Hip-hop, Contemporary Art, Dumbo

Neomemoire publish today the opinion text by the Toronto based artist Shogo Okada : Hip-hop, Contemporary Art, Dumbo. This artist book will be printed in 100 copies, numbered and signed by the artist, and will be launched at the opening of the next Okada’s exhibition Think Twice at Wil Kucey Gallery in Toronto on June 8, 2018. 

All details about the exhibition and how to buy the book via neomemoire follow the text. 


Hip-hop, Contemporary Art, Dumbo


Where do I come from?


  1. Osaka Japan
  2. The seat of my BMX
  3. Hip Hop


A statement by Keith Haring I recently read struck me as straightforward and relevant to my recent thoughts around art-making “I was spending ninety percent of my time outside of school obsessed with sex, then that became the subject of most of the work.” (“Keith Haring” Jeffrey Deitch Suzanne Geiss Julia Gruen In Cooperation with The Estate of Keith Haring, Rizzoli New York, 2008)

While simple and distilled, this hit me hard, highlighting the necessity for me to not focus on the sexual side, but to allow the true core of my interests to dominate the approach to making art. I need, and my work needs, to reflect the subjects I live through and cannot live without.


What am I passionate about?


1: Anime and cartoons

Born in Japan in 1987, where animation was more prevalent than in North America, I grew up seeing them constantly, and spent hours copying the lines, and consuming not only the content, but also being aware of the techniques and design strategies being used to bring the drawn line to life.

2: Hip-Hop

The hip-hop music I came across when I was in high school, (I started listening to some mainstream hip-hop back then (around 2002) such as Eminem, Dr. Dre, the Diplomats and DTP. Of course, some Japanese hip-hop artists as well) transformed my way of thinking and the set of values I continue to live by. I knew about the existence of hip-hop music when I was very young, but I did not care too much about it. It is only later, when I started riding my BMX and hanging out with the local riders, that I was surrounded by hip-hop music and became aware of it. Most riders were older than me, good at riding and became my closest role models. As important as their bikes, they would arrive with their carefully mixed cassette tapes and speakers to create an ambiance in the riding spot. Everything matched so well, the choice of music aligned with, and complimented their riding style. Realizing the importance of this complete package, I adopted the ethos of living and riding through the beats, samples, and lyrics of hip hop artists.

To me, these were and still are the most important influences. As far back as I can remember, I always loved to draw and to lose myself in the direct focus of crafting the next line, colour or shape.


How hip-hop, contemporary art and Dumbo can be interrelated?


There is more to hip-hop than the final music product. Those who consider hip-hop as a culture, think of it as more of a philosophy, a way of living. A philosophy that goes to the essence of being. The more you respect the hip-hop way of thinking, which values individuality, creativity, and constant technical achievements, the more you are yourself. Carrying out your own aesthetics is one of its most positive and important principles. This modifies your interaction with others.

To me, most of the recent so-called hip-hop production is not hip-hop at all, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this text. In hip-hop, the works, (graffiti pieces, songs, dances) are important, but everything else: being true to yourself, fashion, the way they talk and the way they walk, are also other ways to appreciate the phenomena. In fact, being hip-hop is similar to being an artist. In contemporary art, the works and the statements come first, as tracks and lyrics in hip-hop music do, but the branding of the artist is as important as their work. As a matter of fact, the success of Run DMC, De La Soul and Wu-Tang Clan, Andy Wharhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Muramaki is all about their branding besides their music, their art.

 Although it may not sound so at first, when it comes to the content of hip-hop music, it is initially very conscious, political, social and bluesy. Of course, there is plenty of light content, not meaning much, but it’s another (essential and important) aspect of hip-hop music. You will eventually find the same content in Dumbo, the movie. However cute and beautiful it looks, Dumbo also holds a lot of social, political, bluesy matters and the entertaining side as well. Once you understand hip-hop music and watch Dumbo through that lens, you will discover the similarities to the ethos of hip hop.

As you grow up, your understanding of the world around you evolves. Does not this apply to visual art as well? What you saw first in artworks changes as you mature. Both hip-hop, Dumbo and art will tell you, as you grow, more and more about yourself, it eventually becomes more and more complex.


If we had a close look at zoom-in


To “Zoom-in” view of an object is similar to sampling an original song in hip-hop music. Sampling is to focus on one (or more) phrases or beats and extract this cell from the original song. The sampled part becomes an abstract object, used as material to produce new songs. The original song has the purpose to be listened to and is considered as a whole, while the chopped part is used to make something new. The original source is used by music consumers while the sampled part is used by music producers as parts of a new song.

