Yasuki Hanai’s surfers, tipsy revelers and peaceful family of protestors, are neither victor nor victim. The surfer is one with the wave, the drinkers are propped up by gravity and each other, and the protestors will bundle up and be back tomorrow. Like the title of one of his shows, It Will Be Alright, Hanai reminds us that we've all been there and done that, but tomorrow is another day. Modestly calling himself an illustrator who “draws pictures to ease the mind,” he is a grateful observer of the world around him, seeing the stories and distilling them with great empathy into images that aim to be “solid and beautiful.” A curvy green leaf, floating sea creature and stubbly bearded truck driver all have a place on this earth, each deserving a full measure of dignity.
Gwynned Vitello: When I walk my dog in the morning, especially on the weekends, I laugh when I see huge TV screens through the windows, so many of them showing cartoons, and surprisingly, so many old ones that generations of kids have grown up with. One of my favorites was Bugs Bunny being captured by hungry humans, slowly being lowered into a cauldron of hot water, dipping his carrot in and munching away. You must have had a similar experience.
Yusuke Hanai: When I was a kid, yes, like all the other children, I liked to watch a lot of cartoons. There was no cable or satellite TV, and of course, no internet or YouTube. It was just over-the-air television, so I was always excited to check the time, sit in front of the TV and wait for my favorites. I watched many Japanese cartoons like Kitaro of the Graveyard and Ultimate Muscle.
Somehow, there were some American cartoons mixed in with the Japanese, Tom and Jerry and all the Looney Tunes. They looked so cool to us kids because they brought to us a different culture. Since the 1950s, the Japanese people have had such a longing for America, for the fashion, music and lifestyle. I was born in 1978, and I would say that my generation was the last where elders told us that everything American is the best. After my generation, the young people who came after could use the internet and then see the world more equally. But still, I saw the United States through those cartoons, and they were my first experience with American cultures. They stuck in my mind and are still there.
You’ve said that you did not excel in sports as a kid, so how did you get into surfing? What did you like most about it when starting out?
I did say that, even though I played soccer from second grade until junior high school. I really did like soccer, but I was chubby and had asthma, so I had to quit in my first year of high school. After that, I felt like I had nothing to do, so it was just me and some friends killing time at a cafe in our neighborhood. It turned out that the owner of the cafe was a surfer and he offered to take us out to go surf, but in the beginning, we couldn’t get any waves! At the time, in the ’90s, there were only short boards at the surf point. Every surfer rode on a thin, short board; the younger ones were not allowed to ride mid-length or long boards—so a beginner couldn’t catch any waves! For us, the surfing was tiring and scary, but the owner of the cafe kept taking us out anyway. We had nothing to do, so we would just go with him. Going out to the beach is always good, right? I still wasn’t getting a wave, but kept paddling out and slowly, then suddenly, I could get one. I found myself getting into surfing—this was a thing I could do myself. No need to try and make the team, and no need to keep comparing myself to others. Of course, I like to go surfing with friends, but on the water, what a feeling that it’s just me and the wave. I don’t have to think of anything.
Japanese parents are famous for having very high expectations for their children. I wonder how yours felt about you spending so much time surfing, and then deciding to go into the field of art. Did they want you to do something else? How did you feel about school?
I was always a lazy and unambitious kind. I couldn’t seem to stick to any one thing, even soccer, so even though I played a long time, as I said, I dropped it. What I was interested in was art, but my parents told me a big NO. They wanted me to go to college and become a businessman. There was nothing in that field I dreamed about doing, so yeah, I just went along and went to college to study economics.
They didn’t seem to care about me surfing, and they really didn’t know much about it. While a college student, I took a part-time job at a cafe and bar, a bar started by the guy who took us to surf when I was in high school. And this kind of started my path. For the bar, we actually dug the ground and built the walls. We were making the bar by DIY, and when I had time, I would always go there to do work as a carpenter. It was such a fun experience and I think it created my DIY spirit. We made almost everything ourselves, so when it was time to make a sign for the bar, it made sense to be my job. I was better at drawing and painting than the others, so I painted a 4ft by 10ft sign, made a flyer and the menu all by hand. That was my life; surf in the morning, go to college during the day and work at the bar at night.
I know you ended up going to the Academy of Art in San Francisco, so you traveled pretty far to get to art school. There must be a lot of art schools in Japan. How did you end up over here?
There are many in Japan, but it wasn’t going in that direction for me. Like I said, I worked at the bar and made menus, event flyers and posters when work was slow. I was really into making graphics. Even though my parents didn’t want me to go to art school when I had considered that in high school, I was now making okay money at the bar, enough so that when I was 23, I had enough to attend art school. But I felt too old at 23 to go locally because in Japan everybody goes right after high school.
Looking back to when I was 21 and traveled by Greyhound bus from San Francisco through Los Angeles and San Diego to Mexico, I remember staying in so many different cities but really liked San Francisco. I read Jack Kerouac. I listened to ’60s hippie rock and saw as much as I could of Beautiful Losers artists like Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen and Chris Johanson. So really, I was dreaming of San Francisco. I decided to live there and study art in my favorite city.
Between making signs and posters for the bar and listening to psychedelic music, I’m figuring your first jobs involved music. And your sign painting is so compelling—did looking at posters and album covers influence your work?
Thank you. I liked looking at a book called The Art of Rock. I wanted to look at all the old posters for the shows, and also old copies of Surf magazine—oh, and also Murphy by Rick Griffin. And, as I told you, even though I had made money at the bar doing graphics, it was just a part-time job. Eventually, lots of local surfers and musicians would come to the bar every night, and fortunately, they would ask me to make posters and T-shirt graphics for them. Little by little, I could make money by doing art.
