Japanese Culture in New York - Chopsticks NY

HOMEFeatureFoodBeautyShopSchoolTravelJapanese Forum
Celebrity Talk

Takeshi Sato

“…having a time limit, and being limited to a roller, it’s like a rugby ball. You don’t know which way it’s going to roll.”

Sporting a flashy haircut and perfectly tailored clothing, Takeshi Sato looks more like a rock star than someone who you would discover rocking a paint roller. But no matter what your first impression may be, there is no mistaking that he is one of a kind. As the world’s sole roller brush artist, Sato is currently attempting something new and exciting in the art world. And his type of performance – LIVE PAINT – has gone global, with Sato demonstrating his mastery throughout Europe and Asia, and now the U.S. – most recently at Japan Day 2015 in Central Park.


Takeshi Sato Born in Miyagi Prefecture, Sato traveled to America as a young man where he taught himself mural painting before taking work, painting walls of parks, restaurants and other establishments. His innovative style introduced an essence of craftsmanship to the art world and his short but vigorous live performance shows have captured the attention of media world wide. After experiencing the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 firsthand, Sato has participated in various charity events outside Japan in order to raise donations towards rebuilding

How did you start “Roller Art”?
I used to work in restaurants and theme parks, painting spaces in a short period of time – in the U.S., it’s similar to a ‘mural painter’. I thought this line of work was pretty cool, and so I pursued it. But with the advent of large-scale printers, this sort of work steadily began to disappear. So I knew I had to find some alternative.

At first, I started ‘live painting’ just to promote my own work. I’d use a variety of tools, including traditional paintbrushes and sprays, and concentrate on making high quality paintings. But not many people would stay until I was finished painting, or they would simply walk past me. I wanted more people to stay until I was finished, and had to come up with a new method. So I first began to think about speed. The other thing I began to think about was the element of surprise within the performance. These became my two main themes.

How did you develop the speed of your performance?
In terms of speed, I tried many ways of making the process faster. I practiced countless times in my studio. I’d paint directly onto the wall with Japanese fude (paintbrushes). I challenged myself to paint a rose in five minutes, along to music. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t break the 10-minute mark.

I began to think that maybe it was impossible. But when I would paint over my attempts in order to have a new blank canvas, I’d use the paint roller. It dawned on me how quickly I could erase my paintings with the roller. So, I thought, why not use the method of erasing to paint instead?

That’s how I started using a roller. The quality was really low at first, but I was able to keep it under five minutes. And I thought, there is something here. If I can get the quality higher, I could hit my goals of speed and surprise. And there was no one else doing this at the time.

Did decorative painting have an influence on your work?
A very strong influence. First, thematically, decorative painting is about presenting something simple and recognizable. Dragons, sunsets, the earth, and such are things that I often got orders for when I was doing mural work for clients. I used that experience as inspiration and am still expressing it through roller art.

In terms of technique, I’m sure that if I only started with roller art, my art would not be what it is today. It’s only because I had mastered painting with all these other tools and brushes that I’ve been able to do this. I think it would be difficult to mimic what I’m doing now with my roller artwork without that kind of collective experience.

What are the other charms of roller art?
I was certainly charmed by the fact that I had never seen anything like it before. I immediately thought it was cool. The momentum, the strength, and the jagged look and feel that can only be expressed by the roller – I thought this type of expression, which can’t be done with other types of brushes, was attractive.
And having a time limit is important. When you typically make art, you just do it and continue doing it until you’re satisfied. In my case, the time limitation makes me look at the work differently. Even if I think it’s unfinished at the time, if I look at it the next day, or even a month later, I see its completeness.

Personally it’s hard for me to stop even when something is at its best, and I tend to overdo it while painting. But having the time limit, and being limited to a roller, it’s like a rugby ball. You don’t know which way it’s going to roll. That kind of unexpected quality is in roller art, and when I look at the art, I find that unexpected quality to be appealing. I enjoy that now.