Innovation will not be reached without the understanding and the curiosity towards past, present and future. For example, a hip-hop track that is made with sampling (Zooming-in and chopping) technique has many ways to be enjoyed. At first, you can enjoy it as a hip-hop song. On a second degree, you can search which songs and which part of those song are used for the sampling, how they have arranged it into a hip-hop version. You get to know old songs or rediscover them with new ears. Hip-hop music gives you the knowledge of the oldies and a larger culture. As the hip-hop songs are always created in the present time, its interest really depends on the relationship between the diverse time periods of the material used by producers/singers/rappers compared to the experience of the listeners. For example, I grew up in the 90’s, a song sampling music from this decade will give me the most nostalgic impression. On the other hand, I think that if we listen only to songs from a specific period, we will not grow.

In a certain way, hip-hop music is one of the best ways to improve our culture because it’s made with existing music, and lyrics written today projecting a message for the future. Once you understand the original source, you’ll never look at the work the same way. This can also be applied to contemporary art. We learn from the history, we create and criticize to cultivate the future. My creations in visual art are done in a very similar way as hip-hop music is, but it’s expressed in a different language (audio and visual art). This is why I love hip-hop and how I can be hip-hop myself.

In the movie of Dumbo, this zoom-in method is often used very effectively. For example, in a scene where the mouse Timothy is talking to Dumbo, sometimes Dumbo gets out of the frame and Timothy is in close-up. The elephant almost becomes a background for Timothy and you could hardly recognize Dumbo if you looked only at that scene without the context. Of course this helps to emphasize the tiny dimension of Timothy, keeping in mind that dimensions is somewhat imprecise and unstable in anime. Imagine now I draw a simple line with a couple of colours and add a small red square somewhere in the image, it then becomes a simple abstraction and you will recognize Timothy who speaks in front of the grey background (Dumbo). The image makes sense when you have an understanding of all this. This circles back to the logic I explained above: if you understand the zoomed-in (abstracted) Dumbo, the meaning of the image differs completely.


How colour-field painting can be compared to close-up and sampling technique


Let me apply the logic of sampling and zoomed-in technique to colour-field painting. Artists emphasize colour fields and shapes, spread these elements on the entire surface of their pictures and make the images appear as part of a larger outside world. When it comes to creating an inside-to-outside efficient expansion, we can use the zoom-in /sampling theory and make it even more effective. The contents of the colour-field painting tend to be vague because their motifs are not concrete. With the close-up method we are able to share the original source and ease the understanding of the inside-to-outside extension for the viewer. For example, my painting on imagebelow is a close-up abstraction of Dumbo. I think the viewers would not realize it is Dumbo until I give them some clues. But once they know the original source, the image inside of the canvas starts to spread outside in the viewer’s mind. On one level, my work functions as a contemporary re-interpretation of colour-field painting.


Point of sample based production


Working with a sampled based medium (including hip-hop music tracks and visual art) is a good way to explore the unique voice and style of an artist. Because they use existing materials as elements to compose new work, followed by editing and mixing, which together make their own composition. In this case, the viewers or listener is required to not miss what the most interesting point is. Because people often put more value in creating everything from scratch, the interesting point of sample based production is how the original works change and alter by shifting location and understanding it as new and unique. Especially when a work is composed all by sampled materials, it reinforces the artist’s style because the result comes out from the artist as his idea, his or her unique way of thinking.


About the metaphor of Dumbo’s ears


Hip-hop music, contemporary art and Dumbo all have in common the use of metaphors. We know that in the lyrics of hip-hop music and in visual art, both historical and contemporary, metaphor is an essential element. Many metaphors appear in Dumbo film, Dumbo’s ears being the most famous one.

Dumbo’s ears are a malformation and those ears are seen as a weak point, a disadvantage to make him feel inferior to others. When Dumbo tries to run, he literally tumbles by stumbling on his ears, his weakness. He gets into a lot of problems because of this disadvantage. This metaphor is hip-hop in its treatment, because hip-hop asks for honesty, asks you to be the true yourself. Eventually, Dumbo realizes his ears are his advantage, simply by changing his way of thinking. Even though he now can fly, his ears are the same he had before and most important: he keeps being himself. In other words, we can apply the philosophy of hip-hop and grow from there: the weak floppy eared Dumbo becoming the flying Dumbo.


