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“Learning by doing”: Japanese artist Sho Shibuya on making a change in increasingly unequal world

Japanese artist Sho Shibuya is a world-renowned visual creator famous for his provocative works painted against the backdrop of The New York Times newspaper pages. His rise to fame is out-of-the-ordinary: starting his career with a background in architecture and graphic design, building a business in Japan, moving to New York without knowing a word of English.

As of today, however, his works have been exhibited in a variety museums and galleries across the world. Sho Shibuya will be featured in the ongoing show E/MOTION opening this September at MoMu, the fashion museum of Antwerp, Belgium.

In our conversation, the artist talks us through his creative process and inspiration, as well as shared his thoughts on the importance of making a social impact.

How it all started

Sho Shibuya began his creative path in his native Japan, with a job in an architecture studio, despite being the most passionate about graphic design. After ten months of work, he quit and managed to find a job of his dreams, as a graphic designer in a publishing company, where he spent the next three years.

Soon, he realized it was time to move on to allow his graphic design skills to grow and develop, so the artist decided to launch his own business. “A young man who did not know any business, but I started anyway because my motto is ‘learning by doing,” – the artist recalls.

In about a year, Shibuya’s business started to flourish. He was able to rent an office and hire a team, yet he could not feel completely satisfied. It was when the idea of moving to New York came to his mind, the city seemed to him the world of artistic opportunities. Despite arriving in his dreamland with little savings he had from his business in Tokyo and no connections in the city, soon his career began to pick up pace.

"Sunrise from a small window"

“Functionality first”

Describing the inspiration behind his works, partially inspired by his background in architecture and design, Shibuya says: “The core idea is ‘Mottainai’, a Japanese concept that I was taught by my family and culture. It is about avoiding waste; it says that every object has purpose and meaning.”

“Functionality should always come first. I believe designing to make life better is always the goal, as well as spending time on researching and finding a solution, regardless of the medium or end product.”

A classic example to illustrate the artist’s conscious approach to consumption and functionality is his “Plastic Paper” project. The artist explains that the purpose of the project is to “merge cultural observation with ecological activism”. Since its creation, the project has already evolved into a multifaceted creative platform to unite various sustainability initiatives. In addition, the project allowed the artist himself to explore new materials and promote new ways to reduce plastic waste to the public.

Art transforming narratives

To Shibuya, artistic creation is capable of changing the world for the better.

“I want to create peace through my work by sharing my empathy and emotion. I believe simple colour and shape have the power to influence emotions, and emotions influence actions,” – the artist says.

He goes on to explain that, when it comes to the news, which Shibuya explores in his art extensively, art has the power to make the viewers feel the world beyond facts and figures on which the news industry focuses so much. “Art sometimes can be a more impactful way of communicating the significance of the news,” – he concludes.

When working on his famous paintings done on New York Times morning papers, Shibuya describes his process, saying that he follows his intuition, painting what he feels is most important to share. This is his way of triggering new conversations about matters that are worth discussing, from the “Stop Asian Hate” movement to climate change.

Making a change beyond art

Sho Shibuya expresses his passion about changing the systems not only in his artistic process but outside of it. Education inequality in America is the key focus of his active engagement outside the realm of art.

“Schools are still segregated. It connected education outcomes for low income community. It widens performance gaps between wealthy and poor students.”

According to Shibuya, he deeply feels the inequality in the US school system which is reminiscent of his own upbringing: “Until recently, I was too reluctant to say that I did not graduate college, but now I believe my way of self-taught education makes me unique. I want to share my story to encourage kids who don’t or can’t go to college.”

As of today, the artist has given several lectures on education at The Cooper Union and Yale University. In the future, he hopes to do the same thing in public schools.


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