Cutting edge

Interview with Keita Miyairi

Branching off from the traditional world of Mingei,
this katazome dyer is creating vibrant patterns all his own.
Listen to the song of life, as sung by dyer Keita Miyairi.

Photography by Kazufumi Shimoyashiki
Coordination by Taisuke Kijima
Editing & Text by Tamio Ogasawara

A craft made by the people. One of the criteria set forth by the Mingei folk art movement is “collectiveness,” or a vernacular beauty that cannot arise from one person’s skill or imagination.

Gazing for a time at the patterns drawn intuitively on the Ise washi, a special paper made for stencil-making stiffened using kakishibu, the dyeing artist holds the paper to the light box, leans in closely, in the spirit of graphic artist Shiko Munakata, and swiftly cuts the paper with a box cutter. This unearthly performance takes only a few minutes, after which Keita Miyairi has a new stencil.

When I asked him why he was staring at the paper, he said, “I was thinking about where to cut next,” explaining that a misstep in the order of the cuts could make it hard to finish the design. If you look closely at a poster for a Mingei exhibition made using katazome stencils, you can see the letters of the text are connected, rather than cut out independently. This is done to ensure the durability of the stencil, but the links between the letters harbour an organic artfulness. The beauty of these forms is not so much intentional as pragmatic.

Katazome is a traditional Japanese dyeing technique in which patterns are printed on cloth or paper using paper stencils and nori (the resist agent). Firstly, Miyairi cuts out a stencil. Next, the stencil is set on the cloth and slathered with nori. Nori is left in the shape of the stencil, leaving those parts undyed. Bamboo ribs called shinshi are stuck into the cloth so that the nori dries evenly.

Finding collectiveness in randomness

“The designs are things I’ve picked up here and there by chance, a natural result of the drift toward purity, or art without the artifice, that happens as you’re doing katazome. They aren’t something you could plan or imagine. That’s why I never throw away a stencil. I don’t really make them on my own, you see. Maybe this sounds a little showy, but they’re the product of a random process. It takes the ego out of it, keeping things unpretentious. Something new is always happening, out of reach of your intentions. That’s why I save mountains of scraps. They come in handy making other projects. This doesn’t just apply to shapes. Other variables like the hardness of the paper, how tough it is to cut through, and how quickly you move the knife can invest something as simple as a line with a life of its own. By softening the nori (resist agent) used when dyeing paper or cloth, you forfeit some control over how the colours penetrate, moving from self-centeredness into collectiveness. In my experience, accepting my own limitations has enabled me to go even further. In that sense, I let my work find its own level. I used to be much more precise in how I did things, but over the last two years, I’ve felt more freedom. Since I’m an extreme example of self-taught, a trained professional might see my work and wonder what on earth I’m doing.”

Once the nori has dried, the dye is brushed on, with the paper or cloth suspended in the air. Miyairi dyes from the back side, brushing until it soaks through to the front. The traditional way is to start with a pale shade and progress from there.

Moving beyond Mingei, influenced by the US

The goal here is anything but elaborate craftsmanship. US influences have been a major factor in Miyairi arriving at a more detached view, where it’s okay for the work to be laughed at. When San Francisco artist Barry McGee exhibited at Perrotin in Paris, works by Miyairi were hung in a room displaying artwork made by friends, in what felt like an expression of randomness. What sets these artists apart from popular opinion in Japan, and the usual Japanese temperament, is that they view craft and art as unrelated and are unconcerned with the success of the work. It’s made without artifice or flourish; what you see is what you get. This may sound similar to the perennial wisdom of Mingei, but growing up in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, Miyairi was immersed in a world of skateboarding and the graphic arts that differs in noteworthy ways from what we think of when we think of folk art in the traditional sense.

