Artist Feature: Yusuke Asai

Street art is an incredibly important aspect of the art world for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is its openness. The modern idea of graffiti is based on the fact that great artists, often from marginalized groups, couldn’t get their work into galleries and other traditional places where people show off their art. Faced with no place to showcase their skills, these brave artists took to the streets and created a more open and inclusive art community.

Over time, the established art scene and graffiti have melded together: Banksy is shown in galleries around the world while people with classic artistic training, often from expensive schools, have started painting on the streets. The collapse of this binary is almost complete, but there are still people who cannot break into traditional art because of their class, gender, or race.

One such person is Japanese graffiti artist Yusuke Asai. Asai grew up in the Japanese city of Kumamoto and studied ceramics in high school, but his dreams of a higher arts education were dashed based on simple finances. Faced with alternative ways to express himself, Asai started painting murals with literally anything that he could get his hands on, including mud, rice, leaves, and discarded pens. As his skills progressed and his work became more widely-known, Asai switched his entire focus to using earth-like materials, creating murals from soil, straw, and even cow dung.

Asai grew up, like many people in Japan, in a very urban environment, separated from nature by the sheer force of urbanization. His use of discarded objects, specifically dirt, is based both on his approach to class and his upbringing. “I choose to use the earth as a medium because I can find dirt anywhere in the world and do not need special materials,” Asai says on his website. “The collection process and digging in the soil is so much fun, and they strengthen my feeling of connection to a place.”

rice gallery artwork by yusuke asai using texan soil

Since 2008, Asai’s popularity and notoriety has only grown, partially because of his close connection to the Rice Gallery, the world’s only art gallery that focuses on “site-specific” art like Asai’s, but also because of his work around the world. Asais enjoy using the materials from the area, collecting dirt and mud specific to where he’s creating to give it a localized feel. In Houston, for example, he dug up earth that’s unique to the area. In India, his room-sized mural was made up entirely of dirt and mud found in the local area.

Asai’s humble beginnings and insistence on using free, local materials proves that great art shouldn’t depend on class, access, or where you were born. All it should require is a drive and desire to create something with which people can connect. For Asai, that means literally getting your hands dirty and creating beauty from literal dirt. His process is an incredible metaphor and a reminder that art doesn’t require a degree or a gallery.