There are few working artists who so readily embody the descriptors they've collected as Yusuke Hanai, an illustrator who is often attached to the concept of "surf art." It's not so much that Hanai has been inspired by retro-Americana surfing-counter culture (which he has), but that his work is affecting for its delicate, cynical touch; the distinctly defiant slacker-dom that accompanies counter culture, which has allowed him to attract an audience all over the world.

Hanai was just a boy who loved drawing, but his connection with the surf community helped him grow into the artist he is today. And that artist is one who seems to thrive when operating at a crossroads. In an interview from earlier this year, he memorably summed up the reception to his aesthetic by commenting: "In Japan, people think my art looks American. In the US, people think my work looks very Japanese."

Where ever one wants to trace it, it is hard to argue it's not well-loved. Last year saw Hanai collaborate on a flawlessly wearable collection with Vans, while this year finds him operating in the art world. In a limited run of 50 pieces, Hanai crafted his largest 3-D artwork to date, "DOWN BUT NOT OUT."

Surrounding the work's release, we caught up with Hanai to discuss the project, his creative process, and staying true to the ethos of streetwear culture.

What prompted you to take your childhood love of illustration from a hobby to a job?

I liked to draw when I was a kid, but I didn't take the vocation school or art school route. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do professionally. A friend from high school was working at a café, and the owner was a surfer, and I started surfing in Kamakura. When I was 18 or 19, the cafe owner decided to open a bar/restaurant called The Road and the Sky in Kanazawa Bunko, and he asked some of his childhood friends and surfing buddies for help. We shaved off concrete, dug holes, built the foundation; it took about a year and a half. When it came time to make a sign for the restaurant, he asked around for someone who could draw at a professional level, and I ended up making the sign. I created a logo and made a large sign. When it opened, I asked an old guy in the neighborhood that had a Mac to show me how, and I made a menu, flyers, posters.

Do your current works reflect your style from back then?

I couldn't say it's not there. The store owner liked American Rock from the '60s and '70s and that culture. He wanted the artwork to be in that style. I really liked Rick Griffin’s drawings from back then. Posters of the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix also inspired me.

After that, you went to art school in San Francisco, right?

I worked in that bar for about five years. I liked the work, but I was also interested in design and illustration jobs. I saved up my money from working there, and when I was 23, decided to go to San Francisco. Before that, I had backpacked from San Francisco down to Mexico. I liked the culture in San Francisco more than anywhere else in California, so if I was going to go to study abroad anywhere it was going to be San Francisco.

From the viewpoint of art and illustration, why did you pick San Francisco?

I'd always really liked beatnik and hippie culture, and modern artist Barry McGee is from San Francisco. I liked the art made by people living in foggy San Francisco more than sunny, bright LA.

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Highsnobiety / Yuya Shimahara
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Highsnobiety / Yuya Shimahara

Your works have a strong countercultural message and are full of irony. Have your feelings and thoughts on society changed since you started illustrating?

My twisted personality hasn't changed. Living outside of Japan has changed the way I see the world. It wasn't a sudden change, a culture shock. It's happened slowly and steadily, by digesting things I've encountered along the way. Volunteering for around 10 years at an elementary school for low-income students has changed me the most. The students are all Black, Hispanic and Asian, and there are no art or music classes there. It's heartbreaking that they have no classes to help develop creativity and imagination.

One of the teachers there approached Shepard Fairey and Barry McGee about working with the kids. Shepard will give them assignments and help them make art. Each month, a different artist will give them assignments, and at the end of the school year, they hang all the work up in the gym and the artists will pick the three best works. They don't have any corporate sponsors, the artists are just passionate about doing this. Most of the them are artists and musicians from the surfing, skating, and punk scenes. They're proof that even without formal education, if you are passionate and keep working hard, you can do anything.

Educating kids on culture is really great. It seems like schools don't emphasize art education enough.

When I was in high school, I wanted to study art in college, but my parents said it wouldn't help me get a job. But there are tons of jobs that require design skills, and everything has been designed by someone. No teacher ever taught me that. They don’t teach stuff like always cleaning up your dog's poo, either. I think kids now have a lot more choices when it comes to education and careers.

Have you worked exclusively as an artist after you finished art school?

I did some web design work, and some illustrations for my surfer friends and surfing magazines. I also did some T-shirt designs at BEAMS. I used my time off to go to Brazil and do an exhibition of my work. When I was a web designer, I was so busy, I would barely make it home on the last train every day. I was getting some illustrating jobs, and it became difficult to do both, so I went freelance in 2010.