How did that develop into painting murals? Do you work alone when doing them, and how often do you make them now?
I sent some photos of murals for an elementary school in California. My friend Erik is a teacher in Paramount, and I found this very strange, hearing that there is no art and music education in public elementary schools in the US, that only wealthy schools really offer it. Erik loves art and knows how important it is to be creative, especially for kids. He was upset about that, so he started free after-school classes with his friends, artists like Shepard Fairey, Rich Jacobs, Tim Kerr, Ray Barbee, Matt Leines, Travis Millard, Mel Kadel, Nat Russell, Harshi, Hidutch, Geoff McFetridge and many more. Basically, each artist gives a subject for students every month, and at the end of the school year, usually the first week of June, there is an art show. The students have their art on the wall of the school cafeteria. Musicians play music in their schoolyard and guys like Mike Watt, Tim Barbee and Tim Kerr join in. You can check it out on YouTube.
I’ve painted five murals for elementary schools in California so far. Be Active and Apple Tree are murals for schools. I actually didn’t have much experience doing that before, but I tried doing it for the students. If I could help kids have a positive attitude, it makes me very happy.
One Foot in Front of the Other is a mural I made for a low-income section of Kawasaki, Japan, which is a tough place to live. Most of the dwellings are priced at a daily rate. They are single occupancy and have about the same amount of floor space you would have in a tent. Many of the occupants are factory workers that are financially struggling to stay alive. I hope the mural helps them feel a little more appreciated and that it provides them too with a daily dose of positivity!
"I don’t like to draw superheroes or perfect people. Our lives are always up and down."
What kid of materials do you use these days? And do you especially like the color green? I’m thinking of an indoor mural you painted that has trees, leaves and birds in a bright green, all the same size, as if to say that they are all equally important.
I mainly use acrylic house paint for murals, and for canvas work, I like golden acrylic. That mural was one I painted for the Vans Headquarters. I’ve collaborated with them for capsule collections in 2016, then in 2019, which was when we partnered together for the mural. The particular color in the mural is what I used in the collection.
Another beautiful mural is the one you painted for the Hytter Lodge by Tatshina Lake in Japan. It tells me about how much you respect the environment and the out of doors, which you showed in the Vans piece we just talked about. Did that come from where you grow up or from surfing?
I have to say that when I started surfing, I didn’t care much about the environment. But since I started surfing, I knew I wanted to swim and surf in clean water. And I don’t like to surf at a beach covered with trash. The environment is the most important thing to me. The beaches near my town are losing sand, and we do a beach clean every month. Sadly, the trash in the ocean is mainly from the town. Surfers are sensitive to changes in the marine environment and we can feel the water temperature getting warmer. It even seems that the seaweed is decreasing, seaweed the ocean creatures need for their food and shelter. And last year we had a serious disaster from the typhoon. We have to change before it’s too late. How can we live without nature if we are part of it?
You also illustrated the theme for the “Better Together” campaign. I love how the apple tree actually looks happy making a gift of fruit—the group looks like they appreciate and value the gesture. I guess partnership is another important quality for you.
That is a mural from an elementary school in downtown LA. I saw that tree in front of the wall and I wanted to paint it. I wanted to show something happy about being with friends, so I painted the kids working together to pick the apples. I wanted to show how things are easier and enjoyable when you are together with friends.
On the other hand, many of your pieces show guys sitting and sighing in front of an empty liquor bottle. What did you observe about people when you were tending bar?
I don’t like to draw superheroes or perfect people. Our lives are always up and down. The guy sighing could be you, could be me, could be a friend, because we all have the experience of being down. Life is not so easy. We do stupid things we regret. Nobody is perfect, but we all have the power to laugh away the problems in life.
At the bar, people talk about their failures and regrets. At first, they feel down, but after we talk, we can laugh away the problems. Here’s 2020, with so many people struggling with the pandemic and discrimination. But we are here. We could be down, but we will stand up and move forward one day. That is what I want to say, but my English is horrible (maybe my Japanese too!) So I draw and paint.
I do see that in your work, that your characters never seem down and completely out. There always seems to be a sense that tomorrow will be better. Maybe it’s that you draw a lot of folks literally hanging onto each other, really supporting each other.
Thank you for understanding. Like I said, life is not so easy. But if people could get together, the future is bright.
You also show people alone, kind of contemplating life, as well as groups headed to the beach—or a protest march! Do you have a need to balance time alone and time socializing?
I don’t like great big groups of people. I don’t like a big party. Basically, I like to be alone or with just a few friends. I have a wife and two daughters, so most of the time I spend with them or alone. I understand that big groups have more power when we need to make changes, but I also don’t like the pressure to conform. Everything needs balance.
So, how do you set up your studio to create art but maintain the kind of life you want to lead? What does it look like, and do you have a schedule?
I found a small shed near my favorite surf point. Fishermen used to use it for storage, and it’s been here almost 90 years. I bought it and renovated it with my friends. I can walk there, and if there’s a swell, I can walk over with my friends.
I wake at 6:00 am and get my daughter off to school at 7:30. I walk to my studio, which takes about 40 minutes. A car would take 10 minutes, but it’s a good time to think about many things. I also like to walk (good for backaches also!) and I work till about 5:00 pm. If there’s a wave, I surf. Then I’m back home by 6:00 for dinner with my family
You’re someone who values both time alone and time observing everyday people, both your friends and strangers on the street. And that’s what you paint.
Yes, exactly. I paint ordinary places and people. For me, ordinary people are freaks and weirdos, some crazy, some on a bummer. Everybody is different, and what is not normal to you is normal to somebody. I hope everybody can live as who they are.