At the summit of a steep incline in Elysian Heights, past an unassuming gate, down a slightly dangerous walkway, you’ll find a concrete landing that serves as the plein-air home studio of Gajin Fujita.
As the 46-year-old Japanese-American painter welcomes me to this lushly landscaped perch — with views that stretch from the Griffith Park Observatory to Koreatown — he leads me into a little shack outfitted with an L-shaped desk, stacks of stencil-making materials and a refrigerator-size rack filled with hundreds of cans of Belton spray paint in every imaginable hue, from telemagenta to Pussy Pink.
Fujita is utilizing this encyclopedic palette to render a stencil — based on an old Toyohara Kunichika woodblock print of a late-Edo-period kabuki actor — over a field of golden “spiritual language” written by his lifelong-friend and childhood neighbor Alex Kizu (aka Defer). It was Defer who initiated Fujita into the graffiti scene back when they bussed to the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), a magnet junior high school in Mid-City, from their Boyle Heights hood.
“Def lived right in front of Hollenbeck Park near the Sixth Street bridge, where he introduced me to painting on freeway walls,” says Fujita, noting the two were early members of the influential L.A. graffiti crews KGB (first Kingz of Graffiti Bombing, then later Kidz Gone Bad) and more recently K2S (Kill to Succeed), earning their stripes during the early eighties breakdance boom emanating from the Radiotron at MacArthur Park.
“There’s so much information flowing now, but there was more mystery behind graffiti writers back then because it was an incognito, illegal thing, so you couldn’t create some career on Instagram,” says Defer, joking. “Now they make cans and spray tips especially for graffiti.”
Faced with this reality, Fujita spent a few years after graduating from Fairfax High waffling — smoking pot, surfing and tagging the city from the Old Venice Pavilion to the Belmont Tunnels west of downtown. Though he’d grown up watching his father show his abstract landscape paintings at small galleries and Buddhist temples around the Los Angeles area while observing his mother restore the urushi lacquers on Japanese antiquities, it was only after spending time at the downtown Arts District studio of Matsumi Kanemitsu — the father of his K2S buddy Skept and a painting teacher of Fujita’s father at the Otis College of Art & Design — that he decided to study art full-time.
“Seeing racks of paintings being stored and having to handle these large canvases really gave me a paradigm,” says Fujita. “But prior to taking my ass to school, I had no idea that I could have a career in painting.”
While Fujita was studying at Otis, his father passed away and his work was admittedly scattered — he was crudely mixing fragments of graffiti with imagery from eastern woodblock prints and Japanese tattoo artists. But everything came into focus after he followed the advice of his painting professor Scott Grieger and went off to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to get an MFA under the tutelage of art-critic-turned-professor Dave Hickey.
“In one of his lectures Dave said good art should be a violation of expectations,” recalls Fujita, who internalized that concept and spent the next few months developing a new painterly language after looking at an old photo he took of Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto, which he visited with his family as a teenager. “I thought, ‘Damn, if someone were to go tag that thing it would be one hell of a violation.’”
With that in mind Fujita layered two birch panels with faux gold-leaf — “I didn’t know how to gild at all so I used composite on my practice run” — over which he stenciled an erotic image from a Japanese shunga woodblock print and Asiatic calligraphy similar to that seen on the skate decks of Christian Hosoi that spelled out the painting’s title, Motel. Hickey never wanted to see works-in-progress, but when Fujita finally unveiled the finished piece, he says, “I had an ashtray ready for him because I knew he would be smoking, and he sat down for five minutes and said, ‘Now that’s what I call a ... painting, Gaj.’ That was the beginning.”
