Clean and Art is helping to keep Tokyo’s streets free from graffiti. Monocle joins the team restoring order to the urban landscape.
Graffiti isn’t as much of a blight on the Tokyo landscape as it is on so many other cities but it does pop up with annoying frequency on monocle’s home turf, around busy Shibuya. When it does, as we discovered outside our office, those responsible tend to be less Banksy and more, well, bland. After some negotiation with our landlord, the local Shibuya government got involved and sent a team to refresh our building. On the appointed day, we were surprised to see a stylish duo in white lab coats, fashionable trainers and baseball caps hard at work restoring our wall to pristine greyness. The group, Clean and Art, is led by artist Ken Sobajima, who started removing graffiti five years ago. “When I first came to Shibuya, I thought that nobody cared because there was so much graffiti,” he tells monocle. “But once I talked to people, I discovered that everyone was bothered by it.”
At first, Sobajima cleaned walls voluntarily. But two years in, he formalised the business with a core team of seven. He now reckons that he’s cleaned more than 1,000 walls and even lampposts on Shibuya Crossing. Sobajima is also well-versed in making street art himself, often painting his own (legal) murals in Tokyo – colourful works that brighten bus stations and dreary buildings. Interestingly, Sobajima has a curious recognition from the graffiti world and has even appeared in a magazine on the subject.
Today, monocle is standing on a busy street in Ebisu with Sobajima as he prepares to begin cleaning. He and his colleague Hisayoshi Yamauchi (pictured, on right, with Sobajima), a web and graphic designer – both wearing custom-ordered lab coats from Harajuku fashion company Beams – are fixing the wall of a company dormitory, where a repeat offender has left his tag in simple, metre-high letters.
Armed with a full set of rollers, Sobajima and Yamauchi begin to paint over the letters with care, matching the colour so perfectly that the repair job is impossible to spot. “Being an artist helps me do the colour matching,” says Sobajima, adding that it’s always important to get the job done right. “If the wall looks patched up, it only invites more graffiti.”
As they clean, several passers-by stop to thank them for their work. “We’re providing a service,” says Sobajima. “The point is that the graffiti is illegal and unwanted, no matter how good it might be.” And there’s always more work to do. Recently, Sobajima took time out to clean a wall on a trip to New York, where he was exhibiting his own art.
Meanwhile, at home in Tokyo, he’s noticed an uptick in graffiti tourists – people who combine travel with a spot of casual vandalism – since borders opened last year. But this practice, he explains, is by no means a new phenomenon. For example, the anonymous (and highly regarded) French artist Invader left a tiled version of Osamu Tezuka’s cartoon Astro Boy on a bridge in Shibuya nearly a decade ago.
“The problem is that once you have one piece of graffiti, it attracts others,” he tells monocle. But surely a freshly painted wall is an irresistible temptation for determined defacers? “Only the most confident would be the first to put their name on a clean surface,” he says. As for monocle’s own freshly painted wall, we’re sorry to report that within weeks, it was sullied with a fresh tangle of graffiti.