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Seitaro Kuroda — artist in perpetual motion

Golden Week. Exploring Osaka with my camera I stopped by Hozenji, Namba, and found a jazz band setting up inside the temple and, nest to the band, an artist arranging drawing paper and coloured pens on a table. 

Hozenji is a tiny temple tucked away among the eateries and drinkeries of Namba to the east of Midosuji. The temple and the adjacent streets figure prominently in Sakunosuke Oda’s earthy tales of Osaka life, written in the thirties and forties. These days, the streets immediately adjacent to the temple preserve something of the old Edo atmosphere. In the centre of the temple, a Buddhist icon, shaggy with an extravagant coating of moss kept fresh with water thrown by worshippers. And today, that jazz band and artist.

The music-art event was a fundraiser for Tohoku and the work created by the artist, one-minute pieces drawn to the rhythm of the music, were on sale, all proceeds to the disaster funds.

The artist was evidently a person of some note, an established artist: slightly older, backed up with a staff of helpers and his work illustrated the menu of at least one of the adjacent bars.

I watched in fascination as he pushed his pastels round the paper, in a very individual motion. Each composition was apparently unrehearsed and quite spontaneous and although there were definite motifs, each work remained individual. The line was distinctive — perhaps because of his unusual pushing style — and the sense composition was offbeat and quirky. The pictures featured flowers, birds, doves with branches of peace; all containing whimsy and humour; simple and striking colours and clearly, a great deal of humanity and love for his activity.

I eventually bought one of the pictures: a purple dove holding a flower in its beak, a simple line drawing with an off-kilt construction and the lines inside the wings finger-smudged to soften them and return the focus to the bird’s face: brilliant; fun.

The artist was Seitaro Kuroda and I was intrigued to discover that he was the painter of the big, black bird-man mural in Amerika-mura by the Apple Store, a long-time landmark of the area. Clearly the man is an Osaka institution. More than that, his career spans decades and he has lived in New York, where he has regular exhibitions; he has worked across Europe, Asia, and even in isolated Pyongyang.

His art over the years has ranged from the small, cute and whimsical to large, complex and even scary. We see characters that might not be out of place in commercial merchandising but we also see large abstract works. All the pieces possess the otherworldly atmosphere of a very active imagination.

We arranged an interview, which took me to another of his events, this time in Hirakata, an apartment complex where he was to be painting benches and sculptures in a garden with an enormous number of very small children.

Painting as a performance and a communal activity characterises his work. Most frequently he seems to perform with musicians and has done a lot of work with John Zorn, experimental, avant-garde and jazz composer and performer. In Potsdam, he created a show on a commuter train.

Today: no musicians, but lots of children and sunshine. The purpose of the event: to encourage togetherness and communication and connection through the shared activity of creating. And in the process, turn this communal suburban garden into an outdoor art gallery.

When we arrived, Kuroda was flat on his back on the ground relaxing before the event started but was happy to greet us and start chatting right away. Before I could begin on my carefully composed list of questions, Kuroda was off, telling us about his life and art and eschewing the nice garden bench to get back to the casual comfort of the ground.

He was born in 1939, and his earliest years in Osaka and Kobe were dominated by the war, the austerity it imposed and by the US occupation, all experiences that have conditioned his world view, his approach to and the content of his art.

“The war was futile for Japan,” he says. Images of peace are constant in his work and the occasional presence of violence: in his Amerika-mura mural, the nightmarish bird-man creature walks through the words ‘Peace on Earth’; doves predominated in the Tohoku images. I later asked him about the recurrent images of peace, and he replied cryptically, “they are very important to me, but I don’t like to talk about them.”

His work took him all over the world. “I realised there was no difference between people. People the world over are the same. There is no difference between westerners and Asian people.” These observations launched one of the main themes of his conversation: difference is an illusion. Differences between places, races, nationalities, age, gender, they are all perceptions; artificial. 

“The world should be without borders. Art has no borders; music has no borders. Red is red wherever you go; do re mi is the same everywhere. The sky is blue in Pyongyang just as it is everywhere else.” And so the arts are a language, a medium that goes to the essence of being alive.

