Iwasaki Nagi's work is as intricate in meaning as it is in aesthetics. Using a technique he dubs "Imagination Tagging," Nagi's watercolor paintings seem almost like pages out of an I Spy picture book. Although Nagi's paintings are not necessarily intended for children, they do actually have something in common with I Spy games: they too are picture riddles. Replete with commentary on the current events as well as religious symbolism, Nagi's art blends the personal with the political, adding overlooked histories to the zeitgeist through elaborate tableaux scenes. It's no surprise that he takes inspiration from graffiti artists and other forms of outsider/vernacular art. As vivid and thought-provoking as Nagi's watercolors are, they also seem transient and ethereal, like they soon might float away or disappear. They're like a message from an alternate universe that will self-destruct after reading, or a dream that you've forgotten by the time you wake up. Nagi has created a complex lore for his art, and who better to explain the backstory than Nagi himself? In this interview, Nagi reveals how he became the "World's Fastest" watercolor graffiti artist, describes the parallel worlds his work takes place in, and explains the iconography of his art.
Who are your inspirations and what lessons have they taught you?
I've travelled to over 15 countries and I've seen that there are numerous people around the world who paint graffiti on the walls. I found graffiti in almost every small corner of the world, good or ill, regardless of skill, they were telling their small histories not recorded in world history.
Via these experiences I realized that so many people want to describe their own stories.
However, there are 3 problems.
1: It’s a very crime to damage the public or private walls.
Especially in small countries, such as Japan, not the United States, it’s a serious offence.
2: It’s hard to understand if we don’t share the same meaning for each graffiti subject.
Then we need more common expression rules.
Such as the iconography for cathedrals.
3: There is a typical form for almost all graffiti, not so quite original.
Or some of them do not have enough technique though I never look down on these personal histories.
Because of these 3 reasons, I decided to create my own artistic style, though I was deeply inspired by graffiti.
It’s my imagination walls.
It means I never steal from any other person’s idea or city graffiti.
Plus I never attack to someone’s right to tell their story.
I just use my imagination and imagine meaningful small history walls.
And this attitude leads me to the next discovery.
What’s been the most transformative experience of your life?
Iwasaki Nagi is small, 166cm or 5.5feet, with black hair and brown eyes, and is Japanese.
Nagi has been called “The World Fastest” watercolor artist, and is a member of the oldest Japanese Art group, JAPAN WATERCOLOR, and graduated KCUA or Kyoto City University of Arts, the oldest art university in Japan.
Anyway, there was an issue with this “The World Fastest” title that took a long time to solve.
Nagi created an artist statement in 2007, and started thinking about the
“Imagination [Graffiti] Tagging" that was mentioned before. The goal was to showcase these small, personal histories without stealing from others. But how could he prove that these works came from his own imagination, and how does one display what's inside the imagination?
He’d struggled for 3 years.
One day, 7:22 a.m. Jan. 27 2019, Nagi heard a radio show. One of the hosts said,
“Sharma is a novelist selecting his words carefully but in “Family Life”, just 1 sentence,
he repeats twice, “Brother-life,” It’s a cry of the boy in the book and Sharma’s, too…”
“That's it!” Nagi cried at that moment of Sunday,
“I can prove it’s my imagination when my tagging has the light come from left to right,
and the wall around it has its shadow from right to left!”
Like the solving moment of Poincaré conjecture, Nagi solved this test in 3 years’ keeping.
And he invented “The World's Fastest” Art by answering this question for everyone.
And the 1st Nagi Art after solved this issue is below.
B2 "LIFE'S but WALKING SHADOW"
What work are you most proud of?
It's Day 7: Reboot Monsieur Burnable, "Good & Ill Come Again Like A Twisted Rope."
The 3 lights method mentioned earlier proved that the tagging was from Nagi's imagination. But Nagi still wanted to be sure he wasn't stealing from the communities he took inspiration from. Nagi viewed his paintings in 2 parts: the "Main Part" and "Sub One." These 2 parts came from two different artists (though both were really Nagi). To show that they were created by two different artists, Nagi showed each part in a different light. The "Main Part" has light coming in from left to right. The "Sub One" light comes in from right to left. In iconography, the light from the left is an ordinary light, and if light comes from the right, it is a miracle or unusual. These 2 lights in Nagi's work mean that our daily life is a miracle itself and the miracle is a mixture of our daily life.
