Over the years I have had the dual pleasure of working with artists Kenji Nakayama and Dana Woulfe and getting to know them as men. They are rare in their talent as painters who work as easily alone as with each other.
Currently featured in 13FOREST’s exhibition Space/Light/City, Kenji's and Dana's solo and collaborative paintings and murals have been well received in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Toronto and many other cities. In a show of their paintings at Boston’s Lot F Gallery last spring, a PR piece referred to their work is a melding of order and chaos. It was correct, but stillness and motion would have been as apt a phrase. While much of Kenji’s work, particularly his stenciled paintings, have solid form, Dana’s nonrepresentational “splash” style exudes kinetic energy.
The interesting question is not just how the two men’s aesthetics work when combined into single works of art, but also how two such different artists can work together successfully – seamlessly, as they put it.
Earlier this month I sat down with Kenji and Dana in their South Boston studio, and talked with them about everything from Kenji’s arrival in the US from Japan, to Dana’s youthful involvement with graffiti artists. It was a balmy night. The studio floor was incidentally beautiful from years of splattered paint. Soon the two men would have to leave to repair Dana’s motorcycle.
All images are used with permission from Kenji Nakayama, Dana Woulfe and 13FOREST Gallery, and expand when clicked.
The two of you have had been in gallery shows and painted murals for some time now. There are lots of images of your work on the internet, but not a lot of personal information. I’d like to spend the next hour filling in some blanks. The first question I’d like to ask is, how did the two of you meet?
Kenji: We met about six years ago at an art show called Future Classic Legends of Style. It was a big, really cool show held at the Cyclorama in Boston, downtown.
Dana: We did it for a couple of years. It featured graffiti/street artists from New York and LA alongside local artists who had roots in street art or graffiti or a complementary style.
Had you been working solo till you met Dana?
Kenji: Yes, because I didn’t know many people.
And you were still working out your style back then?
Kenji: I was painting signs then. It was a job and I didn’t consider it an art form. I was just the sign guy.
Dana: I had been in Project SF for a few years and had graduated from college in 2001. [Project SF is an international organization of artists and musicians based in Boston and dedicated to creating urban art.] I had had my own crew, mostly friends I was living or going to school with. Eventually most of them moved to New York, so I became friendly with the SF guys. At that point they were just forming and, you know, trying to figure things out. It was a crew that had aspirations to do more, to move toward big art events.
It started with throwing underground art shows in people's apartments – basically keg parties with shit thrown up on the walls. Then we started pushing the event-type idea; throwing big-ass renegade parties ourselves in warehouse spaces. There were DJs and we were breaking out the paint to make a one-night experience for everyone. Around the time I met Kenji in 2005 or 2006, the crew had just landed a couple of commission jobs. We had just picked up Bonfire [a snowboard company] as a client and Kenji joined us. His first assignment was to paint a bunch of naked girls.
So, you got involved in the whole group experience through Dana?
Kenji: Yah. It took me a while to actually get involved because I was into a different thing.
Dana: He wasn’t averse to the group concept. It just took a little while for him to figure out how to work with us. The rest of us had been working together since 2000 or 2001. He had to take time to figure out his place with us.
You can be a pretty fast painter, Dana; but, Kenji, if you were doing stencil work back then you must have been, well, a little slower.
Kenji: I’m still not very fast.
So how did you two actually put your styles together?
Kenji: We always started by knowing what we wanted to do.
Dana: And at first we were like, hey Kenji, cut out a circle. Actually it was probably more complex than that; maybe a stop sign or something. [laughter]
What’s the difference between your experiences as artists painting alone and together? I ask because your paintings done separately are so different from your collaborations, but they work equally well.
Dana: Kenji and I have a little bit of a flow. We’ve been painting next to each other for so long that we’ve worked out a trust. I try to do something roughly and make sure he understands what my concept is. I’ll say there should be a sweep this way, or a concentration of darkness in that corner and let him fly with it.
We have a process that’s based on a level of mutual agreement. Typically I’ll go down with a base layer that Kenji adds to, then I come back in and Kenji adds the final details. That’s really what we’re about; I mean, we trust each other and have an appreciation of each other’s aesthetic and each other’s flow.
