“…Not surprisingly, the rise of hip-hop music also hasn’t meant a rise in gangs or violent crime in Japan. But it has meant a rise in the crime of vandalism-namely graffiti. (Japan has a native word for graffiti, “rakugaki”, but this term usually describes simple etchings of the “yoko likes yuya” or “ichiro is a geek” variety.)”
A hacking cough wakes me up sometime late in the afternoon. I’m begging God it’s not the Swine Flu or a nuclear fallout cold I caught from dry humping the streets of Tokyo on my first night out. It had only been only 5 months since a major earthquake/ tsunami decimated the Japanese coastline causing a meltdown in 2 out of the 3 nuclear reactors. I pretty much felt my worries were justified. The air was humid with only an uneasy hint of fall making the simplest wardrobe choices terribly difficult. One minute you were glass cutting nipples chilly – the next minute you were clawing yourself out of your layers like you were on fire. My eyes were glazed and my face balmy as my hands reeked of cheap whisky and acrylic paint. I looked sick.
M**T was kind enough to let me sleep my stray dog antics off on his bed at the Cerulean Towers hotel while he put in a day’s work at this installation he was creating for “And A” along with S**F and LOVE ME. “And A” was a clothing/ lifestyle brand/ store that was hosting them for their 10th anniversary – and had something to do with the Sotheby’s enterprise. Sotheby’s sounded fancy – I recognized the name from Page Six when celebrities would buy stuff from other rich folk that they would then auction off for outrageous prices. We would later find out it was “Sasabee’s” which meant something huge in Japan but nothing to us in America. I needed to clean myself up. I was there to do important shit. I was supposed to be taking pictures and not sleeping off a night that started off with a 16 hour flight and ended at 9am running out of a Tokyo hand job shop.
“You pay now!”
That played over and over in my head as I blew a pack of cigarettes out of my nose. I never drank with such boorish behavior back in New York City. Apparently I snored. Something that’s always cool to find out when you’re bunking with other men. When I was approached about joining this fieldtrip a couple of months ago in truth I didn’t really want to attend. I had never did an all homeboy camping trip so my first one being on the other side of the planet had me a little apprehensive. I also remembered reading a story about M**T and S**F almost dying in a gang fight in Beijing so yeah I was definitely apprehensive. Japan, with its mystery dragon, lady boy, Yakuza, samurai shit – and these two certified wild boys? No thank you. I’ve gotten into violent boxing matches with my shadows that have ended in decision.
And then I found out Pablo “P3D” aka “The Kentucky Gentleman” himself, N**S, was going. Greg NAW and ZOOTED also agreed to come along with the guys from Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn. DJ Will Robbins also attached himself to the line up along with his girlfriend Tanya (who was the daughter of our host who facilitated the And A deal) and her best friend forever Kamaryn, who I swore were sisters until I befriended them on Facebook. I didn’t know LOVE ME, whose moniker was all over my city and easily spotted in the opening credits of Saturday Night Live was going till we got there. And then you have my very eager camera and 18 rolls of film – all just dying to go.
That decided it… If I was going to die out in Japan, this was going to be a very crowded and fun way to die.
I did the best (or worst) I could’ve to saved up enough money to cover my flight and a little bit of pocket change so I could feed myself. Our hotel room was booked in a 5 star hotel in the Shibuya district. According to The M**F’s – who had already visited Tokyo – the room was big enough to fit at least 4 people. They set it up so N**S and I would bunk with them. A graffiti writer sleepover! I thought to myself. A graffiti writer sleep over scented with the fresh smell of Krink markers and spray cans, paint splattered sneakers and half empty bottles of booze. Our sleepover would also have the proverbial “loose cannon” (N**S), the crankiest Jesus Christ/ ZZ Top impersonator on the illegal side of a spray can (S**F), a human Smirnoff vodka bottle (M**T), and myself, a wide eyed Mogwai (from the movie “Gremlins”) minutes away from midnight and his next meal. I made sure to pack an extra liver and opened up a bank account with 2 separate ATM cards in case I lost one in this perfect maelstrom of a “working vacation”.
The room goes from dark and quiet to really colorful and busy. M**T and S**F entered the room from working all day to pick up a few more supplies and to wait for Pablo’s arrival. It’s around 6pm. I drag myself into the bathroom and peel off last night from my skin. My fingernails are caked with spray can fluid and my clothes are spotted with ink. I’m pretty sure the streets of Tokyo looked worst – our urban nicknames scrawled on anything not neon or florescent. The quick shower I took does little for my composure – just enough to allow me a legible word in between my disruptive coughs. After I brush my teeth I use a shot of whiskey and Red Bull as mouth wash. The jolt to my system shakes me like a battered woman. When N**S finally arrives I throw up a little in my mouth out of sheer excitement. After exchanging pleasantries we each grab a bag with supplies and head out to And A.