To work. He is here to paint: wood panels and the concrete benches, with the help of all the kids of course. He punctuates his activities with little talks for the benefit of his audience: “To be born is a miracle; just be happy!” Fine sentiments but whether they sunk in with the primary school kids is not clear. But they were happy, clad in plastic covers to keep the flying paint off their clothes, they daubed and splashed the concrete and the wood and eventually got their hands in too, creating an effect to put the ‘riot’ in ‘colour’.

Kuroda was down on his hands and knees among the kids painting with them and then having his work obliterated by their busy brushes. He also did some solo designs and he showed the same spontaneous, intuitive approach I saw at Hozenji. “I don’t think,” he later told me, “I just do whatever comes to mind. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”

“Life was very tight after the war. Art was an escape from tightness, from social restrictions.” And clearly it has been ever since. 

I asked why he was attracted to action art, rather than studio work. “I just like to be outside, with the wind and the earth. I once did an event in the middle of a typhoon in Okinawa.” 

Seitaro Kuroda’s landmark mural in America-mura, Osaka

Kuroda liked the image of the wind. It is always on the move, like him. Although born in Osaka, he points out he has lived many places (currently Kitakyushu) and doesn’t consider himself from anywhere in particular. Of his almost itinerant lifestyle he said, “I’ll go anywhere if I’m invited. I’ll go like a dog when it’s called,” and laughed. “I don’t like things to stay the same. Things should always be changing.” When he says this, he is also talking about art; art should always be dynamic. When I asked him about his famous mural in Amerika-mura, painted in 1983, he clearly didn’t want to talk about it: “It’s too old. I didn’t intend it to be there so long. One year was enough.” Move on.

To the future? He will be going to New Zealand soon to paint on a mountain with Maori people. Before that, he’s going to Tohoku. 

Clearly, Kuroda is a man who likes to live and work without restraint or constraint on lifestyle or imagination, always on the move, communing with people and nature through art: a man without borders.

There are a number of videos on YouTube of Seitaro Kuroda working — just search on his name spelled in alphabet.

This story was first published in 2011 in the now-defunct Kansai Scene

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Gaping wound?

This image was originally posted on The Cannibal’s Gazette, and now by my popular demand, reposted here.

“Gaping wound?

Heart flayed bare?

Time to dismantle capitalism.”

The inhumane have long since taken over the world and are cannibalising us. Time to take back control.

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Cartoon with square wheels

Brexit: reinventing the wheel and making it square.

I dashed this one off really quickly in an hour before heading out to work, which is why it’s so scrappy. But I liked the idea even though I haven’t re-drawn it.

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[Recent graphic]

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It’s that time of year again, innit.

Bollocks to summer
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Bollocks to: Facebook

It might be time to talk about Facebook. Advertisers are boycotting the platform for July because of Facebook’s stance — or lack of it — over hate speech and incitement. These advertisers include Unilever, Coca-Cola Starbucks, Adidas and many others. Facebook employees and contractors have staged virtual walkouts in protest. 

Of course, the position of the advertisers is not one of ethics in the sense you and I understand the word. They are worried about brand contamination; being associated with a platform that has become associated with racism. If the Facebook brand has become that toxic that even these nerveless behemoths are getting bothered, perhaps alarm bells ought to be ringing with us, the punters.

And the problems of Facebook do not begin or end with tolerating hate speech. 

I have just finished Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and I urge everyone who spends time online to read it too. 

We have this image of Facebook scanning your profile to find out who your favourite bands are and what food you like so someone can buy ads from them. The truth is different and entirely insidious. Surveillance is a mild word for what they do. Facebook (and Google and many others) are engaged in a project to actually predict and modify your behaviour. This involves scraping your life — online and in the real — for every bit of data, every interaction, everything they can about you to build comprehensive behavioural models. In this, they are building on the work of behaviourists such as BF Skinner and his heirs. Skinner considered free will to be an illusion and believed human behaviour could be engineered to create a hive-like society. If you haven’t heard of Skinner, stop reading this and look him up now and become very alarmed. 

