Did you grow up wanting to become a designer? Not at all. At one point in my life, I wanted to be a baseball player, but my hometown of Gifu, Japan, was too small to gather even nine kids together for a game. I thought about becoming a lawyer when I was in high school, but I failed all of the exams to get into any universities, so here I am. As a child, I remember drawing on the backs of newspaper ads and on the blackboard at school—but everybody else did this. When I was four or five years old, I remember that all the kids in my class were drawing this red bike with crayons, but I didn’t like how I drew, so I kept asking my teacher to get me new paper so I could start over. I was the last kid in the room. My interest in art and design began again when I went to the University of Idaho. My major was initially business, but I switched it to art. I’m glad I did.
You opened your own design studio, Tireman Studio, in 2012. What’s the story behind the name? I was shy about using my whole name as a studio name. I submitted this illustration of a person made of tires to a local Seattle newspaper, the Stranger; it later used my art for an issue’s cover, so that was the green light. I just went for it, and I continue to go for it. Fail, and then fail better.
You’ve been called a “stylistic chameleon.” How did your style evolve? That was such a great compliment. I don’t want to be an illustrator with just one style; I want to be like the rapper RZA. I get tired of drawing the same things over and over and always enjoy creating something new. One example is this poster I created for the 2016 Capitol Hill Block Party music festival. A lot of artists made band posters, which were exhibited in an art show on the festival’s grounds. I made the poster for the electronic duo ODESZA. I wanted to make my poster dance somehow.
I’ve also been creating a lot of music posters. Each band has a different sound, which gives me new ideas. And a special thank you to deceased musician and art director Aaron Huffman for sharing my posters in the Stranger’s Poster of the Week column so many times. I’m sure a lot of Seattle artists miss you.
What practice helps you get a poster idea? Making a music poster is creating a piece of art, so I usually just go for it. Of course, I look at the band’s album covers and other posters and listen to its music. One time, a member of Seattle band Thunderpussy called me to say that she had dreamed about a dancing Shiva, so I created this poster. For another poster for musician Robert DeLong, who uses a lot of instruments onstage, I illustrated a robot with all the instruments.
How do analog materials figure into your creative process? I create most things by hand and scan them into my computer to have a lot of textures and design elements. Last year, I worked on the branding for Lula Salads, a food truck serving salads in Seattle. After the owner told me that all of the vegetables are freshly chopped so they can be easily mixed with dressing and served in a bowl, I chopped vegetables into different shapes, then picked the best ones to make stamps to create the logo and patterns.
You recently made large-scale denim art for Starbucks. How did you arrive at the final pieces? I was really excited about this new technique. Starbucks wanted to install the denim on the wall of its store at Broadway and 40th and told me to preserve the denim’s nice texture as much as possible. I tested stencils, acrylic pens and screen printing, but all these covered the texture. Then I thought: How I could make art on denim without using any paints? Bleach.
It wasn’t easy. If I applied too much bleach, the denim got destroyed, so I tested until I almost got a bad high off the bleach. But I’m really happy about the final piece. Please go check it out if you are in New York City—or if you work for Levi’s or another jeans company!
You’ve created large-scale murals. What are the challenges of making murals? Time constraints, picking the right materials, working in a small space with a lot of construction workers and more. On average, it takes at least two weeks to design and edit the mural with clients, then four to five days to paint it. From my experience, if I have one whole week at the location, I can get a mural as big as 40 feet done.
The design usually has to be done before I get to the location. I trace the outline with pencils or chalk using a projector, and then ink it in by hand. But it depends on the style. For a mural for the Seattle apartment management firm Thrive, I did everything without sketching or outlining—I just went for it. And there are always some challenges with the space, so I have to freehand many adjustments. Because the wall material is different for each location, I am careful to pick the right technique and art materials. When I was in Chicago painting a 40-foot-long mural for Starbucks, I used a big brush and interior acrylic paint. We had tested with enamel paint, which was too shiny, and then black ink, which was too dark compared to the rest of the interior design. So I used the same gray color that had been used to paint another wall—it’s important to think about my art as part of the store. I did light outlining with pencil, then applied texture and freehand drew the faces. For another mural in Ferguson, Missouri, I used enamel paint because the mural was on these big wooden doors that customers often touch. And for a mural in New York City, I was working on a denim wall, which absorbed ink in strange ways. After testing a lot of ink, I decided that the best result was with water-based acrylic pens.
My goal is always to get murals done on time, especially when I go to different states. I try to explore new cities after I finish, but most of the time, I paint until the last day or stay an extra day. For the mural I made in Chicago, I felt like I was running out of time, so I got a twelve-inch Subway sandwich, ate half for lunch and saved the other half for dinner—for five days straight. Also, security for that site was really strict, so I wanted to stay as long as possible.
Last year, you created the artwork for the Starbucks limited edition green cup. What surprised you about the reaction to the cup? The controversy, although I had heard about what happened after the red cup incident. My idea and message for the green cup—using one line to draw and connect 132 faces—was pretty neutral, but positive. At least I thought so. Some websites, blogs and news had negative comments on it. But there were also positive comments, and I also received a lot of nice e-mails. It made me really happy that my art could make others happy.