Our walk through Shibuya is all anticipation with no expectations greater than more drinks and more painting. Every intersection was four more roads we could travel and vandalize. As we turn the corner to the store we are confronted with a huge M**F wheat pasted on the side of a 2 story Japanese version of an Urban Outfitters – but neater. The inside of the store was all glass, mirrors, and wood grain shelves combined into some post modernist concept only a nerd into architecture, design, and fashion could love. Everything down to the drink coasters they sold had this feel of “New York won’t be seeing the likes of this until next year” vibe. Even the T-shirts they sold had more technology than most of our inner city public schools. The staff was extremely pleasant and disarming to the point where we felt uncomfortable trusting them. Our sarcastic jokes fell flat and our bravado felt dated amongst their honorable posture– Japan is where egos go to die under the wrath of manners.
On top of the huge fill-in that decorated the outside of the store the crew was given a separate room inside of the store to defile. This would be the room that kept most of the products illustrated with the vandalism that used to be exclusive to the concrete walls and delivery trucks of a city in urban blight. From coats to a coffee mug with a velvet handle and high tech head phones, this was graffiti meets Skymall. The LOVE ME/ M**F tag had went from being blackbook scribble to an actual brand – as if tagging your building wasn’t enough these guys wanted to tag up your home interior and everything in it. The room was filled with a repetitive LOVE ME written over and over on a mirrored wall and glass with the M**F fill-in painted over it. A huge “Peter Pan Posse Forever Young Having Fun” was painted over everything complete with the ink drips that turned the room into an acrylic forest. Standing inside the room felt like you were watching the store form the point of view of the painted walls, trapped inside a black, silver, and red doodle.
The guys wrapped up their work for the day as our host in Tokyo arrives to the store. Her daughter (Tanya), who was supposed to have arrived in Japan with us the night before but had to spend a day in Alaska with Will and Kamaryn due to airplane trouble, finally arrive. Everyone applauds the fact that they are not shrapnel scattered all over Canada in some horrific engine malfunction. Our New York City in Japan crew is now a basket ball team with a full bench. Our host, in a celebratory mood – invites us all to a few drinks and food at a nearby restaurant. This turns out to be my first meal in Japan, interrupting was felt like a 24 hour alcohol binge. Before we leave the store we snatch up a few cans of paint at the behest of a suspiciously animated N**S. He repeatedly keeps telling us of this wall along some train track he wants to hit. It was like he wouldn’t shut up about it. Our host warns us of any shenanigans and advises us not to go bombing. Of course we agreed, while filling our pockets with an assorted collection of markers and mops. N**S blatantly grabs an entire box of spray-paint. This is when we learn that he’s already downed 3 bottles of sake. He’s been in Japan now for about 3 hours.
The dinner was cozy and jubilant – an authentic Japanese fare with a dash of western curiosity. Any place where you have to remove your shoes and sit on an embroidered cushion is automatically humbling. Our boisterous “happy to see you alive in Japan” vibe was muffled by the ambiance into a quiet scream. Everyone was on their best behavior outside of a formal dinner with your parents. As the foreign food and sake flowed our respectful apprehension turned into a welcomed familiarity. This is when I first started to notice N**S’s voice. It went from gentle giant to ardent politician. It got worst as the wood chip he was given that held the key to the cubby hole that held his shoes went missing:
“Come on guys, who got my piece of wood?”
“Hahahahahaha! Pause, N**S…”
“No I’m fucking serious who got my block of wood?”
“Shhhhh chill did you check where you were sitting at?” I say, trying to weather the tempest.
“Yeah it’s not there come on guys give me my block.”
By this time our host and the others had already filtered out of the restaurant, M**T and S**F couldn’t contain their laughter at Pablo’s growing temper tantrum and skipped outside leaving me to deal with it. This only agitated the situation.
“Are you fucking guys kidding me COME ON GUYS GIVE ME MY WOOD.”
“N**S I think you put it in the box with the paint did you check it?”
“YEAH I DID IT’S NOT IN THERE!”
(This was the 1st time in Japan I felt slightly embarrassed – and I ran out on a hand job the night before.)
“No I don’t think you did, let me check it” as I go reaching for the box of paint.
“NO!” he pouts like a spoiled child in a day care.
“N**S, just give me the box.”
I passively wrestle the box out of his hand and after a few moments he reluctantly lets it go.
Of course the wood chip in question was in the box. I had to bite my lip to keep me from exploding with laughter.
