You’ve seen Mimi on a number of occasions without knowing it. Mimi is not a single character; she is a multitude of transient, pointedly inspirational female totems flowing from a single source: the graffiti-artist Shiro.
“All my characters are Mimi” Shiro explains. “Mimi may be a model of something I want to be. Sometimes she reflects my dark side or a hidden part. While drawing, I try to figure out who she is; what she wants to say. Mimi and I are connected spiritually."
As a girl growing up in Japan, Shiro’s dream was to become a nurse. No other members of her family were artists, and she never attended art school. It makes giddy, preposterous sense, then, that present-day Shiro is an established graffiti artist whose public creations have graced walls from Berlin to Barcelona to Bushwick; an aerosol artist with solo shows around the world, and group shows alongside such luminaries as TatsCru and Bisco Smith.
Unlike other artists who found their way to graffiti via canvas painting or design, Shiro has been an aerosol artist from the outset of her career. She is self-taught, making her initial forays into can control with cheap paint funneled through the caps of insect repellant and hairspray canisters. “Making canvases and different mediums came much later,” she notes.
“Shiro" has been her enduring tag since she began spray painting in 1998. “In Japanese, Shiro is the word for the color white,” she says. “White meaning no color — nobody's color on my style; ‘original’."
Although the character Mimi came relatively swiftly and early to Shiro, her introduction to lettering came much later. In that arena, her mentor was none other than PartTDS (The Death Squad), one of the most prolific artists on the New York City subway trains from 1974 to 1985. The two met in 2004:
"At the Philadelphia B-Boy Barbecue that year, everyone had to do a letter style. I was mostly making characters, and wasn't good at letters then. So I was having a tough time, and PartTDS was painting next to me. He told me if I practiced hard, he would teach me lettering style. I said, ‘Yes!' Since then, he’s been my graffiti mentor, “ Shiro explains.
Last Sunday, I visited “The Living Gallery” to photograph Shiro at the Ladies Love Project Summer Pop-Up Shop. There, she and bgirl legend Ana “Rokafella” Garcia sold pieces from ShiRoka, their newly-launched fashion line of clothing and accessories. I seized the opportunity to get more of Shiro’s backstory:
Joanna Pan: You continue to work as a nurse, so your time is split between creating art and providing medical support! What’s that like?
ShiroOne: My Nurse license is not valid here in the US, so I am just an artist here. When I go back to Japan, I work as a nurse whenever I get a chance; I don't wanna forget nursing skills. Being a nurse was my dream since I was a little girl. I didn't know I was gonna be an artist ...It came by flow. Artist Shiro and Nurse Shiro connect each other. When I work as a nurse, it makes me realize that life is precious and short. So it makes me work harder as an artist, because my life is short too. I wanna live it to the max, and don't wanna miss any chance coming to me and regret [it].
Mimi in 2015 at the JMZ Walls gallery in Bushwick: a bgirl in a high ponytail, balancing virtuosically on one arm
This Mimi was still in the Bronx several weeks ago, a bikini-clad Yankees fan with nails on fleek
Here’s Mimi as a beneficent pink deity presiding over The Yard, a stunning outdoor gallery hidden from the public
This winter, returning to JMZ Walls — Mimi morphed into a cheeky Lady Liberty wielding a spray can in place of a torch
Since May in Hunts Point, Mimi held court at The Point CDC as a pouty, ankh-wearing goddess
JP: What is the origin story behind your and Rokafella’s fashion line, ShiRoka?
SO: Me and bgirl Rokafella started our clothing line called "ShiRoka” in May, 2017. 'Roka was very sad when her apartment caught fire from an old electric wire this February. She used to help me, and let me stay at her apartment when I lost my place to stay in NY a few years ago. I wanted to help her this time, but this was right after I came back to New York with no money. So we started the "ShiRoka" project. The "ShiRoka" project brings us passion and hope for the future. When we talk about ShiRoka, we are happy and excited. We are expecting that we will have something to talk about and share with younger talents in the future, like how we survived these bad times in our lives. So ShiRoka is not only fashion, but also our life's work. 'Roka is a very experienced dancer. She is also a singer, rapper and producer. I do various kinds of art and am also an art director. So thinking about what we can do in the future through our "ShiRoka" Project is so exciting. We have ShiRoka t-shirts, tank tops, bags and earrings at our pop up shops. We always update on our Instagram and Facebook pages, so please stay tuned!
JP: Can you name an early childhood experience — or several — that got you interested in art?
SO: Since I was a baby, I’ve been half deaf [deaf in one ear]. My family used to move a lot because of my father's job when I was a kid, so it was sometimes difficult to make friends in the new schools. So I used to be daydreaming and drawing by myself. My mom used to tell me not to be pessimistic about my deaf ear; that I'm just different / unique, and it’s okay being unique. I think this advice from my mom basically makes me live uniquely, being an artist. I appreciate my mom for this.
JP: Is there a particular message or emotion you’d like your public works of art to inspire?
SO: It depends on the situation, but it could be: 'Girlz gotta be strong,' or 'I'm here!,' or 'It's okay being yourself!'; something like that.
JP: When you have painted alone in a public or abandoned space, did people ever try to physically intimidate you — perhaps because you’re a woman?
SO: A few times in the past. But I'm always in my zone, and have a "leave me alone" aura when I paint so not many people try to bother me, lol!
JP: What are some future projects you would like people to know about? Upcoming gallery exhibits, public walls, events, etc.?
Also, a Texas style BBQ restaurant called "Mothership Meat CompaNY" in LIC is opening this summer. I made the logo and painted the insides and outsides of the restaurant. I put so much energy into this, and they will serve amazing BBQ there. I will keep updating about this on my social networking sites. Please check it out when it opens!"