In Shibuya, the neon is blinding. Digital screens hit you from all sides, throngs of people crush into you when you cross the street, and JRock and JPop blasts from every storefront (often a looping theme song with the store’s name in the chorus).
Am I dreaming? Is this virtual reality? Are all these people rushing to make the train just NPCs in my metaverse? Did I really just see a video for an NFT drop on that 50 foot screen? Is that cartoon cat mascot with a bowtie and top hat winking at me?
It’s all so close to what you remember from normal life, but like the uncanny valley in a video game, something feels a little off. For one, arcades are still massively popular, Tower Records still exists (it’s 9 floors and folks are buying CDs in droves), and almost everyone is drinking highballs (often wearing trench coats).
We’re at a basement izakaya called GuRi5566 in a quiet corner of Shibuya with mae — a 29-year-old artist who grew up in Kanagawa just south of Tokyo. Moody jazz music and cigarette smoke wafts in the air. It’s a hideaway from the madness one floor above. A place to meet old friends, a place to be anon.
Before COVID hit, mae was an elementary school teacher who would make music for fun. In March 2020, he decided to change careers and follow a dream to become a recording engineer. Later that year, his grandfather passed away, and mae wanted to create something to honor his life. He recorded a dreamy and wistful lo-fi loop called “evening glow(tells us),” and when he uploaded it to YouTube, he decided to draw the art himself. This was his first time creating pixel art.
Instead of becoming a recording engineer, mae chose the path of visual art and was quickly able to make a living as a full-time artist. Before discovering NFTs, he was only doing client work, but digital art allows him to fully express himself.
“The places in my artworks don’t really exist; they’re imaginary. But many details are from my childhood memories. For example, I like gacha-gacha — capsule toys. My grandmother bought me them many times.”
Also ice cream vending machines, photobooths, and bicycles. A collection of memories is contained in his artworks. “It’s my zip file,” he laughs.
“Always There” (2023)
We drink beer and highballs as the server brings us some nigiri on the house, and then mae orders a few plates for the table. Ginkgo nuts, edamame, deep-fried eggplant in a dashi and soy broth, beef kushiyaki, and agedashi tofu.
When I ask what tools mae uses to create his pixel art, he chuckles and pulls out his laptop. The main software he uses, Aesprite, allows him to add multiple layers in a pixelated scene and animate each layer individually. Sometimes, he might create more than 300 layers for one artwork. Each layer might have a subtle animation, but when layered together, the composition comes alive. You can feel the light breeze blowing through his nostalgic worlds.
“Pixel art is very easy and very hard,” he says. “For example, if you have a small canvas, it’s very easy. Anyone can draw.” He shows an example with a 16×16 canvas on his laptop, drawing a smiley face in a few seconds. “Many children hate drawing, but I think everyone can enjoy this.” Then he pulls up his latest artwork. “And this is very difficult. The gap between them is wide.”
One of mae’s favorite games is EarthBound for SNES (“Mother 2” in Japan), and you can see the classic RPG’s influence in his funny and funky collection Drools & Pixels. It features cute drooling characters created 1/1 and minted entirely on the blockchain. Each character is drawn on a 32×32 pixel canvas and then the drool is animated before being compressed into one image file.
Many of mae’s artworks also feature the same sleepy black cat somewhere in the scene, who yawns every few seconds. I ask him if the cat is his pet in real life, or if it has any deeper meaning, like déjà vu in The Matrix.
“One day I was walking,” he says. “I was searching for materials in the city for inspiration. I saw a car run over a small black cat. I wanted to carry the cat to a safe place, but a big truck hit him again and it broke my heart. In this way, I can show respect to the cat’s soul. My wish is that his next life is very calm.”
“Sunny Delights” (2022)
Then mae shows us his first minted artwork — an impressionist pixel landscape called “Follow The Honest Light” that he released in April 2021. The work feels like a memory made fuzzy with the passage of time. Preserved in pixels, this memory may loop on the blockchain for hundreds of years or more.
“I think impressionism strongly reflects the feeling, experience, and personality of the artist,” he says. “That’s what I like about it. When you look at impressionist masterpieces, you feel a strong sense of life. I am an artist who works with pixels, and I am always thinking about how I can infuse my life force into the pixels.”
This might be why mae’s favorite artist is Tarō Okamoto, who is famous in Japan for designing the central pavilion for the Osaka Expo ’70 with its awe-inspiring sculpture entitled Tower of the Sun. At 70 meters tall, this radiant, ancestral totem continues to serve as a reminder that progress takes place in the spiritual, not the material.