The roller in your hand, I’m assuming is Japanese? Have you used rollers from elsewhere?
This is the Japanese size. In my tool area, I have a large variety of rollers. Depending on the size of the rollers, the resulting art is very different. I’ll pick up rollers in different countries and think, ‘what is this?’ and find new inspiration. I think, ‘If I have this, maybe I can paint that.’ I do get inspiration from the rollers themselves. I must have about 100 types of rollers, but for my performances, I use only about two.

And I do have a hard time bringing rollers into the country. I often get stopped at the airport, as people keep mistaking the handles for weapons. They’ll stop me and ask, ‘what are these?’ and I’ll answer, ‘painting tools.’ But when they hear that, they imagine brushes and don’t agree. No matter where I go, there are rollers for sale. But they are all very different from country to country. So I’ve been training with many different types. Since I’m in New York City now, I did check out Home Depot.

You are from Miyagi Prefecture. Since the 2011 earthquake, you’ve performed at many charity events. Can you tell us more about this experience?
After the disaster, I got together with a lot of artists and musicians in the Sendai area and produced an event. But it was just such a terrible time period, and we could tell that no one wanted to sit through performances. So instead, I volunteered to clean out homes that had been flooded and filled with mud. But even after a week, with over seven people working at once, we couldn’t even clean out one house. That feeling of helplessness was tough, but as an artist, I wondered if there was another way to help.

Then I came up with the idea to participate and perform in charity events abroad – painting, and then auctioning those paintings to raise money. I gathered money from people from many countries, and began distributing what I collected to those in need. I had met a lot of people on my previous travels when I was younger, and they invited me to perform in charity events in places like Paris and Singapore, among others.

But even more satisfying than performing and raising money, was seeing how heartfelt people’s support and concern for Japan was in numerous countries. They’d say ‘Gambare!’ (‘You can do it!’), and that made me happy. From now on, through performance, I’d like to express my gratitude through my paintings, like at Japan Day.

I was surprised by how even before the Japanese Self Defense Forces were able to react, the U.S. Navy was there. I heard so many stories about it, how they came and fixed the airports and supported the area. It was thanks to them that a lot of people were saved.

What is the next step for you?
I’d like to continue developing my Roller Art and demonstrating it around the world. But in the future I’d also like to inspire talented younger artists. It might be tough for painters, as well as artists who are just out of art school, to find paying work. It would be great to pick up talented people and create a network of artists that I can nurture, and even form a group for a large-scale live entertainment show.

We could add live music and turn it into an entertainment show, and stage it in Las Vegas, Macao, Singapore, at the Apollo in New York, or elsewhere. I’d love to produce that kind of show.

But also, it’s my first time performing in New York – it would be great to get approval from the city to do LIVE PAINT on a brick wall somewhere.

Many Chopsticks NY readers express their desire to visit Japan. What do you recommend that they see?
I would really like to have people visit Sendai. About thirty minutes from there is Akiu Onsen (hot spring) – in the fall it is very colorful and you can sit in the Rotenburo (open-air bath), which I find to be great for one’s imagination. In the winter, it’s the perfect place to soak while being surrounded by all the white snow. I often find inspiration when I’m bathing at hot springs.

I also have my Atelier in Sendai, so please do visit the city and enjoy.

—— Interview by Nobi Nakanishi


Exhibition: “Takeshi Sato World of Roller Art…in NY”

Sato will come back to the city this July for his solo exhibition. He’ll be doing several live paint performances in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

July 28
@ Ouchi Gallery/Zank and Mars
Sato will do live paint performances between 7-9 pm. His artworks will be exhibited until 10 pm at the gallery.

Location: 170 Tillary St., Suite 105
Brooklyn, NY 11201

August 1
@ The Nippon Gallery (The Nippon Club)
Sato’s artworks will be exhibited from 10 am to 5 pm.
He will do three live paint performances at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm.

Location: 145 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019

*All events are free admission.