- Words and Photos by Joanna Pan
Staying Lit with Adam Fu
The first time I noticed Adam K. Fujita’s work was this January, on a worn but sturdy industrial building in Ridgewood, Queens: two murals spray-painted over chipped concrete blocks on separate facades.
Although physically distinct, the pieces were clearly units in a single series. Both were wildstyle burners that had been abruptly obscured by a term or phrase made incendiary by the 2016 election.
“Impeach,” announced the first mural in cotton-candy pink.
“The Popular Vote,” declared the second in a vivid haze of red, green, and blue.
But the visual impact was not restricted to bright colors and rousing language. There was also the font-of-rendering: faux-neon cursive, a shrilly improbable lettering style more associated with motel vacancies and Eat-At-Joe’s advertising sentiment than with political heralding.
In February, a third Fujita mural appeared on the same building to usher in “A Day Without Immigrants,” a boycott/protest hybrid that celebrated the contributions and presence of immigrants to U.S. business and culture. This time, the faux-neon was lime green and shocking pink and simply read: “National Security," Its cursive lines extended pointedly outward in flatline on either side.
Other murals would follow:
“Reveal, Release, Resign,” a collaboration with Annica Lydenberg (@dirtybandits on Instagram)
What was this artist about, and what prompted these walls?
Adam K. Fujita grew up in the Bay area of California, a child actor who -- in present day -- continues as a voiceover professional. By the time he was a high school sophomore in Silicon Valley, conditions at his school were untenable.
There was “a huge gang problem,” says Fujita. “There were drive-bys every day, stabbings; there was a riot.” In 1992, his mother arranged for him to attend the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA), where he simultaneously majored in theatre and developed a passion for graffiti that had begun in the mid ‘80s with a viewing of “Beat Street” on VHS. Of “Beat Street,” Adam recalls: “The focus of that seemed to be around breakdancing, but I saw the graffiti in the background and was instantly intrigued,” Fujita says. "I knew it was a bit revolutionary.”
His new high school was very small: “About 400 kids,” he recalls. “And literally, like 290 of them were writing graffiti; everybody was into it … I was very much ready.”
Since high school, Fujita has flourished into an international graffiti artist with a career spanning over 20 years. In 2016, Fujita earned his MFA in product design from the School of Visual Arts, where he learned that graffiti and product design — rather than being at odds as disciplines — were surprisingly intertwined: “The chair of the department pointed out that my graffiti has always been a product … so I’ve always been a product designer, I just didn’t know it.”
Last week, Adam was kind enough to meet me for a thorough discussion of his public walls, upcoming projects, and the experiences that shaped both his art and artistic identity. As an exciting bonus, I got to be there as he — alongside 44ism and aarondelacruz — filled the interior of in-the-pipeline Dorawa Restaurant with spectacular wall-to-wall murals.
Your post-election neon graffiti is decidedly political in tone. Did your graffiti / public-art always tout an objective of politico-social activism?
In 1992, no — I just wanted to fuck shit up. I just wanted to take markers to the insides of buses and write my name and have people read it and accept me. I told my mother at the time it was art, but I was really just trying to trash things. So that intent evolved very gradually: VERY, very gradually.
Talk about the genesis of these pieces: Impeach; Revolt; The Popular Vote, etc — all in bright faux-neon.
As far as the neon goes, the objective was always to create something that would spark social awareness; that would spark conversation; that would maybe recalibrate certain peoples’ moral compasses. It came out of a reaction to the results of the election, and it’s ultimately a protest. I think artists have a responsibility to do that. There’s a nostalgia to neon. People remember a time or a place when neon was more popular, like in New York city: Times Square, and ninth and tenth avenues in the 70s and 80s when it was a little bit seedier than it is now. It’s interesting because it’s more and more difficult to get a neon sign in your building. Actually, it was Chris from Robots Will Kill who told me there’s all these new strict regulations on business owners getting neon in their storefronts because of the gas used to operate it. So everyone’s going to these LED neon signs, which look pretty fake. So there’s going to be more nostalgia for neon because we’re going to see it less and less. Yeah, you mentioned there’s (a theme of) peaceful protest running through [the neon pieces]. It all came out a reaction towards the election results of 2016. When Trump and the Russians stole this election, I was livid, you know. Like many of us, I should say. And the neon was an idea that I had as a means of keeping the lights on the Trump administration in Washington, and not allowing him to just operate in the shadows of the Oval Office, or the shadows of DC and bureaucracy. That We The People will be shining a light on him or keeping the lights on him so that he knows we’re watching. And I tag [Trump]! In pretty much every neon piece that I do, I’ll add his @realdonaldtrump account. And it’s a small thing; it’s a drop in the bucket. But what we’re seeing is that drops in the protest bucket really add up to a tsunami, and we’ve been doing a great job with it, and just kind of pushing that resistance.