More, learning from techniques developed in the gambling industry, they have made their site deliberately addictive, designing it so that the user gets regular dopamine hits that encourage hypnotic engagement. 

And this combination of behaviour modification, addiction and the nature of the platform in which you become the subject of yourself, has caused all sorts of identity disorders among young users. 

Would we tolerate having our homes bugged for sound and vision so that we can be nudged into behaviours that are not our own? Probably not. But that’s qualitatively what these companies are doing. Today’s selfie is tomorrow’s biometric profile, as artist/academic/privacy activist Adam Harvey likes to say.

Going further, that data and the platform is being exploited by third parties to interfere in elections — the 2016 US general election, the Brexit vote, the last two UK general elections. Facebook knows about this and does nothing. 

Meanwhile, Facebook et al are using their huge money to lobby governments to exempt them from any kind of regulation that would inhibit them from doing whatever they decide they want. 

For sure, Facebook is not the only online abuser of our lives. Google and Amazon are almost as bad, and almost every online entity and seller of smart devices is abusing us too. Every time we do anything on Facebook — anything at all — we provide the company with yet more grist for its money mill. The direct revenue comes from advertising and selling data analysis tools but our lives are the raw material. 

Facebook top knob Mark Zuckerberg is sanguine about the boycott by Unilever et al. They’ll be back soon, he says. And he’s right. And the corporates are only protesting about one issue, one that conflicts with their brand. They aren’t protesting over the surveillance and all that flows from it because, of course, they use that data to make money out of us.

But what if the users began to withhold their data, Zuckerberg’s product, by staying away from the site? At least for a while. Might that be interesting? Might that be something to talk about?

Facebook loves you! Art by Nathan Hillyer
Art by Nathan Hillyer


Monday (July 6th), I was sitting in a branch of a well-known pub chain in Osaka having a pint and working on a draft of the above post, when, with exquisitely ironic timing, I got an email from Amazon. The email noted I was in this specific pub and pointed out that the location was also an Amazon ‘locker’. I could have stuff delivered by Amazon to pick up while having a beer. 

Amazon had tracked me to the pub. 

I was not on the free Wi-Fi there, so Amazon had tracked me through the cell network. 

Read more:

That book — The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

Facebook is out of control. If it were a country it would be North Korea — article by Carole Cadwalladr

Extend US Facebook boycott to Europe, campaigners urge — article by Alex Hern

Only bold state intervention will save us from a future owned by corporate giants — article by Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill

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Too many people taking liberties by going to the beach, says PM

Too many people taking liberties by going to the beach, says PM whose chief advisor drove across the country during lockdown while infected with Covid19.

So here’s a little liberty I took earlier.

Where's that wally Dominic  Cummings?
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Sympathy for de Pfeffel

I have seen many pleas like this in recent days: Whatever your politics, have sympathy for Boris Johnson, he is after all just a human being like anyone else. 

Indeed, humanity and sympathy ought to be above base party politics. But look to whom you are offering your politics-free sympathy: 

This man supported DWP policies that have killed perhaps 130,000 of his fellow citizens. 

In the ten years his party has been in power, thousands of rough sleepers have died on the streets as his party put them there and then closed the support services that might have protected them. This man’s cynical careering led Britain out of the EU on a campaign of lies and manipulation, diminishing the life-opportunities of everyone in the country, while turning the place into an unregulated financial refuge for his entitled tribe. 

He comes from a bubble of privilege in which nepotism, self-interest and fucking dead pigs are the norm. 

He is an active part of an international trend that has brought us Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonar, Orban, Duterte, Modi and many others. 

He has trumpeted concern for environmental degradation while awarding lucrative licenses to the fossil fuel industry and blocking any legislation that might control the damage industry is doing to the planet. 

He is a hypocrite, making crisis announcements from a podium inscribed with pleas to protect a health service he and his kind have run into the ground ahead of selling to foreign buyers. 

He is a proven liar, racist, and philanderer. 

