Stab Magazine | The Unlikely Trajectory Of A Surf Artist, With Yusuke Hanai
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The Unlikely Trajectory Of A Surf Artist, With Yusuke Hanai

Complemented by a perfect Vans capsule.

style // May 6, 2019
Words by stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

I became enamoured with Yusuke Hanai’s work whilst urinating in the Japanese Alps.

I was staying in an inexpensive guesthouse just down the mountain from Shiga Kogen, Nagano, the mountain resort that hosted the technical skiing events of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Every morning I’d rouse from slumber, and prior to hitting the keys for an hour before hitting the slopes, I’d relieve myself.

Above the privy was a two-by-two illustrated Gravis (RIP) poster. Frayed at the edges, it was a Where’s Wally-esque scene, with characters riding bicycles, driving cars, carrying surfboards, doing all sorts of things, all wearing melancholic expressions, despite their jolly activities. In my pre-java daze I couldn’t help falling into it, morning after morning, noticing new characters doing new things in new corners of the vast print each day. It took a few tinkles to negotiate the bustling goings on and spot the signature in the bottom corner: Yusuke Hanai.

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Many have taken their pens to the Sk8 Hi, but few renditions are as wearable as Yusuke Hanai’s.

From early infatuations with the comic albums of Hergé and Uderzo, through Hanna-Barbera to the work of Jamie Hewlett, I’ve always loved cartoons. It’s a medium that allows the artist to say so much about the human condition, without worrying about likeness or reality. Completely by chance, a few weeks ago (apologies for not being on the Hypebeast timeframe) I noticed that Yusuke Hanai had recently collaborated with Vans. Opportunities to write about things that genuinely interest in the surfing universe don’t come along every week, so I jumped at the chance to talk to Yusuke about the range, a little, but mainly about his career trajectory and style.

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“I was inspired by surfers who grow long beards, long hair and hippies who jump in their vans to travel to Baja.”

“I’m from Yokohama, Japan,” Yusuke tells me. “When I was kid I was chubby, no good at sports and had asthma, so I was always doodling inside the house.” Yokohama’s a break-off from Tokyo, an hour or so southwest on the train from Shinjuku, but also less than an hour from Sagami Bay, which despite not being the most consistent or high quality surf region in Japan, gets waves year round. “When I was high school my neighbour would always take me and my friends out to surf,” Yusuke says. “That was when I started surfing and I’ve never stopped,” touching on the oft-overlooked, enriching cross-generational relationships that surfing facilitates.

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Little before and after of the mural that Yusuke painted at Vans HQ recently.

Despite being an avid doodler from a young age, Yusuke never considered making a living from the hobby. Like so many who end up carving a space in the creative sphere, however, Yusuke’s illustrations started to earn him a wage by chance. “When I was 19, a friend of mine started building a bar in my neighbourhood,” he explains. “I started helping, which led to me painting the signage. We didn’t have much money, so we thought it would be as fun to do it all ourselves. The owner of the bar loved 60s and 70s surf style, so I tried to paint the sign in a Rick Griffin style.”

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From far just a nicely cut pair of trunks in a nice shade, on closer inspection, the unmistakable markings of Yusuke Hanai.

If you’re familiar with the whacked-out comics and album covers of the 60s (particularly those of the Grateful Dead) then you’ll know Rick Griffin’s work. He’s regarded as one of the premier designers of the look and feel of psychedelia, and he’s Yusuke’s most profound inspiration, along with other famous illustrators and artists such as Saul Bass, Ben Shahn and Saul Steinberg. It didn’t start there however, as Yusuke admits, to my delight, that as a child he loved cartoons. “There were a few American cartoons on Japanese television when I was a child, and I loved Tom and Jerry,” he says, “But it was mainly Japanese cartoons. I was into KINNIKUMAN, Dr. Slump—written by Akira Toriyama who also wrote Dragonball—and Kitarō of the Graveyard, by Shigeru Mizuki.”

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Captivating, but with an ineffable sadness.

Artists often become prisoners of their style. The same thing happens to musicians. If they keep producing work that looks (or sounds) similar they’re labelled monotonous, but if they stray too far from what made them recognisable in the first place, then they might as well change their name and start again. Yusuke’s work’s unique in that the characters that are recognisably his, but the scenes diverse. “When I started my career, I tried to draw like an American illustrator,” he says. “But I realised that if I really wanted to work as a global artist, I needed to discover my own original style.” He then self-deprecatingly adds, “Now the Japanese say my work looks American, and Americans say my work looks Japanese.”

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A simple, effective take on the logo tee.

Trying to define what draws you to a certain artist’s style is as difficult as explaining sarcasm to non-English speakers. Fortunately, when I ask Yusuke why the characters he draws never smile, he explains my fascination with his work profoundly. “Who’s always smiling? I don’t try to paint a special moment; I want to paint normal life,” he says. “I don’t paint superstars, I want to paint people who are sitting on a street, bar or liquor shop. People aren’t perfect. We do stupid things. We cheat, we drink too much, smoke too much; we all have regrets. But, we have the power to laugh ourselves out of them.”

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The complete range. Note the green slips hiding in the bottom right of the frame.

As for the Vans range, the catalyst for this lofty rumination, Yusuke says that it was a pure collaboration between artist and product designer. “I started by painting all the materials and throwing them to the footwear and apparel designers,” he says. “We went back and forth, sharing ideas and designs until we were all happy with the final products.”

The difficulty of brands attempting to cash in on the cultural relevance of artists (although Vans is one of the rare cases where this transaction’s mutual) is that for the range to be a success, people have to want to wear them. Good art doesn’t equal good clothes, but the reason we’re here is that I genuinely like the range. Especially the green slip-ons, white tee and trunks.

“I’ve seen many cool collaborations, but some of them are hard to wear,” Yusuke says. “When I make art for products, I always think about how they will translate to something that’s wearable. It’s about finding the balance and making everyone involved happy, the consumers and the artist.”

Find out where you can get your hands on The Yusuke Hanai x Vans collab here.

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