You’re both a product designer and graffiti artist. Is one discipline informed by the second, or vice-versa?
They go both ways. They both definitely inform the other. I’ve been doing graffiti since 1992. But I went to grad school to study product design Products and services don’t have to be physical. Advertisements are products. Graffiti falls under that category, in my opinion of ads. The thing I learned in grad school was that product design at its best has a social implication; some sort of social driver that is like a catalyst for change … at least for thought. I also think good products push back on old ideas. So all of those things fall under the umbrella of why I’m doing my neon work and that has been kind of infiltrating my graffiti work. But — you know — I also know there’s a purity to graffiti that is about letters and your name and being seen and heard. And I would not want to muddle that up with politics. But political messages and political pushback have always been an element of graffiti. From the very early guys who were doing it in the late 60s and 70s and even before that there’s been political graffiti in one way or another since I mean, the founding of this country.
Can you tell me about a moment — or several — growing up that got you interesting in lettering?
There are so many. I remember hearing my sister singing “Rapper’s Delight” and I didn’t know what that was, but thought it was very cool. And then by 83/84 we got hit with the wave that came out of new york media: movies, books, breakdancing. So I know I caught portions of Style Wars that was played on PBS, Channel 9, KQED out in California. My sister and used to go around our little suburb neighborhood with linoleum sheet and we would lay it down and we would breakdance on the corner and we would try to battle our little neighbors, and it was — that was like an intro to graffiti lettering. And before that, my mother’s cursive had a big influence on me, I remember seeing how beautiful her writing was. My Japanese grandmother was a watercolor painter, and I remember seeing her Japanese calligraphy and being struck by that early on. I became a massive comic book collector and junkie … skateboard culture was in our backyard, literally. California was a fertile, kind of pioneer ground for the skateboard movement which brought along a ton of graphic design and lettering and graffiti.
You mention your Japanese grandmother; does your identity and experience as a Japanese American inform your work at all?
My family was interned during WWII in Colorado at a camp called Amache; my uncle was born there. 120,000-plus Japanese Americans were incarcerated for up to three years for no reason; really just out of mass hysteria and racism and bias from the U.S. government. I learned about that pretty early on in my life, and it angered me. And so I’ve always had a bit of a distrust for the U.S. government for good reason. So when I get to high school in 1992 in San Francisco, I was ready to 'take it to the Man’. Which — in our case — was the Muni Bus System and the streets of San Francisco. And my obachan — my grandmother — was a painter, and it’s in me to make this kind of work. It speaks to the family history of making art in the Fujita-Kashewase family.
What writers have impacted your graffiti style?
That is such a hard question to answer. My mentors were NEON from BA and JACE from BA. I mean, every guy in BA, and my crew has influenced me. CYCLE, AREK, JOKER, GIANT, FELON … I could just go on and on about BA Crew. Because it was always those guys first that I was trying to be better than; I was pushing to be at their level, and then exceed that. But I just really get inspired every day by the people in my city. I live in Bushwick, and it’s a great place to be because I just see new work daily, and I appreciate that.
What's coming up that you’d like people to know about?
Just tons of walls. I’m doing a show in London called “Get Lit” with the BSMT Basement Gallery. It’s going to be a show highlighting about a dozen or fifteen artists who work with light. So that’s an interesting show, definitely follow my page for that. My website is always getting updated with new work.
Where do we we head for updates, postings of your work, and additional projects?
adamfu on Instagram
Podcast: "My Life in Letters," on iTunes and GooglePlay. mylifeinletterspodcast
Process shot of Adam's "Atoms" wall for Dorawa Restaurant, slated for a July opening in Bayside, Queens.
Photo by Joanna Pan