Now I hardly do any illustration jobs; I basically draw what I want to. When I was doing lots of web design and illustration work, I spent a lot more time talking about marketing than I did creating.

It can be difficult to balance creating what you want and creating works that sell.

Some clients place very specific orders, but now many clients leave the creative part to me. Sometimes I do work that they could have any artist do...

You've done collaborations with Vans and Gregory. How did the collaboration processes happen?

A friend at Vans approached me, we had collaborated two or three times when he was at a different job. I went to California and had a meeting about doing a capsule collection. It was Vans' 50th anniversary, and they wanted to include some stuff that’s so Vans. We ended up putting my design on their checkered pattern, and doing a T-shirt of my legend rider illustration.

Gregory started with a friend there, saying he wanted to work with me. They gave me free rein. I was a fan when I was in high school. I made four or five variations that I wanted back then. Gregory is strongly associated with camouflage, so I made camo patterns with my graphics.

You recently made some figurines with Hong Kong creative agency AllRightsReserved.

The works are titled "Down But Not Out," it's a boxing term similar to the Japanese saying, "Fall down seven times, get up eight." Life is hard, and even when you're really worn out, keep your chin up and keep moving. That's what I was imagining when I made it.

That's deep.

It is. The figures are wood; we are only making 15 for the entire world.

You have a lot of figurines as decorations in your atelier. Do you just like them?

Well, I'm not quite a collector, but I've been picking them up there and for a long time. I like "Where the Wild Things Are," American cartoons, Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" I really liked "Tom and Jerry" when I was a kid.

You've done lots of work as an illustrator and artist. With your experience, what do you think is important for artists?

I don't think I'm good at drawing. At art school in San Francisco, I just learned the basics and didn't graduate. I don't have some great skill, I think it's more about connecting with and relating to people. If you have exceptional or genius-level skills, you can get jobs without saying anything about your work. For me, I did some pictures for my surfer friends and eventually that turned into a career. I value my connection with people, and always make art for someone, for other people.

No matter what your job is, you probably think about what people want/expect from you. Doing only what you want is something else. So my work is slowly changing; I am changing it slowly. Some of my works look like what I did before, some look new and different — the work is always slowly changing into my current style.

I'm still searching for the one drawing of mine that will be my iconic work. Some artists draw the same picture over and over. I think that's boring, I want to continue to change.

Do you ever get sick of drawing? Do you feel ups and downs about making art?

I've never really gotten sick of working as an artist. It sucks when I can't come up with anything to draw, but that's par for the course. I will try and meditate, or sometimes I go surfing instead of doing what I have to do. But I think those times are important, too. The waves in Shonan are not always high, so when they are, don't miss your chance.

I heard that you joined a protest against building a resort in the Zushi area...

Zushi was chosen as the location for the 2020 Olympic sailing event. There were plans to build a huge hotel in the area, and one day the architectural rendering was released, and the spot where we surf would be completely obliterated. Scholars said there were some unique/rare marine species in that part of the ocean as well. Old men thinking in the old way decided this area needed to be revitalized, but were planning something that would ruin it.

People that live here like the way it is, that's why they chose to live here. Everyone got together, discussed the problem, gathered signatures. People from outside Kamakura and Zushi that like the area contributed signatures as well. We gave stickers I designed to people who signed. Patagonia supported our cause and donated 200 plain T-shirts to us; we added a design and used the profits to help the protest. We were able to stop the construction plan.

It's amazing that art was a part of the effort, as a medium for spreading the word. Art can be powerful.

Agreed, I'm glad to have been a part of that movement. I'm glad the surfers were involved, too. They don't have such a good image, but these people created change, they set a good example as surfers.

It's amazing that a counterculture kind of movement rose up and resulted in a change.

We didn't accomplish anything too big. Like volunteering at that elementary school in the US, I feel like I want to keep changing even just small things. Just plant a few seeds.

I have some friends at a surf shop in Fukushima. After the disaster, they took me surfing a few times, and I noticed that a temporary structure was built on the grounds of an elementary school. I asked around and found out that most of the kids were gone from the area, so they held classes in that smaller structure. Some of them were being bused in from one or two hours away, and that made me feel really sad. I wanted to do something to help.

Coincidentally, one of the people at the surf shop worked with the local board of education, and we decided to work together and host an art workshop for the kids. It's been going for four years now. This isn't exactly changing the world, but I hope the kids understood that you can send a message through art.

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