“I can feel his soul,” mae says of Okamoto. For him, art is nothing without soul. “It’s not only about money, not only marketing. Always important, but most important is soul. Soul is forever.”
“Follow the Honest Light (Pixel Impressionism #1)” (2021)
One Last Stop for Soba with an OG
My time in Tokyo goes by in a highball- and neon-soaked blur. I feel my own version of the Galápagos effect whenever I go online and see what’s happening in the crypto world. One night I read a story about a VR headset that kills the wearer in real life when they die in the game; another night I learn that FTX has filed for bankruptcy. It all feels so far away, even though it’s the same internet, the same Twitter.
Continuing our journey south, my friend and I decide to visit the Kansai region for a week of street food and spa time. After a morning dash through the labyrinth of Tokyo Station, we board the shinkansen and collapse into our seats as Japan flashes by like a flipbook. One town, another town, a tunnel, a bridge, a field. And Mt. Fuji hovers in the background, slowly shifting position as we get closer to Shizuoka — a relaxed, unassuming city between Tokyo and Nagoya known for its fine green tea.
We’re meeting Mera Takeru, one of the earliest pioneers of crypto art in Japan. The 32-year-old grew up in Shizuoka and still lives here in a home he built with his wife. He prefers the slower pace to cities like Tokyo, but he travels to the big cities regularly to connect with other artists and attend NFT events.
After spotting Mera in the Shizuoka station plaza, the three of us pop into a busy soba shop deep in the station’s restaurant corridor, where their specialty is oroshi — a cold soba dish topped with grated daikon, edamame, and nori.
“I like to search,” he says between sips of tea when I ask about the variety of mediums he’s experimented with, including text-based art, animation, 3D sculpture, conceptual art, and interactive works. There’s a sense that Mera has way more ideas than time, and crypto art is the perfect outlet for him to mint artworks and get an immediate reaction from the community.
“light blue fuji -水色富士-” (2020)
Mera studied classical piano in university, but NFTs were the first time he started creating visual art. Before he became a full-time artist in November 2021, he was a junior high school teacher. He went down the rabbit hole in 2019 by first minting artwork on the now defunct app Editional, which he heard about from friends.
“My favorite artists are John Cage and Marcel Duchamp,” he says, and you can feel the avant-garde conceptual streak in his work. “Their achievement was to change the ‘previous values of art’ drastically. Every artist has that quality, but their innovations were so shocking that they stand out from the rest of music and art history.” This is what led Mera to NFTs — to create distinctly Japanese works using a new technological medium.
Mera minted his first series on SuperRare, “Waves for 4CI,” in May 2019. The first artwork in the series, “Waves for 4CI ‘Shin in hyo byo’ Op.1-1,” shows a four-character idiomatic phrase that roughly translates to “the deep taste of art that cannot be explained in words.” The four kanji warp into unrecognizable shapes that distill the idiom down to its essence.
“Waves for 4CI ‘Shin in hyo byo’ Op.1-1” (2019)
Traditional Japanese culture is the throughline for most of Mera’s artwork, and it’s usually taken in a conceptual direction. In one of his series, “DID”, he generates ukiyo-e hanging scroll paintings with AI prompts based on traditional kanji characters. Instead of writing the original kanji on the scroll, he designed his own abstract writing system called “meragana” with warped technicolor shapes for each character.
“Great art always gives people new perspectives and awareness,” Mera says. “I believe that exposure to more of such art increases people’s interest in technological advances and their tolerance for others and different cultures. They will be open to new opinions and will not dismiss different views.”
After lunch, we wander the streets of downtown Shizuoka and stop at a local shrine called Ogushi, which is connected to Tokugawa Ieyasu — the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This military government ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868 during the “sakoku” years of isolation, until the Meiji era finally opened up the country. I breathe in the gorgeous fall weather and take in the scene, feeling grateful that Japan has opened to the world once more.
In many ways, after spending the afternoon with Mera in his quiet hometown, I can’t shake the feeling that he reminds me of the nameless artist in Kusamakura. With a DIY creative process and a boundless work ethic, he has a deep curiosity about the future of art and technology, and yet, it’s clear that his heart belongs to timeless Japanese culture. Woodblock prints, hanging scrolls, calligraphy, pottery, poetry. Honoring the past in the present, using technology to draw attention to the beauty right in front of us.
“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart,” the nameless artist writes in Sōseki’s novel. “Yes, a poem, a painting, can draw the sting of troubles from a troubled world and lay in its place a blessed realm before our grateful eyes. Music and sculpture will do likewise. Yet strictly speaking, in fact, there is no need to present this world in art. You have only to conjure the world up before you, and there you will find a living poem, a fount of song.”