“I love graffiti and was really serious about it from my teens into my mid-twenties. If you write the same tag a hundred times, you stop thinking about what it is you’re writing. In the same vein, if you draw a piece of folk art a couple of hundred times, you’ll stop thinking about getting it right and start drawing instinctively. I think the beauty latent in the craft aspect of Mingei is something that gets radically multiplied in katazome. But if you make it look that way on purpose, the people who know what’s up will be able to tell. That’s why I try to keep up the momentum and cut my stencils out so fast they’re almost sloppy. I ascribe a lot of value to what happens on the first try. If I make a mistake, I just keep going. I let frayed fabric be the way it is. Why change it? In the US, frayed fabric is a hallmark of contemporary art. That’s part of what I’ve learned from Barry, and from the great dyeing artist Samiro Yunoki. What originally drew me to Mingei were the katazome on display at the Matsumoto Folk Art Museum in Nagano Prefecture, where I go from time to time to visit the family grave. That prompted me to check out the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, where I was floored by Yunoki’s work and decided to try katazome for myself. So I joined the Tokyo Mingei Organization, went to some workshops, and helped to organise Yunoki’s exhibitions, tending to the parking lot and the slippers by the door while looking, staring really, at his work every chance I got. Before getting into katazome, I made prototypes for plastic figures. I’ve always liked to draw things and make models. But carving out a shape 1mm at a time was not for me.”

Miyairi uses a secret ingredient to give his pigments added richness.

Pictured is the work that he created on our visit, starting from the stencil. The piece at the beginning of this article was made using a stencil that could easily have been thrown away. According to Miyairi, “It’s some kind of a glass vessel.”

A diamond pattern he made a few years ago. Variations in how the colour was applied keep the pattern interesting.

Lessons, legacy, and the colour red

“Isn’t this red great?” asks Miyairi, in reference to how Yunoki taught him not to mix his colours. He also taught him how to make nori. Helping out at Yunoki’s shows, he would occasionally be blessed with a few words with the master, one on one.

“In Yunoki’s view, it’s best to get by with six or so colours, no more than eight. He also said to let yourself be clumsy. He wouldn’t want to hear this, but I like to add secret ingredients to my paints, so that the colour is unique to me. It makes my colours bright. They come alive. I have kind of a dark side, so that’s something I like to express. About ten years ago, we renovated the house and set me up with a makeshift workspace. If you’re dyeing a long piece of fabric, you need to hang it up to colour it then let it dry in place, but my family slept right under that, and I kept getting poked in the back with the sharp ends of the shinshi (bamboo ribs used for keeping the weave straight). Yunoki turns one hundred this year, and the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum is planning a retrospective show for early next year. You can be sure I’ll be there, tidying up the slippers or helping people park, but I’m hoping that I’ll have the chance to show him some of my more recent works.”

UNIQLO tote bags Miyairi dyed using katazome stencils hang from the wall. “I like to keep it simple,” says Miyairi. We were delighted to hear that he wears UNIQLO all the time. By the window of his workspace is a print from Soetsu Yanagi that he was given when the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum had a clean-up day. It says: “Clear Skies Ahead.” On clear days, Miyairi often walks down to the Koishikawa Botanical Garden to sketch plants. If his daughter Cho is free, she’ll often join him. She’s still in elementary school, but she’s already started making katazome, rivaling her father’s expertise. Miyairi keeps in touch with Barry’s assistant Tyler Ormsby. They motivate each other to keep going with their work. Recently, a friend in Kagoshima sent me some fresh tea grown in the town of Chiran. When I took a closer look at the can, I realised that the design on the label had been made by Miyairi.

Figures line the shelves, a reminder of Miyairi’s days as a product designer. The tote bags hanging to the left are examples of the natural cotton items from makers like UNIQLO that he decorates with his stencils.

Pictured at Pacifica Collectives, just around the corner from the Nippon Budokan. The comb-like print on the wall, one of Miyairi’s representative works, was made from a piece of scrap.

Pacifica Collectives

A shop blurring the line between interior design and art, located in Tokyo’s historic Matsuoka Kudan Building. The katazome banner with the yen sign by the register was made by Miyairi as well. His solo show is on view from September 9th - 24th.

Matsuoka Kudan Building #208, 2-2-8 Kudan Minami, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
OPEN 12:00-18:00 CLOSED Sunday, Monday, and holidays

Keita Miyairi

Dyeing Artist

Born in 1974 in Tokyo. A devotee of graffiti art in his teens and twenties, Miyairi worked for a time as a figurine prototype designer before entering the world of katazome. In 2021, he had his first solo show at the interior shop Pacifica Collectives, elevating his work to the global stage.

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