He has been in Japan for over two decades but Rob Kidney has finally found his home. A British-born illustrator with a penchant for moment-by-moment happiness, Kidney’s journey through his Tokyo years has left the popular small independent-gallery owner one satisfied expat. With his art gallery, Wish Less, successfully hosting regular exhibitions of international alternative artists and his own art moving out onto the global stage, Kidney’s creative constitution keeps growing from strength to strength.
Metropolis: Did you have any experience with Japan before moving here?
Rob Kidney: I became fascinated by Tokyo during my teen years, especially its underground music, fashion and art scenes. The visual overload of 80s Tokyo was so very different from my life in the UK. Anyway, I became obsessed with, believe it or not, Japanese food packaging, and studied illustration at university. My final dissertation was titled “Kawaii” and was a study of what is considered cute in Japanese society.
M: You’ve spent almost half your life in Japan. How did you end up here?
RK: 2023 marks 21 years based in Japan and I definitely call it home. Although I was deeply interested in Japanese pop culture, I had never had a chance to visit. It always seemed too far away and expensive! But then, after graduating from university, I decided the time was right to go to Japan. I was producing illustrations for the English electronic music duo Basement Jaxx and my trip coincided with one of their promotional tours. They asked me to make a video documenting their Tokyo performance and I spent three months here on that first visit. My mind was blown by the scale and flavors of Tokyo. I returned to England but had left my heart in Japan. A year later I was back. It was 2002 and I was 32.
M: How does it feel knowing that you are a long-term resident of the country?
RK: Living here has been a real emotional rollercoaster but it has never been boring. However, running an independent gallery for the last 10 years has without a doubt made me feel more grounded and comfortable with the thought of being one of the long-termers. It feels good.
M: Right, your gallery. How did Wish Less come about?
RK: I’d been working for 10 years in Tokyo as a freelance illustrator and artist in the music and fashion industries. The work was stimulating, but my income fluctuated dramatically and the long hours alone in the studio led to feeling isolated. Then the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit in 2011 and made me rethink my life here. I needed to connect more with others and so opened a small gallery space with my creative partner. We chose Tabata in north Tokyo. It seems like an unlikely spot but during the Taisho and Meiji eras, it was home to a community of creatives like artists, authors, and poets and was known as the “Montmartre of Japan”. The community is long gone now but we believe in their spirits, their creative energy, and our philosophy is to continue their tradition by curating exhibitions with artists from around the world whose work we actually love.
M: And what of your own art? It’s colorful, playful and happy – a very unique style.
RK: Thank you! I’m always trying not to lose the sense of curiosity and playfulness that I had when I started creating as a teenager. The backbone of my studio practice is daily drawing using marker pens or soft pencils on loose sheets of A4 paper. That’s essential for me, it helps me to develop new characters and motifs. I always dip into my files for a character to bring to life whenever I’m preparing for new jobs. I work quickly and intuitively in my studio which I think gives the work a sense of fun and passion. The use of a bright and often clashing color palette has become central to my work, fully embracing my red-green color blindness!
M: What can you say about the independent art scene in Tokyo?
RK: When we opened our gallery, there were few artist-run spaces in Tokyo but things have changed dramatically. Central Tokyo is now in the midst of an art bubble with many small galleries opening up. Many appear to be independent but are actually funded by large back businesses and curated by celebrity curators following current trends. This creates challenges for truly artist-run spaces like ours.
M: What does creativity mean to you and how has Japan influenced your understanding of it?
RK: Whatever the situation, I strongly believe in living in the moment. I never ‘wait’ for inspiration, I just go for it. Wishing for this or that is something I try to avoid. I don’t want to spend my life wishing it away. If I had done that I wouldn’t be preparing for my first solo exhibition in Hong Kong later this year or the release of my limited edition ‘Friday Bear’ soft vinyl figure in Taiwan! So yeah, Japan has had a massive influence on me. You could say that the constant barrage of visual data here feeds my creativity. You really are ‘a product of your environment’.
M: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced here? How did you manage to get past them?
RK: Culture shock in my early years here had me considering returning to the UK. Most of it was due to feeling isolated and missing a sense of community. Through my creative work and gallery, I now have a group of like-minded friends from different backgrounds who provide a great sense of community.
M: What advice do you have for people wanting to go solo in Japan?
RK: I get asked this a lot by visitors. I suppose people want to hear me say something like follow your passions but from my experience, the number one piece of advice I have for freelance workers is to get your visa status sorted. It’s a lengthy bureaucratic process, sure, but if you want to follow your passion in Japan, you have to be here to do it!