Just one of the 150 artists in the knockout “Beyond the Streets” installation taking over downtown this summer, AIKO has a unique story to tell about finding success as a woman of color in the street-art world. It’s a sexy story too, full of action and adventure.
Sultry red lighting reveals figures of stenciled women, in poses of ecstasy, painted on the walls with spray cans. In a city street scene, a sex shop stands out from the shadows; and inside the massive warehouse art exhibition “Beyond the Streets,” the installation created by Japanese street artist AIKO is just as provocative.
Her super hot fantasy room is tucked around a corner of the exhibit; you could miss it if you don’t see the steps that lead up into the strip-club, disco-ball haze. Featuring wall-to-wall paintings of AIKO’s graphic naked women in the throes of racy sexual moments, a stripper pole invites you to take a ride of your own, and stenciled texts promise “Thrilling Experiences” and “Here’s Fun for Everyone!”
Based in Brooklyn, AIKO moved to the United States in 1997. She didn’t speak any English, but she was way over the male-centric, conservative strain of Japanese culture. After art school in Tokyo, she came to New York City and found work as a studio assistant to Takashi Murakami. She studied English and started the master's program at the New School of Media Studies in 1999. Around that same time, AIKO met graffiti and street artists who were painting in public space independently — and mostly illegally.
The idea of creating her own opportunities to make art without a gallery or a museum, and anonymously, appealed to her instantly. She grew to love the action on the streets, exploring tunnels, alleys and bridge underpasses all night. Soon AIKO completed her master's, and joined up with two other NYC-based street artists to found the art collective FAILE.
As the internet helped elevate street art in the popular fine-art world, FAILE made their mark on the street stenciling and wheatpasting. They crossed over and showed in fancy galleries, museums, pop-ups and boutiques. AIKO’s own techniques developed; when asked about her skills, she’ll always give props to all the “dudes” she cut her teeth with. She was active while Banksy, Shepard Fairey, BAST, EINE and Space Invader emerged, and she learned alongside them.
Many artists had their own symbols back then: Banksy had rats, EINE had letters, Fairey had the OBEY face, etc. So AIKO created her own, a bunny. For her, it’s a soft feminine icon and a nod to her Chinese astrological sign, which is a lucky and prosperous animal in Asian culture. “Banksy was there; we were staying at his studio and working. He just showed up and told me, ‘Oh, I love your bunny, you can do it in my bathroom.’ That was the first bunny I did, on Banksy’s bathroom — and I got approval by him,” she remembers and laughs.
But AIKO was still a minority, and the only woman working with two men dictating most of the moves for FAILE. While it was a productive period making art, AIKO’s contribution came to an end in 2006. It was time for her to move on and be a solo artist, without a crew affiliation and the guys. She feels she didn’t get much support at the time, even to the point of feeling threatened by people in the NYC street-art scene who weren’t so thrilled at her independence from FAILE. It was a tough situation, but it gave her the energy to push herself forward.
Beautiful stenciled women began to appear on the street. Her unique details bloomed and flowers, hearts and butterflies decorated her collaged compositions. There are delicate and clean layers of mosaic stenciling to take in, and her discreet use of pastels and saturated colors is striking. The women are sensuous and playful, partly inspired by Japanese kawaii style and AIKO’s own sexual fantasies, showing a side of women she wants everyone to see. “I feel like so many women aren’t talking about how we want to do it in bed,” AIKO says. And that’s only one entry point for diving into her work.
Fast-forward to 2018, and AIKO has shown her solo work all over the world in galleries, museums and public mural projects. In 2009, she was the first woman invited to paint the uber-cool Bowery Wall in New York City. Michelle Obama called her for a commission at the White House. She collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a unique scarf that exemplifies both of their artistic and brand styles and traditions. AIKO has found her audience.
Female empowerment through sexuality is a theme throughout her work, and when given her own room and invited to participate in “Beyond the Streets,” AIKO knew what she wanted to do. The sex shop in the Los Angeles show is made from pieces she has been experimenting with in recent shows in Germany and Scandinavia, ideas around desire and pleasure.
“The art is based on a mixture of prostitution history,” she explains. “Japan used to have a huge prostitution area called Yoshiwara and girls would dress really extravagantly, like Lady Gaga style. It’s also based on Hokusai, Old Masters, pin-up girls and sexy porn from a mixture of Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Germany and Denmark. Wherever I travel I see a lot of kinky stuff, so I wanted to make my own version, done by a woman. I just simply wanted to entertain people,” AIKO says about the installation.
The large paintings showcase erotic imagination, and fantasies show men’s faces in women’s breasts, women bending over, nudes on swings wearing butterfly masks, and amorous displays of kissing and touching. AIKO reminds us, “This work would never fly in Japan. They think women who talk about sex are kind of dirty, and not a first-class artist.”
As you walk past the high-contrast stenciled paintings, a large neon sign overhead reads “OPEN CUNTS,” a nod to the title of an early Hollywood porn movie. AIKO explains, “I watched this documentary done by an old porn star; she performed in the movie called Open Cunts. It was a revolution in the ’60s or ’70s, and that impressed me. She must’ve been brave.”
While this installation can be seen through July 6 at “Beyond the Streets” in Los Angeles, AIKO also just opened a massive solo show on view through June 3 at the esteemed Tokaido Hiroshige Museum in Shizuoka, Japan. She’s one of the first female artists in Japan to be acknowledged at such a prestigious museum. In the middle of all these great projects, AIKO travels internationally on her own dime, at least once a year, and paints public murals in towns and small villages along the way.
Her subjects still cater to the female sensibility of the culture, though in many Third World towns, her stories must be told differently because of the politics. There she brings encouragement through her more playful images of children and bunnies, and recently painted a heroic Indian queen who was once a soldier on a wall in New Delhi to empower local women and bring awareness to the movement to stop rape in India.
“Graffiti gave me this opportunity, from the White House to Soweto. I travel to India, Dubai, China and many crazy environments. It’s really next-level to me, if I didn’t do this I wouldn’t be able to go see and meet these people, poor people, rich people and government,” AIKO says. Bringing beauty to feminine strength, AIKO’s street aesthetic shines a spotlight on important female themes.
“Beyond the Streets” through Aug. 26; tickets at showclix.com/event/BTSLA.