That’s interesting and I think it shows in your collaborative work. There’s a sense of freedom in it. Do you think it comes from the fact that you can work together and leave each other alone?
Dana: Less that we leave each other alone than the fact that there’s no force in our work. One of the last paintings we did was so easy. I splashed paint, laid down some color and did my thing. The way I had splashed created a round form on the left-hand side that stayed where it was as I moved on. When Kenji laid his stencil on it, there was a perfect fit. Nothing was forced. That’s how our collaborations go – everything just fits. It just happens.
Kenji: We both compromise. My work, because it’s stenciling, is basically like printmaking so the image is already set. Dana’s color loosens up the image and makes it more abstract. I do the image and Dana does the stroke work.
In a recent press release you were referred to as a meeting of chaos and order. Is that accurate?
Dana: In my own work I don’t try to keep my paint from dripping or staying in a clean line. In my work with Kenji, he provides focus and I concentrate on letting my paint go and explode.
Kenji: Yes, but in your own work you always have dimension and focus.
Dana: Right, but in our work you provide that.
Kenji: He makes me a little more free.
In your collaborative paintings there’s a contrast between solidity and motion, and sometimes you seem to capture sounds that are part of urban life. In 13FOREST, our own gallery, people have said that there’s a spiritual quality to some of your work.
Dana: For the past couple of years I’ve been focusing on live music as a source of inspiration. Going to shows with all kinds of crazy audio and video, it inspires everyone. There’s nothing more fun for me than painting in places like that and giving everyone something to trip out on. My art is all about moving so you can look at it at different times and see something entirely different.
I appreciate that people see a vibe in my work. Spiritual, I don’t know that that’s the word. Sometimes when Kenji and I are done I feel in awe, as though the work has taken on a life of its own. We want our work to be alive, which is why I concentrate so much on color and contrasts. I try to contain the force and not over-control the paint, you know?
Kenji: Most of my own work has some sadness. It’s kind of dark. Very still – how I want it to be.
Sadness or is it aloneness?
Kenji: Yah, aloneness.
In your first collaboration, The Beginning, Kenji, you stenciled an image of the back of a building and fire escapes, all from a low angle and all confined to the other side of a chain-link fence with curls of barbed wire on top. But it wasn’t a sad image. Like you said, it was still. No judgment was put on it, it just was.
Kenji: Whenever I go to other cities by myself I tend to avoid touristy places. I like walking along the alleyway and finding the character of a city there. When I moved to Boston my favorite places were alleyways. It was an exciting character of the East Coast.
I normally spend a month or two (or even longer) to create a new stencil. That time-consuming process is a part of my stencil work; I can still remember what was happening in my life while I was working on a stencil. I wasn’t trying to communicate with other people back then; it was more like documenting the stuff surrounding me. Then after a while I started making work that had more statement behind it.
It was the beginning of my Concrete Jungle series. I came up with this concept after having spent years in Tokyo. When you are living in a big city like New York, Tokyo, et cetera, even though the city is filled with people, you sometime find yourself lonely because things are moving very fast, everyone has their own business to take care of. But there are lots of opportunities to grab. Imagine when you are in the jungle: you have to grab some fruits or vegetables, or catch a fish to survive.
When I first met you two, I thought you were very different from each other. I’m not so sure that that’s true now.
Dana: We’re not that different. I’m more emotional than Kenji. He keeps it very calm. I can overreact and be quick to get angry or sad.
Kenji: I definitely have some of the same thing. I can be, well, very responsive.
Do you ever consider working as an artist 24/7?
Dana: I’d like to but financially I don’t know that I can. I think I made the right decision by giving my art the priority. What happens from here doesn’t matter so long as I keep my focus. Right now I work for a great company that supports artists and musicians, and I think they know it’s a benefit to have artists working for them.
If you could stick to doing just one thing in life, what would it be?
