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Friday, February 8, 2013
Stacked decks

By Anthony Pappalardo

At first glance, Japanese artist Haroshi's sculptures seem playful, vibrant takes on pop culture, reinterpreting familiar objects and icons. His masterful, meticulous craft is celebrating its 10th year, but there's a deeper connection to the materials he uses than the casual viewer might notice.

Haroshi uses only used skateboards to create his work -- a process that started out of necessity. His latest show, titled "Virtual Reality" -- an homage to Plan B's legendary second skate video -- recently opened at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York City, featuring a skillfully crafted skull with braces and gold teeth, a smiley face made up of bullets and a cat doing a handplant, which stands more than 45 inches tall.

Haroshi's work has carved out its own reality. Through an interpreter via email, recently spoke to Haroshi about his process, his inspiration and the connection between skateboarding and his art. What got you started with sculpture? Did you have a lot of background working two-dimensionally?
The first time I produced something with skateboards was when I made the [sales] display for the accessories I made during that time. The first time I produced 2D pieces of work was the "Mario" series, and then with the dots remaining, I began to make 3D pieces of work. That was the beginning.

It's fun when a 2D material becomes a 3D piece of work, isn't it? I think that what we are making is going a completely different direction compared with nowadays way of thinking. While everything is going CAD, we are keeping an analogical way of producing things. But we think it is very important.

I've read that your choice for using skateboards to create your art was fairly organic in that there was a pile of decks lying around that your partner suggested you repurpose. What is it about the medium that keeps you excited and loyal to it?
Wonder why it is so? I am still not sure about it, but I think what makes it exciting is the fact [that] I am walking a path that was never taken by anyone else. Usually the beginning is when you imitate a trick invented by someone else, but I didn't like that. So the fact that I am doing a trick invented by myself makes me really happy.

What challenges are there working with old decks, and what are your favorite decks to use to create your works?
Being able to use stuff that everyone doesn't need anymore is interesting. In a way, I like expressing things that have a limit. Of course, not having [a] limit is freedom, and that is good as it is, but by focusing on things having a limit, [it] makes it all more interesting.

As for decks, I like DLX and Girl decks. The colors are very nice and the compatibility with other decks is very good. When all doesn't come out good, if you add a Girl pink deck, it will turn out nice.

You've done some exciting collaborations (Nike, HUF, etc.); how does this differ from your solo shows? Is there a different energy around the collaborations as you're creating something for a specific audience or person, not just a gallery audience?
I think the same. The place of expression is just different. Even for the commission from the most famous person, my level of concentration and strength in the work is always the same. Collaborations are always exciting -- I am making into a real shape the history of people and brands from which I have been learning. That is a really fun work.

Haroshi, decked out in his Tokyo studio.

Tell us about your current solo show in New York at the Jonathan Levine Gallery -- specifically why you chose to name it after the iconic Plan B video.
I usually think of titles concerning skateboarding for each of my shows. In 2010 it was "Skate & Destroy," in 2011 it was "Future Primitive." I can't speak English that well, and the only words I know [have] to do with skating. So every time a show is approaching, I watch videos and read magazines to decide on a title.

This time I decided on "Virtual Reality" because seeing that video when I was younger made me realize the eternal possibility that skateboarding has.

I was so shocked when I saw Rodney [Mullen]'s dark slide and casper slide. And for me, the fact of making artwork out of skateboard decks is really a new trick, because you know whatever you can do with skateboards is freedom. It's not that I am trying to put my rules -- I am just doing as I like! That is why I am doing new things that won't be point score [sic], because I think it is very important. That is what I learnt from that video.

What's your connection between art and skateboarding, and how does each one inform the other, if at all?
As I said before, doing something is freedom, and it is the same both for art and skateboarding. Freedom seems very simple, but it is also difficult, isn't it? Going to school and reading books makes everyone learn from rules, but for me both art and skateboards are something I decided to do on my own. I wasn't told by anyone to do it. I learned everything from the street culture.

What artists inspire you or were early influences who motivated you?
I wasn't really affected by anything. I am just doing what I like. But I have some favorite artists. Among the art that looks important lately, I think Jeff Koons is really cool, but actually I like Raymond Pettibon, Lance Mountain and Pushead.

