet program; his college years at Otis and the University of Las Vegas; and healthy doses of popular culture.
“I’ve been intrigued by Gajin’s works for quite a long time,” said KCRW FM’s “Art Talk” host Edward Goldman, who attended Fujita’s recent L.A. Louver opening. “Yes, his art is inspired by 18th-century Japanese woodblock prints, but what particularly impresses me is that his technical virtuosity almost matches up to the craft of 18th-century masters.”
L.A. Louver co-director Elizabeth East said her gallery’s association with Fujita pre-dates “Wicked Beauty,” his first L.A. Louver solo outing in 2002, back to his annual “Rogue Wave” group shows.
“He hasn’t done many shows because his work is very time-intensive,” East said.
Despite his slow process (“Warriors” took four years to complete), Fujita’s work is in such high demand that most of “Warriors” came courtesy of private collections, as they had already been sold.
East believes Fujita’s popularity among viewers of all ages rests in his eye-candy style: “The dissonance between the tags and the gold leafing, the beauty of the paint application; the sense of control and disorder. There’s a lot there for people to get into.”
Shaping Fujita’s aesthetic is his Boyle Heights upbringing. Born to Japanese immigrants, he grew up in a predominately Latino neighborhood, surrounded by graffiti. Looking back to when he tagged citywide under the pseudonym “Hyde,” Fujita describes himself as a lesser-known KGB affiliate.
“It was mostly illegal,” Fujita said of the street art he created, adding that while he never got busted by police, his crew did have a few scuffles with security guards.
While attending Fairfax High, Fujita enjoyed a steady of diet of un-easy listening, everything from heavy metal (Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot) to punk (Black Flag, the Germs).
“When I started attending Fairfax, it really opened my eyes,” Fujita said, regarding the long school bus journey from East L.A. to the West Hollywood-adjacent school, where he qualified to attend only because he was accepted into its fine arts school-within-a-school. (He later drove to classes in his dad’s Chevy Caprice station wagon —not exactly a chick magnet.)
Ilana Tauber, a working artist now retired from teaching fulltime at Fairfax High’s magnet program, remembers Fujita well.
“There is no doubt that his talent was obvious when he was a student at Fairfax. The paintings and drawings that he created always had originality, a strong sense of space and color and were very unique,” said Tauber, who, like actor David Arquette and other former Fairfax classmates, attended Fujita’s 2006 LACMA show.
After high school, Fujita’s interest in art brought him to Otis during a pivotal crossroads: the college had relocated from MacArthur Park to Westchester during his senior year. It was at Otis that Fujita met instructor Scott Grieger.
“Over the years, Gajin has become like a family member to us,” said Grieger. He remembers Fujita as a student who caught on quickly and “picked up concepts unimpeded by previously held notions — he had the common sense to understand what was useful to him and to discard the rest.”
Fujita credits Grieger for leading him to his next mentor figure, art critic Dave Hickey at University of Nevada.
“[Hickey] basically told the whole class that art is ‘a violation of people’s expectations.’ So I began to think to myself, ‘What can I do to violate people’s expectations?’” Fujita said.
Fujita also increased his artistic frames of reference: from Renaissance painters (Raphael, Caravaggio) to Japanese print artists (Yoshi Toshi, Hoku Sai) and masters of comic books (Jack Kirby, Frank Miller), fantasy art (Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo) and anime (Hayao Miyazaki).
Perhaps no artist has resonated more with Fujita than Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“Even though people at the time thought he sold out, I like the way Basquiat led his lifestyle,” Fujita said.
With Hickey’s guidance, Fujita found his artistic battle plan combining Japanese iconography with graffiti. His approach worked. Even before obtaining his MFA, Fujita began showing at galleries.
Initially, Fujita’s mother was not very keen on her son appropriating Japanese imagery.
“Mom thought I was defiling them, but … now she approves of it,” Fujita said.
Fujita’s artist father never got to see his son’s career evolve. He died in 1996.
“We probably would’ve been at each other’s throats,” Fujita speculates, but nevertheless wishes his father could see his global success. “Thinking back, it’s sort of strange. It’s one of those things that you would never imagine when you’re back in school.”
The current show contains 13 paintings, one of them a massive 7’ by 16’ mural.
Fujita’s soundtrack to creating these works has included KCRW’s “Mornings Become Eclectic” and loads of hip hop: Sugar Hill, Afrika Bambata, Eric B. and Rakim. He’ll also throw on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and “Echoes” or Bob Marley.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a painter who capitalizes on East-West dialogue, Fujita is enamored with Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Channel, a running mélange of martial arts movies, exploitation flicks and cheesy ‘70s cop shows.
Married once before, Fujita singles out “Demon Slayer,” a samurai-on-horseback battle scene incorporating the logo of the speed metal band Slayer, as personal.
“That one reflects what I’ve been going through personally, shaking some demons out of myself,” he said.
Even as he exhibits mere yards away from Venice Beach, Fujita’s fidelity to L.A.’s Eastside is unwavering.
Before buying a house in Echo Park a few years ago, Fujita was living in his childhood home with mom.
“It might sound stupid, but I enjoy being able to see the skyline of downtown, ingrained in my mind,” he said. “I feel like being in the heart of the city.”
And Fujita hasn’t forgotten to give back and pay forward. He’s returned to Grieger’s Otis classes to lecture and collaborated with troubled youth in Chattanooga.
“I gotta be appreciative. I get to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life,” he said.
As an artist, individual and member of his extended community, Fujita has earned the respect of former teachers and fellow artists.
“I take no credit for what Gajin has become,” Grieger said. “It was all there to begin with.”
“Warriors, Ghosts and Ancient Gods of the Pacific” runs through July 2 at L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Call (310) 822-4955 or visit lalouver.com.