Unkempt, unshaven, slouching men in baseball caps looking glum – Yusuke Hanai’s unlovable cartoon characters have become unlikely hits in this era of fear and hopelessness, and Hong Kong is about to see them up close.
The 43-year-old Japanese artist and dedicated surfer will unveil his largest overseas exhibition yet in the city this weekend.
The show’s title, “Facing the Current”, is a reference to the fearlessness of surfers, but there is no trace of that confidence in the show’s highlight: a sculpture of one of his dejected anti-heroes sitting in a boat with a dog as companion – an adult, Asian version of Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Hanai says he has been there himself. As a twenty-something, he was hanging out with the surfing crowd near Yokohama but had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He only decided to turn his childhood hobby of drawing into a full-time career after spending five years helping a friend design menus, billboards and posters for a cafe near the sea.
We’re all human, and I want to show that humans can relate to each other by showing emotions that don’t always involve happiness.
Yusuke Hanai, artist
He had an epiphany when he stumbled upon an album cover designed by 1960s psychedelic artist Rick Griffin. It spurred him to go to California to enrol in the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, because he wanted to encapsulate Griffin’s artistic spirit through his own artwork.
Now based in Japan, Hanai says his characters continue to be informed by an eclectic range of cultural references, people and stories he came across in the United States: retro cartoons, beatniks, street fashion, Americana. But their miserableness comes from something more universal, he says.
“Whenever I come across artwork with people smiling, I find it rather strange because when I look around me, not everyone is always smiling,” says Hanai via Zoom. “Amid the ongoing pandemic, I wanted this exhibition to emphasise the many emotions humans encounter when faced with these uncertainties.
“We’re all human, and I want to show that humans can relate to each other by showing emotions that don’t always involve happiness.”
The “current” in the exhibition title is a reference both to the present and the tide that surfers either ride with or get swept away by. That fine line between keeping one’s balance and struggling to survive is one that will hopefully resonate deeply with his Hong Kong audience, he adds.
His unhappy creations have acquired a large social media following, and his figurines and prints are traded heavily on the booming market for collectibles, helped by clever marketing through collaborations with fashion brands and carefully controlled limited releases.
For example, he is working with Hong Kong-based creative studio AllrightsReserved for this exhibition, and the company, best known for its collaborations with Kaws and other street artists, has organised a lucky draw for the right to buy one of 500 limited- edition miniatures of the gloomy man in the boat. And they are not cheap – these plastic and steel figurines are priced at HK$11,700 (US$1,500) each.
Hanai says the secondary-market demand for his works has given them added exposure, but he is bewildered by the overall process. “I try my best not to pay too much attention to it,” he says.
Cynics might say that he is cashing in on a sense of collective despondence. But Hanai says he is simply making art that reflects our times. “I want to paint and illustrate people who are facing ‘currents’ of their own, and convey their stories through my work,” he says.