These ideas can be explained through Day 7: Reboot Monsieur Burnable, "Good & Ill Come Again Like A Twisted Rope." Day 7 is a unit of one week, and according to the iconography, it’s hopeful “Resurrection” day starting “Better Day 8.” The big theme of all of Nagi's art is hope. This art also has the main and sub parts.
On June 26th, 2020, Nakano-san, an excellent watercolor artist, came by Nagi's solo art show at Kanzan Gallery in Tokyo and said, “The outside and inside are 2 different worlds but they affect each other in some extent.”
These words influenced Nagi. He viewed the outside world and the inside world as parallel in this work. They had the same history but broke apart at a certain point.
So, just look at Day 7: Reboot Monsieur Burnable, "Good & Ill Come Again Like A Twisted Rope." An apparently imperfect Angel causes Monsieur Burnable to appear from her Left hand. And the scene seems to be set in a south island like Bikini Atoll.
Inside the world does not have any nuclear bomb tests. But the outside has them. However, these 2 affect each other to some degree. The man with the shield sunglasses points her and she does, too. The 3 lights illuminate the Angel. She links 7 stars from her right hand to express how all Good & ill come again like a twisted rope.
And in her left hand the Monsieur Burnable has a Nuclear Fire inside his heart he has pledged to use to begin the hopeful Day 8. Outside, the battle ship Saratoga was blown up and growling like a monster, but the sound cannot reach the inside.
On the upper right side, the monkey picks her sunglasses to prove there is no need to wear it inside the world, and also let us know the importance seeing everything with our own eyes.
How has your work changed over the years?
Actually, I recently discovered something new about my work. We know that the 3 lights prove the tagging comes from my imagination, and that the relationship between the inside and the outside are that they are parallel worlds. But these worlds do not only exist on one surface. Sometimes they have another side. They could exist on the back side of a picture. Which leaves the question, what is the back side like? Every cloud has a silver lining. I mean, if the surface were dark, the other side is shining because the sunlight comes from the backward.
How do you hope people feel when they look at your work?
Just imagine the sea, the vast surface of complicated waves, not connected with human deeds at all. But when we see such sea during a certain time, we usually can understand something about ourselves. Like this effect, just tagging, not Capital A Art, is apt to tell us something with our own inner voice, from both conscious and subconscious sides.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Nagi used to be so strict. He would sleep just 4 hours and the other 18 hours were for making his Art, with a little time to eat small, plain meals. The 2 hours left were for practicing Karate.
Sometimes he’d sleep on the hard, concrete hallway at his art school so he wouldn't waste time. He was an Art fundamentalist, so to speak. It was lucky for him that he was born in Japan. Otherwise he could be another type of fanatic in different place.
Deteriorating eyesight began to diminish his perspective. His Art was just difficult and almost no one appreciated it. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
However, for better or worse, the collapse of Japanese bubble economy hit him suddenly and seriously. He worked at a nursing facility for dementia patients to earn money. And he did so many activities with them involving his art, such as mirroring Nagi’s painting cards, or defining animals, or just playing with handmade bowling pins!
These practical uses of Art were well-received and popular among the elderly. This experience totally transformed his view of Art. His Art was still difficult, but he started to think how to meet in an transcendental place with his audience. Now, his Art consists of definable motifs that stand for his complicated ideas. Plus he chose a theory of iconography to put meaning into the motifs. So, we could call him an iconographer in a way.
Because of this reason, if he were able to go back to the past, he might have a more relaxed attitude, with a wider view and try many fun things. Anyway, our lives only go one way, and don’t have time “if” or “should have done." He’s been trying his very best to seek the aufheben way.
How would you describe your creative process?
Some time ago, I found Bob Dylan’s creative method, or at least what I understood to be his creative method. He has just added his feelings on each age's event. I discovered this when I listened to his song, “Mr. Tambourine Man." After this discovery, I put my perspective and feelings into the news of the time. So, from that point on, I was able to create unlimited works.
What's your favorite memory?
I heard almost the same story in Odilon Redon’s writing, “À soi-même : Journal."
In it, he said: his father often asked him, “Look the clouds. Can you figure out how the forms are changing like I can?”
Like this, I said to my mother, “The cloud is like you.”
In my oldest memory.