A Japanese photographer renowned for his decades of artistic shots, including portraits of pop divas Bjork and Lady Gaga, is now using a calligraphy brush to express his thoughts on life and death.
Nobuyoshi Araki’s focus shifted from f-stops to brushstrokes after a simple request for help from an acquaintance in the Nishi-Ogikubo district of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward in February.
Araki, 74, is exhibiting 151 pieces of his calligraphy at 12 locations, varying from cafes to antique shops. All venues are located either to the north or south of Nishi-Ogikubo Station on the JR Chuo Line.
He started regularly visiting the area, commonly called “Nishiogi,” more than 10 years ago and became fond of the district after using a number of “house studios,” or private homes rented out as photo studios.
He often dined with his friends in Nishi-Ogikubo or just strolled through the streets after his photo shoots. He also bought items from antique shops there for use in his photographs and peeked into a variety of stores with his stylist.
“Nishi-Ogikubo is my favorite town,” Araki said.
Araki has been a professional photographer since the 1960s.
The idea for a calligraphy exhibition was conceived when Tokuju Inohana, the 65-year-old owner of antiques store Iseya Bijutsu in Nishi-Ogikubo, asked Araki to write the title for a poster advertising a flea market in February.
Inohana immediately fell in love with Araki’s brushstrokes and suggested that the photographer display his calligraphy. He provided Araki with an ample amount of “washi” paper.
“His calligraphy surpasses all,” Inohana said. “You can see who he truly is as an artist through his brushstrokes.”
Araki also seems to have been caught up in expressing himself through ink.
Although he has written the titles for his photographs in his exhibitions, he said: “I’ve never written so much. I wrote down everything I had in my mind, so these calligraphy pieces are essentially like my autobiographical novel.”
One of Araki’s favorite shops in the area is the toy store Baby Doll. Three of his calligraphy pieces are displayed there, including one that reads, “Nishiogi Shojo” (Nishiogi girl).
“I’ve been a regular customer here since 12 to 13 years ago,” he said.
The store is packed with a variety of dolls, including traditional "kokeshi" figurines and vintage celluloid dolls.
Hiromi Honjo, the 51-year-old owner of the store, said: “I remember when Mr. Araki asked me, ‘Got any that are about to die?’ It seems he prefers broken, imperfect beings than something whole and intact.”
Araki is also a frequent customer of antiques shop Toritori, where five of his calligraphy pieces are on display.
“He bought old kimono and ‘hagoita’ (paddles used in a traditional Japanese game similar to badminton) in our store, and they can be seen in some of his photographs,” said Tomoko Noguchi, the 56-year-old owner of Toritori.
Araki, who lost sight in his right eye in October 2013 because of a central retinal artery occlusion, expresses his thoughts on life and death in many of the calligraphy pieces.
Mokutate Rakuda, a shop specializing in antique glass and doors, is exhibiting 15 of Araki’s calligraphy works. One of them read, “Shitsumeian” (Loss of sight and darkness). Another one says, “1 2 3 Shi” (shi means both the number four and death in Japanese).
At the cafe restaurant Atelier Kanon, nine calligraphy works offer a glimpse of Araki’s affection for his late wife, Yoko, and cat, Chiro.
One piece says, “Shichigatsu Nanoka” (July 7), which was the couple’s wedding anniversary. Another says, “Himawari no Nukumori” (The warmth of the sunflowers), the words uttered by Yoko when she saw the flowers Araki brought her after she had fallen ill.
One piece simply says, “Oetsu” (Wailing).
“A male customer who saw these works was choking up with tears,” said Keiko Yamanaka, the 39-year-old owner of the cafe.
Araki’s calligraphy works will be exhibited until Nov. 9 and are available for purchase. Admission to all venues is free.