In the ensuing decades Fujita continued to mine his mother’s finish fetish techniques, his father’s love for beguiling landscapes, imagery from traditional ukiyo-e paintings, a street-styled spin on a classic chop (the boxlike mark indicating the publisher in old woodblock prints), and his own brand of pop appropriation: adorning his samurais, sirens and demons with surf and skate graphics, Kangol hats and L.A. Dodgers jerseys, while violating his golden backdrops with the logos of speed-metal bands like Slayer or tags from his graffiti crew buddies. This unique high-low mix earned him exhibitions at LACMA and the USC Pacific Asia Museum as well as representation from the august Venice-based gallery L.A. Louver, which represents Angeleno legends like David Hockney, Alison Saar and Tony Berlant.
“The deeper part of the work goes into the storytelling, the mark-making of those traditions to the underbelly of Japanese life,” says Peter Goulds, founder of L.A. Louver. “And all of this coalesces into this extraordinary fusion.”
A new spin on that fusion is currently on display — in the work Fujita was making with Defer — at the Don’t Believe the Hype: L.A. Asian Americans in Hip Hop survey at the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles. Though Defer has “caught a tag” on many of his old friend’s paintings over the years, this piece represents the first 50-50 collaboration they’ve completed for a white (cube) wall. Or more accurately, it’s first time Fujita bombed one of Defer’s paintings, which he says is “unprecedented” — typically everyone is getting up on his works. “I’ve kind of lost count, but I’ve probably had thirty artists tag my paintings over the past two decades,” says Fujita, noting that list includes local gang members, rival crew members Wisk and Miner from West Coast Artists (WCA), and celebrities (founding KGB member-turned-actor David Arquette and rapper Chali 2na).
Walking me through the house, which he shares with his wife, Angela, Fujita breaks down the symbology in a couple of older works. After showing me a framed Hockney print whose glass he adorned with tags in erasable marker, we drive over to a 40,000-square-foot former jade factory just north of downtown that was recently used for Shepard Fairey’s DAMAGED exhibition and Proyectos L.A., a months-long project with 20 Latin galleries for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. Now it is hosting Beyond the Streets, a sprawling survey of graffiti and street art, featuring Fujita’s most complicated painting to date, Invincible Kings of This Mad, Mad World, an epic, five-months-in-the-making, 8-by-16-foot narrative mural anchored by a demon gatekeeper outfitted in cut-off Dickies with a blue bandana dangling out of his back pocket. Borrowed from iconic Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III, this blue beast presides over a vibrant landscape filled with a Chinese lion surrounded by peonies.
“Conceptually it started from these elaborate tattoos the Yakuzas had on their backs — I guess it was an armature or a badge of courage,” says Fujita about these signs of nobility that have been explored by artists as disparate as Hasegawa Tōhaku and Takashi Murakami over the centuries. “In our society, especially in L.A., everyone is so phony, so I wanted to reiterate that, to me, these are the true kings of the natural order.”
At the space we meet a three-man crew installing his four-panel work, including L.A. Louver’s chief preparator, artist Christopher Pate, who curated a 2001 group show that gave Fujita his debut with the gallery. Pate talks about how humble and generous Fujita has remained over the years — as demonstrated by the empanadas he picked up for the installers on the ride over — as we walk through the still-raw factory space, which is abuzz with a film crew documenting the cacophonous construction teams assembling room-size works by Fairey, Faile, Swoon, Kenny Scharf and Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh.
Though Fujita is a little conflicted about being represented in graffiti and hip-hop themed shows with his practice so far removed from the streets — even though he’s still constantly looking for “spots” while he drives around town and keeps a diamond-tipped “scriber” in his pocket to this day — he is happy with how the controlled chaos in the Kings painting captures that original norm-violating spirit of Motel, his own private Kinkaku-ji.
“Invincible Kings was also a piece some friends did off of Fairfax by the Farmer’s Market in the eighties,” says Fujita. “They spelled out INVINCIBLE across this building, but it was only up for one night.” He notes that his painting, which features tags from 11 members of KGB and K2S, can also be read as an homage to that ephemeral icon. Watching his lion and peonies gleam under the hot fluorescent lights, it becomes apparent that while art school might have taken this boy beyond the streets, it never took the street out of this hometown boy. And Los Angeles should very thankful for that.