By drawing portraits on the street, he discovered the joy of getting paid for drawing.
Taniguchi: In front of the works in Ryohei Yamashita’s solo exhibition “HOPE,” which started yesterday, I’d like to talk about the appeal of Yamashita’s works and to lay bare his activities to date.
I’ve known Mr. Yamashita for quite a long time. This is the first time for you to see the original drawings, isn’t it, Mr. Sasanuki?
Sasanuki: Yes, this is the first time I’ve seen Mr. Yamashita’s work, and it’s really powerful. From the moment the originals arrived, they gave off an incredible aura. This is the finale of Chignitta Space, the last exhibition of the year.
Taniguchi: You’ve done a lot of work as an illustrator and painter from Hakata, but I’d like to know about your “Yamashita History,” starting from the beginning of your career.
Yamashita：I started by drawing portraits of people on the street and selling them on the street. It was at a big bus stop called Tenjin in Hakata. I was spreading portraits of celebrities and doing a fishy business. Laughter.
When I was a student, I exhibited portraits for the first time at school festival booths. I received one coin for drawing the person in front of me. It was the first time I realized the joy of getting paid for drawing pictures.
I had always been good at drawing. I decided to take this momentum and go out on the street right after the school festival. I guess it was rare for people to paint on the street at that time, so it became like a live performance on the street, with customers in front of me and galleries around me. It was a dreamy time in Fukuoka Tenjin a little over 20 years ago, but it existed. Nowadays, it is no longer possible due to legal restrictions, but I think that was the last time it was possible. It was a bit like a market for portraits, fortune telling, accessories, and so on.
That was when I was in my third and fourth year at Kyushu Institute of Design. At Kyushu Institute of Design, we were doing visual design in general, and I was a fourth-year student majoring in film and video. So when I was a student, I think I was more likely to be seen running a video camera than drawing pictures. I made little music videos, short films, and so on, and that’s how I got interested in video.
Actually, I had already found a job at a commercial company, but then I came across portraits. Portraits in particular are created by individuals, while video is a collective art, so there are times when I get carried away. So I felt that I should focus on the world of painting, where I can build my own world by myself. So you enjoyed it. It was fun for you to receive money and reactions to your paintings.
Taniguchi: So you entered the world of painting as an outsider, rather than as an art major studying painting or drawing?
Yamashita：Yes, I did. I didn’t take an elite course in painting. I was mostly self-taught. I was more of a self-taught outsider, searching for my own way of expression.
Taniguchi: However, portrait painting requires an element of performance, right? Of course you have to look exactly like the person you’re drawing, but you also have to be able to deform them in an interesting way, interact with the customer, and have a sense of sales.
Yamashita：First of all, you have to get the customer to sit in front of you, so I got really into making signs, drawing examples, and other items. I drew celebrities and other famous people first, and then, as a jumping-off point, I would show them the performance of drawing with air spray, and I emphasized having them watch and enjoy the way I drew.
Taniguchi: I heard that you won a huge prize in that “portrait” contest, didn’t you?
Yamashita：Yes, the U.S. is a mecca for portrait painting, and once a year there is a contest where artists from all over the U.S. who make a living from their portraits gather. When I participated, they rented out a hall in a hotel in Las Vegas, and for about a week, hundreds of artists would draw each other’s faces, sparing no time to sleep. I participated in the world competition, where artists from not only the U.S. but also Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries gathered. At that time, there were various categories, and I won first place in the “work award” category for the best portrait.
Taniguchi: That’s amazing! It’s interesting that even though you won such a great prize, you’re not now known as “the world’s portrait artist, Ryohei Yamashita.
Yamashita : That’s right. I was happy to receive a certain amount of recognition in the genre of expressing people through pictures, but I wasn’t thinking of competing on that basis alone.