Pink elephants and polka dots


Another interesting and famous metaphor we find in Dumbo is the metaphor of pink elephants. “Seeing pink elephants” is a metaphor of hallucination due to alcohol and drug intoxication. That expression first appeared in John Barleycorn written by Jack London in 1913. But after the expression was used in Dumbo’s movie in 1941, the original was quickly forgotten. The pink elephant’s parade scene in Dumbo is so famous; I had to make some works related to pink elephants. These works are abstract but somewhat figurative. Anyone can recognize the pink elephants. Once the viewers identify the pink elephants, a connection can then be made to my paintings. The viewers who didn’t already understand my thematic will usually understand my work more clearly.

Also related to Dumbo’s influences in my work are the pieces I made by silkscreen. Many artists such as Damian Hirst or Yayoi Kusama created art works with polka dots and the abstracted polka dots works have their own metaphorical meanings. My polka dots work is an allusion to the metaphor in Dumbo’s film. They can be water drops, rain, tears, the textile pattern of the clowns in the movie and/or bubbles of champagne or soap. All of them can be abstracted, becoming polka dots. This motif evokes blues and mellowness.


How to compare a mouse and an elephant


Often my work builds on each previous series, to compound the use of metaphor and strategy. At first, each work in this series is abstract and doesn’t have much visual content to help the viewers to figure out what it is. It then needs help and hints from other works. My series of round paintings are made in different sizes in relation to each other and this can be explained with some aspects of Zen Buddhism. In Zen Buddhism, it is believed that the theory of relativity makes recognition. For example, let’s say you are in a 18℃ room. If you come in there from 30℃ outside, you will feel that room is cool. On the opposite, if you get into the room from 0℃ outside, you will feel that room is warm. The room is the same room but you feel differently by the different conditions. In the film, the scale of characters changes a lot. Since we sometimes witness elephants twice as big, we can imagine how deciding the size of my painting works becomes an important element and extension of the Zooming in theory. So I contrasted the sizes of the works with each other. The Timothy piece is the smallest; the crows are bigger than Timothy but smaller than Dumbo. Dumbo is smaller than Jumbo and Jumbo is the biggest of all.


Why hip-hop, contemporary art and Dumbo are so important now?


Another point in common amongst hip-hop, contemporary art and Dumbo, is how they all can be casually educational. They all carry important social, philosophical, political and educational contents, but the approach is much more casual than through academic education. Hip-hop music is a very casual and cool art form; at first sight, most of the fine art works have attractive shapes and colors before you understand the concepts behind the work; Dumbo also has a very good visual content to express the story and ideas behind. In other words, if it appeals to the viewer, the initial impact can be enjoyed first, and then all the subjects and themes underneath the work can be explored more deeply. I think that a more natural and effective way to encourage the receiver’s active thinking is to begin with a pure emotion at first. This first look will give the viewer the impulse to dig for more meaning.

Nowadays, we are losing the ability to think by ourselves because of technologies/digital devices. For example, one of the most important elements in hip-hop music is to discover records that were never used for hip-hop by other artists, or to make new arrangements of classic samples giving them a personal twist. But, in these Internet years, people tend to sample the same things always replicating the same style over and over. It’s not hip-hop at all and it seems like they don’t understand the most fun (and essential) part of hip-hop. Even worse, fans take it for granted so this trend spreads like a virus. Artists following a trend are fine but if they could use more imagination, add more of themselves in their creations it certainly would help to the evolution of hip-hop both as culture and music.

Another fading ability is that no one can memorize things like we used to, because we can search information on Internet. The information is always there and we have easy access to it, so there’s no need to memorize anything. Even when I was a kid, since we didn’t have cellphones yet, I could remember some phone numbers that I had to call frequently, like my parent’s house, relatives and some of my friends. We don’t do this anymore. In addition, we hardly make a difference between the real and the virtual world. Getting more “likes” on social medias doesn’t compare to a “real good” in real life. It’s just an evaluation criteria on the Internet, but people tend to mix this with the real world that we are actually living in. Censorship works now the same way. Aren’t we stiffer than we used to be? One of the reasons why it was looser back in the day was that people could make a distinction between what they were watching and the real world. These days, people are getting too sensitive to everything. The pink elephants’ scene could maybe not be released as they did in 1941. I think there is nothing wrong if we could educate children properly and could deal with information correctly. Losing those abilities, especially the ability to think by yourself, is a very risky matter for humanity. Because what makes human different from other animals is the skill to think and aren’t we about to lose it? But I still believe that we can find a key to make a better future… from Dumbo, through hip hop and right into contemporary art.

Shogo Okada



Hip-hop, Contemporary Art, Dumbo will be available at

Wil Kucey Gallery, 1183 Dundas Street West, Toronto     25$



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