At first glance, the poster on a bulletin board in Little Tokyo looks like a Japanese woodblock print of the Edo period, 1600-1868. Four stately cranes appear in front of a lake, trees and the sunrise. But wait, is that a Starbucks “Drive Thru” sign in the midst of nature's beauty? We stop to look closer, and notice two coffee cups half-submerged in the pale blue water, their green mermaid logos peeking above the surface. And one of the cranes is actually stepping out of the frame. Its long neck juts ahead, giving the bird a desperate look. What's going on here?
“It looks like Starbucks encroaching on nature,” says a barista down the street at Demitasse cafe (where a sign reads: “Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks”). The poster is similar to a classic ukiyo print featuring a single crane standing on the water. (Ukiyo means the “floating world,” and is a Japanese style that celebrates transient beauty. Cranes frequently appear in Japanese art as symbols of longevity, fidelity and luck.) The new version adds the Starbucks logos, and extra birds. The creatures are actually red-crowned Cranes. And the International Union for Conservation of Nature, among other groups, considers them a threatened species. Apparently, their wetland habitats in east Asia (including areas in Japan, China, Russia, Mongolia and Korea) have been compromised by agriculture and development.
This kind of spontaneous (and probably illicit) street art is common in Little Tokyo, which borders downtown's funky Art District. The only hint to the poster's origin is the name “Kurai” in the bottom corner. So, for now, we just have questions: Might the artist paste the work outside of two local Starbucks shops just blocks away? And what's the message behind the art?