“Cleaning restrooms is my favorite”
We find a young man cleaning the station restroom. He neatly gathers up trash with short sweeps of his well-used broom, his methodical personality clear in his way of working. This broom-wielding young man is UKAI Yuichiro. He is an artist at〈Atelier Yamanami〉 (Shiga Prefecture), his pictures thronged with anime characters, ukiyo-e figures, dinosaurs, animals, and yōkai, all drawn with a precise touch and rich colors. His style, strongly colored by Japanese culture, has been highly praised in Japan and beyond. He seems to have garnered particular attention from collectors in Europe and North America.
Yet in truth, it seems that Ukai would choose to spend all his time cleaning restrooms if he could, rather than drawing.
“Yuichiro loves cleaning restrooms, and it always puts him in a good mood. So much so that if can’t do his job for a while, he gets irritable, haha! He spots even the tiniest bits of trash that are too small for me to see. He does a very thorough job,”〈Atelier Yamanami〉staff member IZURIHA Masahiro says in perennial admiration.
I was told that his neat cleaning work also receives the highest praise from station employees. As I talked with Izuriha, Ukai plied his broom without pause, but showed his mischievous side whenever the camera was leveled in his direction, immediately striking a pose.
Finished with his restroom cleaning tasks, Ukai begins his creative work in a studio at〈Atelier Yamanami〉. Draped over his desk with his legs crossed, he turns his attention to a single drawing. A host of colorful pens are lined up at his side. Ukai reportedly often draws inspiration from magazines and art books.
“The illustrated books and magazines on our shelves are donated by local elementary schools and other groups,” explains Izuriha.
“Recently, we’ve also had an increase in books sent by collectors who have bought Yuichiro’s works, in the hope that he’ll use them as a reference.”
Ukai’s talent bloomed in 200 shades of colored pencil
When Ukai arrived at〈Atelier Yamanami〉, already good at drawing, he was given colored pencils in twelve colors. Yet while he sketched outlines, he added very little color. These drawings seemed to be missing something.
“Why isn’t he coloring them?” staff wondered.
Yet Ukai made no move to change in response to their questions.
Staff members could see that he added color to his drawings here and there, but left most of his outlines unfilled.
In other words, when he draws his outlines, Ukai already has a fixed internal vision of the colors that should be added next. Rather than selecting a color from among his pencils, he searches them for a predetermined shade.
And so a multitude of colors are placed around his desk. Conversely, he does not require a wide range of colors when painting; instead, he is able to mix several colors of paint together to create new colors at will.
The diversity of the characters appearing in his works and his pop-art color sense, reminiscent of anime, truly embody the “typically Japanese.”
Two-dimensional characters pile up one on top of the other and the horizons of the pre-perspective drawing broaden.
Yet as they accumulate in their two-dimensions, the characters weave a three-dimensional “Ukai’s World” and give the impression of rising upward. His works give a sense of movement; animations drawn on a flat surface.
Ukai’s drawings fascinate people of all ages, from children to the elderly. What’s more, they cross borders with ease. Perhaps this is because appreciating Ukai’s works brings back our own happy memories from long ago.
His drawings help us to remember the way we felt as children when we read picture books, watched cartoons, and plunged into imaginary worlds. Today, Ukai continues to leave restrooms sparkling and color his in-progress pictures, transposing into art the joy of the things he sees.
© Yuichiro Ukai / Atelier Yamanami Courtesy Yukiko Koide Presents