We all exchange goodbyes with our host and plan on meeting the other kids later on in the evening for some Tokyo nightlife. We leave them under the guise of returning back to our hotel room for a disco nap. They all stress again for us not to do anything stupid informing us that the Tokyo police doesn’t take kindly to vandalism. We adamantly agree not to, nodding our heads in agreement as N**S is climbing on a garbage can to catch a tag in the foreground. There is no taming him now. No one noticed this incredibly loud and sloppy move but me.
The minute our host got into a cab – once again – we were climbing over everything to like ants at a picnic leaving our names as evidence of our infestation. Somehow, in what was the ball dropping move of the trip, N**S became our Peter Pan and we all blindly follow him.
This is when the deal goes sour.
It’s about a 20 minute walk from the restaurant to the dearly coveted, and oversold, wall. N**S leads the charge – like a pirate declaring anarchy against clean surfaces – with M**T and LOVE ME in tow. S**F and I hang back, slowed down by his need to tag every 3 seconds, my taking a picture every 3 seconds, and our paranoid need for caution. Soon enough we reach the train track which is outside and down a steep ditch several meters away from an entry to an underground tunnel. While walking along the outside of a track we notice a large team of train workers sorting out their equipment and getting ready to start their shift – complete with flood lights and a video camera. For a minute I thought the workers were being interviewed by the media about their DEVO’ish (80’s nu- wave band) work outfits. You would think this would have been seen as a major red flag – but no. We address it with a wise crack and proceed to walk another 100 or so yards before breaking into the Tokyo transit system
I’ve always loved graffiti. Since I was young I would change my name over and over again till I found a moniker easy enough for me to write and connect all the letters with a respectable street penmanship. I never went bombing. I always kept my vandalism to art blackbooks and whatever desk I was stationed at in public school. By the time I was old enough to move around the city without my mother chaperoning me the train era of graffiti was over. The first time I actually grabbed a can of paint was in my senior year of high school while attending night school at Washington Irving in lower Manhattan. My friend at the time, FOCUS RFC, took me right after class and we tagged the entire length of 14th St. from the West Side Highway all the way to Avenue D on the Lower East Side. Mind it you was 9pm and a very different New York from the homogenized metropolis it is now.
I would tell you the feeling was better than sex or drugs but I couldn’t – being that back then I was still a sober, wide eyed virgin. 18 years later and every conceivable vice I could get my hands on and try at least one confirmed it – nothing beats seeing your name up on a wall or when other people tell you that they have seen it. Nothing would ever beat the fear of getting caught or the feeling of paint shooting out of your hands like a super hero blasting a complex signature from his palm onto someone else’s property.
And now I was all the way the fuck over in Japan about to do the same with some of the most infamous writers ever to touch a fat cap. And tagging in a train yard? My inner child couldn’t stop masturbating to the thought.
We find entry to the train track at a part of the gate with not that much barbed wire and next to a wall making it easier for us to scale it. Once over the gate and through some bushes, the trench dipped at an angle for about 10 feet before touching a ledge and then it went down for another 20 stories. I was the last one to hop over. By the time I reach my motley crew LOVE ME and N**S where already on the train tracks decorating the holy grail of walls. M**T and S**F were still on the upper ledge changing spray can caps. I readied my camera. This was going to be my film version of Video Graf (a graffiti video magazine from the 90′s that showed writers bombing all of existence), Ryan McGinley (a well-known NY based photographer that started with photo’s of street art) moment. In my excitement I take a photo of S**F catching a tag with the flash on – forgetting everything I had learned from watching Mr. Brainwash fumble around in Exit through the Gift Shop. This wins me a resounding “What the fuck are you doing!?” quickly cooling my first time at an amusement park experience. The bass in S**F’s voice reminded me of how tense and dangerous everything we were doing was and how I wasn’t on the other side of the gate looking in, I was a now a co-defendant.
Before I could allow the thought to settle in and cement itself into common sense we are met with a running and out of breath LOVE ME. The train workers who we had seen earlier had started their shift and were make their way down the track in our direction. He quickly scurried up the wall and hid with us under the shadows of an over pass that was near us on the upper ledge. We could only assume that N**S was still hiding somewhere on the track. This was it: my “Locked up Abroad” moment. I refused to allow the guys to see me shake in fear and instead of going with my better judgment of leaving I stayed in the shadows with my team.
We laid still under the silent Tokyo darkness with only our heartbeat and gasps for air as our conversation. Each second felt like an hour. Once the track maintenance train shuffled passed us without incident we relaxed and waited for its light to fade into the tunnel. The minute the coast was clear M**T and LOVE ME slid down to the rail road to finish what they started while S**F stayed with me on the ledge to work on the fill-in he started. N**S came out of from whatever whole he was hiding in and continued painting. The worst was now over.
