Violating Expectations: Gajin Fujita

On radiant days like today, Mayday, with the rising sun in the background escorted by the cordial climate, Gajin Fujita is at his best. The topography, the Mediterranean climate, the outdoor pastoral living is not only suitable for his personal preference, but quite simply, the paint dries quicker and facilitates completion. Upon his home and studio in the hills of Echo Park, with a view of the cityscape amongst cluttered trees, soaring hawks and crows, Downtown Los Angeles and its medium-sized skyscrapers provides a backdrop of sound comfort, nostalgia, and accomplishment. Born and raised in East Los Angeles, having lived in Boyle Heights most of his life, the view of Downtown has become a necessity. It represents the past, present, and future, retrospectively looking for inspiration, the current state of his work, and always pushing forward through the execution of progress. The spirit of the environment, formerly known as Edendale, where movie studio production companies were headquartered since the early 1900’s and where Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magon of the Mexican anarcho-communist PLM and their families set up a commune, has been a grand gift he now calls home. After all, as any of us with immigrant parents can tell you, the trajectory of our upbringing has often been plagued with difficulties. Fujita’s story begins in Japan. His mother from Tokyo, his father from Hokkaido, and immigrated to Los Angeles so his father could go to art school at Otis College. His mother was a student as well, but the household was patriarchal, like most households at the time, and the mother followed suit. As a child, Gajin remembers watching his father paint while he listened to Pink Floyd, and his mother would do pictorial drawings and would encourage Gajin and his brothers to paint still lifes. In the Fujita house, art was the norm.
Fujita Koi cropped

But on the streets of Boyle Heights, the painted picture was different. Most of the Japanese and Jewish residents had moved away and only a few vestiges remained, so the Mexican and Mexican American influences and culture triumphed. He played several sports which won him many friends throughout the neighborhood, some of which he runs into periodically when visiting his mother, but it wasn’t always simple. Being a minority amongst minorities had its fair share of isolation, and his father never got to complete his studies at Otis College which sometimes caused conflict within the family dynamic. His parents had originally planned on moving back to Japan after art school but with the family in place the only option was to send him away to magnet schools to avoid the gang violence around his own community. The commute was often arduous, sometimes several hours were spent on buses daily, but the experience, influence and diversity proved to be the best source of sustenance to shape the grand master he was destined to be. He looks back at those friendships with a deep affinity and respect, fortunate and blessed because everything in your past shapes your identify and perspective. One great friend he often speaks about with the utmost admiration is Alex ‘Defer’ Kizu, who he met on the bus, is also of Japanese American descent, lived in Boyle Heights, and commuted to a magnet school like him. Both were already inspired by cholo lettering and culture, but Defer introduced him to hip hop and graffiti. Shortly thereafter, he used the spirit of vandalism and rebellion as a form of artistic and aesthetic freedom. These experiences are molded into his creativity with a fierce remembrance of appreciation, of traveling from east to west on the transit and navigating through all types of fragmented communities across the city. He joined the KGB and K2S graffiti crews, adopted the name Hyde, as a metaphoric alter-ego like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and dreamt of an art school education like his father.

After high school, he enrolled in East Los Angeles College, then transferred to Otis College when it was still in MacArthur Park. Around Gajin’s last year at Otis, tragedy struck in the Fujita residence and his father passed away. It was a dark and challenging time and in many ways it still haunts him today because his father never got to witness his completion and turn into the fine artist he is today. It pushed him to different heights though, like taking on the unfinished work of a parent and transcending it to an unprecedented level that could never be imagined. He adopted the strong Japanese work-ethic and focused on a fusion of cultural identify that came from his own unique voice and experience. He represented a rupture and broke away from all previous traditions, thus merging ancestral erotic and Samurai woodblock prints, with modern-day graffiti tags infused in the background. It was the genesis of his ability to violate expectations. He studied under and with Scott Greiger at Otis, who saw the beauty in his mark-making process, and shortly thereafter walked on with a full ride to UNLV where he graduated with a masters in fine arts and was mentored by social historian Dave Hickey. Fujita participated in a group show at the L.A. Louver Gallery in 2001 for the first time, Rogue Wave, and it began the initial relationship with Peter Goulds and the L.A. Louver. The gallery offered representation not long after the exhibition, and since then he has flourished in the fine arts world around the globe and is highly respected by the local graffiti community for the way he has championed the cause and has been grounded by his roots. To even begin to understand the intricacy of this modern-day ancient master, most of his pieces go through a gold-leafing process, gold that is hammered into thin sheets, then the woodblocks are painted with finely-crafted detail with sharp lines and meticulous sketches, then some are tagged over with street-style graffiti by him, sometimes his friends, and often the process can take several months. A Gajin Fujita show takes about two years to get in order. If you ever have the rare opportunity to stare at one of his pieces for hours, it might just be a small glimpse into the soul of this fine individual. Gajin Fujita is modest, humble, and appreciative, but above all, he is very aware of the solidarity and support of the people who have contributed to his success. He recalls his parents, brothers, friends, classmates, crew members, teachers, mentors, gallery representatives, girlfriend, and others who have seen, been part of, and encouraged the path he was meant to follow. And as he continues to violate expectations, there is nothing we can’t expect from this relentless master, wherever he decides to take us.


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