When I was younger there was so much [art] around me, and I couldn't realize how it was special. But now that I have grown older, I think it is great and I have become able to understand it. It's not that I feel it is good because someone else is saying that it is so; I really feel from the heart that I would like to become like them.

There's a whimsical and fun tone to your pieces. What do you hope to pass on to the viewer?
There isn't a particular way I want people to look at my works. To tell the truth, I don't wish to forcefully teach people who don't know that these pieces of art are made out of skateboards that they are so.

If I am going to die one day, and there isn't anyone anymore to explain about my work, my work might become garbage and then people would think it is just garbage. That is why I am doing my best to produce pieces of art that can be considered brilliant also by people who don't know that they are made out [of] skateboards.

My love for decks makes me think that also broken parts of the skateboards are cute. As you love the bad points of a girl.

-- Haroshi

Is the fact that you're recycling old decks an important component of your artwork -- one man's trash is another's treasure -- or is it simply a medium you enjoy working with and connect to?
I originally started to use old skateboard decks because they were for free. I didn't have money, but I do believe that trash can be full of treasures. It is so, isn't it? If I was a thrown-away skateboard deck and someone was to save me and turn me into a cool piece of art, I would be happy. I am sure that skateboard decks are also doing their best to be turned into a good piece of art.

There are three requirements for the collaboration I am doing: me, used skateboards and the skateboarders that rode it. My love for decks makes me think that also broken parts of the skateboards are cute. As you love the bad points of a girl.

Using the decks seems like a very meticulous process; how long did it take you to hone your skills and really become comfortable working this way?
It is the 10th year I am making sculptures out of skateboard decks. I strived a lot to get here. There wasn't a "how to" anywhere; I had to do [it] all by myself from scratch.

It also takes a lot of time to master using a skateboard, doesn't it? You can't try a flip if you can't even do an ollie. As with skateboarding, I went up step by step until [I got to] where I am now. The first sculpture I made was so bad I can't show it to anyone!

Do you have a dream collaboration or something you wish to create that you haven't yet?
I am thinking of doing a great project, but for that I need sponsors, people to help and time. That goal is linked to the next step. If you stop with challenges, it will turn into a very boring existence. I want to keep doing more and more dope stuff.

What's your favorite piece in your current show, and which were the most difficult to create?
I like a lot all of them. The most difficult was the cat doing the handplant. That took a lot of time. I used an incredible quantity of dots. Also, finding the balance of the work is very difficult. It took me three months to complete it.

Part of my appreciation for your work is the scale of the actual pieces and that, unlike other artists, your work isn't mass produced. Do you have any interest in creating more works like the HUF collab deck that people can have in their homes?
I have always been stuck on real size, but maybe it's because really I didn't know what kind of sizes other sculptors used. When I looked around I discovered that they were making things almost bigger or [smaller] than reality. As for sizes going forward, I want to produce bigger and bigger works.

You can't buy an artwork piece like you buy a hamburger. I like sharing things that are easy [to] attain, like decks or prints. For the HUF collaboration, I delivered everyone the poster with my signature. It was very fun to sign each of those posters. When I was a kid I couldn't afford to buy decks to hang as a decoration, so I was very happy when I got event flyers or posters. There were many times when I waited in line to have someone sign a poster or flyer. That is why I am always thinking of ideas that can be for free or cheap.

Who are your favorite skateboarders past and present, and what about their skating do you appreciate?
I have too many and it is quite difficult to say, but I really like people that do things that almost all people can't do, like Rodney Mullen. From that I really came to like skaters that ride on a skate[board] with speed -- for example, Tony Trujillo, Dennis Busenitz and lately David Gonzalez. I like cool ones that do simple things. I have some problems with my hips, so I really can't do too much, but I really get excited when I see skaters that try to skate dope spots.

Your shows, including your most recent, "Virtual Reality," take their names from skate videos, as mentioned before. What are your favorite videos, and what makes them iconic to you?
First of all, videos were the real entrance to this [skateboarding] world. Since Japan is an island, I felt that what was happening in the U.S. was from a really faraway country. For me, videos were really special. At the time, videos were expensive and I couldn't afford to buy many.

The one I like the most is "The Search for Animal Chin." That's a skateboarding video, but I also learned about the fun aspect of skateboarding. Usually the most important thing in skate videos is what cool things you can perform or how many new tricks you can invent, but "Animal Chin" taught me more important things ... I would like to do that kind of tour.