Or so I thought.
The last few paragraph repeated itself exactly 3 more times.
Back at the hotel room we kept trying to figure out where we went so wrong. The consensus was that if this had been NYC we would have never entered the tracks after seeing all of those transit workers idly standing by. Not only did we walk right by them we broke into the tracks only a couple of feet away from them – basically the equivalent of holding the door for them. If that wasn’t enough of a bad omen how did we even conceive it was of a sound mind decision to stay in those tracks after the first maintenance train rolled by? Did we believe that a police force in Tokyo was nonexistent? We definitely acted as such that the first night we arrived, ragging any surface without care as to what property it was or who was watching.
Things we never would have done in NYC…
Well that’s all not entirely true.
So we blamed NEWS, who was so drunk we are all still experiencing his hangover till this day.
LOVE ME scaled back up the wall in what appeared to be one hop. M**T followed like he was still in communist Russia trying to fly his way out of Siberia. All I heard was that there was someone with a flash light on foot. Cops?! We didn’t wait around. One by one we flew over the gate like it was an Olympic hurdle and we were all going for the one gold medal. In my anxious escape I scraped half of my shin off but didn’t realize it until several days later as the adrenaline masked any pain I should have felt. I looked back once to make sure N**S was following but I only saw the guy with his light saber of a flash light screaming like an extra in a Godzilla movie. N**S was nowhere behind us. We quickly spot a cab and pile into it. I keep yelling at everyone to wait for N**S but I was in such a frenzied shock I couldn’t even hear myself. This gave me my first lesson in graffiti: every man for his motherfucking self. I didn’t even have my door shut before the cab pulled off into the neon city – as if our driver knew he was our getaway car. I look back towards the scene of the crime to see N**S face finally appear over the gate. I try to get our car to stop for him but my voice is lost amongst the commotion. I closed my eyes in exhaustion and quietly pray he finds his way back to our hotel.
We pour out of our taxi and into our lobby in an exhilarated rush of “we fucking made it”. Everyone picked a corner of the room to nervously giggle off almost being caught and “Locked up Abroad”. I grab the lukewarm whiskey I had stashed behind the window blinds and do a shot straight out of the bottle like it was a much needed sedative. I’m so pumped up my hacking cough is no longer. Everyone catches their breath and the room starts to fill up with everyone escalating and elated gibberish. This was normal shit to the others – it was a moment of an entire lifetime for me. I was no longer playing it safe, taking pictures from afar, I was in the story. Shit I almost was the story. My common sense and need for adventure collided at the bargaining table and the negotiations fell apart. Everything was one big “what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck???”
Soon M**T’s voice cuts through our slowly settling rabble; “Yo call N**S’s phone.”
I scrolled through my Black Berry until I reached his name quickly like my fingers just remembered it had some chores to do and our mother was almost home. I even didn’t care about how much I’m was being charged in roaming fees my main concern was The Kentucky Gentleman’s safety. Each ring had my finger crossed and an offering to the God of Overseas Vandalism. By the 4th ring he picks up.
“Yo you ok?”
“Yeah yeah I’m good where are you guys?”
“We are at the hotel, come to the hotel.”
“Yeah but how do I get there?”
“Just grab a cab any cab tell them the name of the hotel they’ll take you.”
“Nah fuck it I’m gonna walk.”
“NO DON’T WALK, GET IN A CAR!”
“Ok ok I’ll get a cab, but where?”
“THEY ARE EVERY WHERE!!!”
The phone hangs up and the room explodes with life again. S**F stops with the doomsdays scenarios and M**t stops hiding all of the evidence that littered our room, LOVE ME starts laughing. I go on a 20 post twitter rant about what had just happened to us. The last thing any of us needed was N**S getting arrested and starting some huge international incident and getting us all into major trouble with our host. Everyone relaxed and the next few minute are filled with the congratulatory jargon and the “what if’s” every graffiti writers showers each other with after a great escape.
Once again this was common place for them but for me – this was now Heaven.
Fifteen minutes have passed. We all collectively stop with our bullshitting and wonder why N**S hasn’t arrived yet. I call him back. This time he answers in one ring:
“Yo I’m getting arrested…”
That’s followed by a bunch of inaudible screaming in Japanese.
“What?!” I yell into my phone, eyebrow raised and the smile dripping off my face.
“yeah I’m getting arrested I’ll talk to you la…’
And the phone goes dead. And the air leaves our room. Our jaws drop and everyone starts frantically hiding paint and stickers again and I start erasing tweets. This was only my 2nd evening in Japan – N**WS 6 hour in Tokyo – and the deal has gone extremely sour.