Kenji: Doing my art outside of work is the thing that drives me, and it never disappoints me. If I had to choose something to do with the rest of my life it would be craft. This reason I came to this country was to become a sign painter, a craftsman. I mean, I like technology but at some point what I like most is done by hand. I appreciate old-school ways and I want to learn so I can keep them alive.
Dana: I just want to paint.
So, if I’m hearing you right, it doesn’t make any difference to you if your work is in a gallery, or outside on a wall or on the side of a truck?
Dana: Not really. I mean, it’s sometimes less fun to do the commercial work, like paint a logo or something. But at the end of the day I just enjoy painting. I’m happy to do a lot of things, but I certainly rank the things that give me creative freedom way above everything else.
Do you look at historical art and craftsmanship to learn from them?
Dana: I certainly do. I have a huge appreciation for craftsmen in much the way Kenji does. But his perspectives are much richer because he comes from a culture of preserving history. I don’t think Americans grow up with that understanding of preserving and passing things on. I really enjoy working with my hands and, you know, coming from a lettering background I dig things like sign painting visually. I really dig that.
Kenji: A funny thing is that lots of sign painters in the States have a graffiti background even if they didn’t grow up somewhere where there was graffiti. Like me. I mean, graffiti is pretty new and when I got here I didn’t know anything about it. Since living in Japan I had been into motorcycles; so when I came to the US to study, it was for traditional sign painting and custom painting. From there I became fascinated by street art and graffiti culture.
So it’s all a cycle: your experiences in sign painting led you to street art, and street art has affected your own art work.
Kenji: That’s why I like to keep the old craft alive. I get inspiration but I didn’t, I don’t want just to copy… to do the same thing. I suppose some people are doing great, but I don’t want to be one of them.
Do you consider yourselves street artists?
Dana: I don’t paint graffiti as much as I used to, but I’d definitely say that that’s where my inspiration is from. Where I grew up I didn’t have much first hand access to graffiti; my graffiti was, like, doodling in high school and it was rooted in my general interest in art. When I got to Boston, that’s when I started to paint "graffiti" graffiti. I put in some time, but I don’t really consider myself a graffiti writer anymore because I have a lot of respect for the people who put so much time and energy into being one. I had a stint and it still inspires me.
There’s a tendency among people to categorize what you do, what your peers do and what graffiti artists do as being all one thing. It’s simplistic cattle-penning and can be dangerous because it allows people to dismiss a whole lot of artistic expression. Dislike one person or aspect of the group, as false as it might be, and it’s easy to dismiss a large share of your generation without knowing what it is you’re actually doing or saying.
Dana: I absolutely agree. It allows people to dismiss some good things and it also allows them to accept a whole lot of things because it happens to fall into a category of what they've been told is cool. That’s kinda what I think the movie Exit through the Gift Shop was all about. That dude, Mr Brainwash, for as much respect as I have for his ambition, he kinda took the style of artists he was just observing and claimed it as part of his own aesthetic.
I think things will be clarified over time; people will stop lumping everything together eventually.
I’m 51 years old and wonder if you think it’s difficult for people older than you to understand what it is you’re doing?
Kenji: I don’t think so. I’m 32 and I probably understand only some art. We have a friend, a teacher, who got interested in street art. When I first met her she didn’t seem to understand. Then she met graffiti writers and street artists, and started figuring out their differences and process differences in New York, London and Los Angeles. They’re very different. I don’t think understanding is about age; it’s about passion and a lot of people, when they get older, lose their passion.
Dana: Look. Our friend had the passion to discover a subculture, well, what used to be a subculture – now it’s pretty mainstream. That’s what it is: people haven’t bothered to take the time to understand and that’s where the disconnect comes in. Graffiti as art only started in the 80s. Unless you were born after that or shortly before it, you might be too old to see it naturally as an art form. You might see it as an annoyance because that’s the way it was always broadcast. I’m not blanketing this. A lot of people have had their eyes opened to something that has been around for only 25 years, 30 years. That’s pretty crazy, and it’s part of why so many people can’t see differences or appreciate what artists are doing.
You guys have to get going, I know. To wrap this up is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dana: How about thanks?
No, brother, I think that’s my line.
- Jim Kiely