The crowning irony is that just a few weeks ago he was championing a government policy of herd immunity, which would have seen many thousands of people suffer or die of the same disease that now threatens his life. 

Now, in another illustration of the inequality with which his kind has infected Britain, it is certain he is receiving a level of medical care that is unavailable to the herd.

The market-fundamentalist/neoliberal ideology promoted by his party has caused inequality and insecurity on levels not seen since the early 20th century; the richest people in Britain have multiplied their wealth by a factor of about 10 in the last ten years while millions get by with food banks, zero-hour contracts, and Victorian working practices.

Demanding sympathy ‘whatever your politics’ is itself political, it asks for validation of for the harm he and his kind have done to the world. Political differences are not like supporting different sports teams, where ‘well-played’ and sporting prowess surmount tribal differences. Ideologies have the power to wreck lives or make them. 

Wishing Johnson well is like hoping Joseph Mengele gets over his nasty cold because, even though some people think his medical experiments are a bit controversial, at the end of the day he does work hard and he is a family man.

I do not wish suffering or death on anyone. That would be barbaric. So how about: ‘whatever your politics, you should condemn inhumanity.’ That’s a good sentiment, is it not? Can we try that? 

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Corona: What’s not in a name?

Corona: apart from being part of a deadly virus, it can be a halo of gasses around the sun, it can be a beer, it can even be part of a penis; it can be a great many improbable things. The word had permeated our world long before the virus did, and usually with less apocalyptic results.

The word corona gives us the word crown, and so coronet too. The sticky-uppy bits on the surface of the virus look to the chemical imagination of the scientists who named them, like a crown. To the rest of us, they look like comically distended suckers, or floppy golf tees, or alien antennae — they make those virions look like psychopathically ecstatic jelly balls. They are just revolting but that’s not scientific. No, we are supposed to see prongs, the prongs on royal headgear — now, that’s scientific.

The prongs/suckers are apparently composed of proteins that help the virus force entry into our own entirely innocent cells — appendages on a microscopic Harvey Weinstein, apparently, and thereby another association with penis.

Corona comes from the Latin word corona, and even deeper, from the Greek korṓnē — hence coronation, and by extension a piquant chicken dish.

The word gives us a large stone, the Stone of Scone (by its other name, the Coronation Stone) on which the kings and queens of these isles have been crowned for centuries.

Quite improbably, it gives us coroner, guardian of the pleas of the crown, the examiner of death. 

Corona can give us a heart attack, a coronary, named for the crown of tubes on our pumps. 

Corona gives us stars, those constellations that halo the top and the bottom of the world, Corona Borealis and Corona Australis.

Corona gives us architectural features, in the cornice (part of the top bit), and the east end of Canterbury Cathedral (all of it).

It gives us scores of songs, multitudes of musicians, it gives us footballers and towns, a soft drink, a typewriter, novels, games, and completely unreal people and places in novels and games. 

It gives us coronal bone, which for some will evoke boner, and takes us back to willies. Let’s not forget, it also gives us a cigar, and the overlap with anatomical meaning may explain some of the eccentric behaviour between a certain president of the United States and an intern.

Corona does not give us coronach, which is from an entirely different root, one that is banned in the current lockdown: it is from Scottish Gaelic, comh, ‘together’ plus rànach,‘outcry’. Though coronach itself has a poignant applicability to coronavirus, being a funeral song. 

Virus, on the other hand, gives us little other than itself and a host of debilitating symptoms; a rash of fear and an outbreak of paranoia. It’s a word that mostly does what it says on the box. And if you didn’t already know, it comes from the Latin for slimy, liquid poison, and as a name is probably better suited to Corona’s beer. In Middle English virus had a fleeting moment of cool when it became associated with the venom of snakes, but it quickly went back to its association with puddles of goo. 

But what part of a willy is the corona you are probably not dying to know?  It’s the — well, Google it, but not at work. Though you’re probably not at work because of the contagion. But the association with penis is highly appropriate because most thoughtful people look on coronavirus as a massive bellend. 

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