Art or aberration? Graffiti shocks, puzzles Japan

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - It wasn’t a security alert that made Japan’s railway authorities halt the morning run of a bullet train recently and inconvenience about 500 commuters, but the word “Hack” spray-painted across a carriage.

A woman cycles through a corridor painted with graffiti in Yokohama, south of Tokyo June 20, 2007. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/Files

Graffiti is so common in several cities around the world that people tend to no longer see it. When they do notice it, it’s considered to be nothing more than a nuisance.

But in Japan, graffiti is not only illegal, but an aberration that often sparks a media frenzy and results in harsh punishments and steep fines for the vandals.

“The standard of public conformity is much higher in Japan and graffiti is a relatively minor example of that. Japan does not tolerate public misconduct by youth or anyone else,” said Kyle Cleveland, sociology professor at Temple University, Japan.

“Art is constrained to a certain extent here in Japan. You have more general conformity, obedience and scrutiny that affect all levels, including crime,” he told Reuters.

Last week’s disruption of the bullet train, or the Shinkansen, shocked many in Japan, especially as the vandalism occurred at a time of heightened security -- Japan hosts the Group of Eight world leaders summit this week.

It also follows a recent manhunt led by the local media for Japanese students who had signed their names on world heritage sites in Florence, Italy.

Some of the students found guilty were suspended, and a 30-year-old high school teacher who also scrawled his name while on holiday may lose his job over the scandal.

A British newspaper expressed its bewilderment at the extreme punishment, but sociologists said they were a very Japanese way of curbing copy-cat behaviour.

“The broken-glass theory of policing small misdemeanors to curb overall crime is very prevalent in Japan,” explained Cleveland, who often lectures on Japanese youth culture.


But some artists -- and the retailers that supply them -- say graffiti could very slowly be losing its shock appeal.

“We started selling spray paint five or six years ago, and I’ve noticed that graffiti has increased around the city dramatically in the last four years,” said Shingo Mita, the general manager of Still Diggin’, a shop that sells spray paint in Shibuya, an area popular with many Japanese youth.

A 21-year-old graffiti artist who asked to be indentified only as “Zein” said graffiti had recently become slightly more acceptable because of the growing popularity of the gritty culture made famous by rap music.

Recently, more Japanese graffiti artists have been able to move their works from the streets into galleries, but even that is not enough to make it more mainstream, Zein said.

“I think until it’s in a gallery or it’s commissioned and legal, Japanese people don’t consider it art,” Zein added.

Mita said “Hack”, the graffiti artist who signed his name on the bullet train in red, white and blue, will probably gain instant fame among his peers.

Mita sells many cans of spray paint everyday, but chooses not to pry into the lives of his customers, who risk being caught and prosecuted by the authorities.

But he still get customers who are more than willing to talk about their activities.

A graffiti artist who goes by the alias “Abuser” walked into the store last week and exclaimed, unprompted: “It sucks! I wanted to be the first one to paint the Shinkansen.”