Aiko Discusses Her 1xRUN x Juxtapoz x Scope Release, Murakami, Faile, Her Japanese Roots + More

Aiko was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan before moving to New York City in 1997. Moving to the city without speaking any English her art career began when she started working for fellow Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. She apprenticed in Murakami’s Brooklyn studio and documented his 1998’s solo exhibition Superflat. Aiko continued to practice her own art, and after leaving Murakami’s studio graduated from The New School in New York City where she received her MFA in Media Studies. In 1999 she would meet Pat McNeil and Pat Miller and the three would go to establish the group now known as Faile. Creating work within the collective until 2006, she has since went on to establish herself as a solo artist with gallery shows and murals around the world.

We sat down to catch up with the prolific Brooklyn-based artist as she stopped off in Detroit to participate in the 1xRUN Residency Program, creating her latest edition, Lovers, a new 10-layer stencil screen print for the upcoming 1xRUN x Juxtapoz Print Suite for Scope Miami Beach 2015. Read on as Aiko talks about finding her roots as a Japanese artist, her debut RUN and more…


Aiko – Photos by 1xRUN Contributing Photographer Sal Rodriguez

1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about this image, anything immediate you want to highlight about this piece?
Aiko: This is one of the images that I cut out around 2007 and since then it has become one of my signature images. I have been taking this stencil with me to travel and paint in different cities for nearly 10 years. I wanted to make a new print using my classic image for this special project with 1xRUN and Juxtapoz, and this image is something that will welcome both old and new audiences.

I love to create images related to romantic momentos, lovers and kisses. My subjects are pretty much always about romantic stories, lovers and sexy girls in everyday life. My name, Aiko — which is the most common Japanese girl’s name — means love. Love has been my theme throughout my entire life, even from early childhood. I have loved creating art ever since I was little girl. I was always making art for myself, my mom, my family and my classmates. Just for fun. I enjoy making something that gives us a good feeling, and creating something beautiful that I can share with everyone. Something that is full of love.


Aiko’s Lovers in Rome

1x: How did this image first come about?
Aiko: I found a small picture from an old Japanese magazine from the 1960s. I thought it was a pretty sweet image and it made me think of my romantic moments. I like looking at old images, things from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The style in that era creates a nice sentiment for me. It’s an old school mentality we should remember. My girlfriend runs a street antique market in Tokyo and she hooks me up with lots of vintage references. It’s one my favorite things to do when I go home, we hang out together and check out old junk. I also like traveling and find interesting sources from different places, collecting papers and taking pictures.  The imagery in this print is a mixture of my street photography, found images and stencils. It’s done in the same style as my stencil pieces you can find on the streets.

1x: So you mentioned earlier the image for Lovers was one of your first stencils as Aiko. Tell us about that.
Aiko:  In 2006 I started to do my own projects as Aiko, and the first stencil that I did was a bunny holding spray can. At that time even though I really loved stenciling on the street, I had lost some of that motivation working as Faile. I wanted to make a new image that made me feel happy to work on the street. I remember when I was in London, Banksy said he liked it and I should keep doing it, even though no one got it at the time.  So I started stenciling the bunny along with some images of sexy girls, and other romantic images. This Lovers image was one of the first iconic Aiko stencils. I have been stenciling that image everywhere from Toyko to Shanghai, Instanbul, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, Scandinavia and of course throughout the States.


Aiko’s Lovers in Munich

1x: What was your childhood like growing up? What was the area like that you grew up in?
Aiko: I was born and raised in Shinjuku, Tokyo, my great grandparents were from there. I was living in a concrete jungle until I graduated from high school. Since there was not much nature or big spaces to play as a kid, I spent lots of time at home making something, painting, making collages, drawing, doing paper cuts, creating dance steps and writing funny songs with my brother and sister. I always enjoyed entertaining my family and classmates. Also there was a painter lady who lived on the corner and my mother supported her as an art tutor. So when I was five years old I used to go to her studio and paint with her a lot. That was my favorite thing to do when I was young.



In college I studied graphic design and filmmaking in Tokyo, and at that time I was into making documentary films.  I used to travel and document local lifestyle, living with minority people,  in places like Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. That gave me the idea that I would like to travel more and see different scenes, meet different people and find new challenges. Start to make art that will be more fun. That was what lead me to make the move to New York. But I didn’t have any idea what it would be like. I didn’t have any friends — or any internet resources — to tell me what to expect, so I just took my suitcase and came to New York in 1997.


1x: So when you moved to New York in 1997 how did you meet Murakami?
Aiko: I found an advertisement in a Japanese supermarket in the East Village. I came to New York alone and I didn’t know anyone, so it was hard to connect with people and it was very expensive to make a phone call to Japan. I was just starting to learn English and I was looking for artist community. So I went into the supermarket and I found an advertisement that said “Assistant Wanted.” I saw that cute character that Murakami does, and I thought it was something I can try and maybe I can make some friends. So I knocked on the door and said hello. His studio was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and this was 1998, way before Williamsburg became what Williamsburg is today. I remember it was quite a scary area at that time. The studio itself was very small. It was really intimate before he became a super well known fine artist. I was helping him for about a year and a half, painting and taking care of the studio as he was getting ready for his first solo show, Super Flat, in SoHo. I also documented the production and made a documentary film about the show. It was a small production at this point, but I really liked it because it was the first time I got to see a Japanese artist working in New York City, and it was really inspiring.

There was another girl who was working at Murakami’s studio, and her boyfriend Cer was a graffiti writer, so he introduced me to graffiti while I was working at the studio. He is part of the Inkheads crew. He was very active at that time, and had lots of throw ups and pieces all around in New York City. When he came to studio and picked her up, he showed me his sketch books and photographs. That was something new and shocking in a good way. I discovered that there was this group of people that were getting together and going to an underground tunnel, or to somewhere abandoned, just to make some art and have a good time. I was a curious young girl, and I thought that’s something more interesting than sitting in a studio all day and making tedious and detailed artwork for a Japanese artist…I wanted to join them and work on crazy art on the street.


So I worked at Murakami’s studio for about a year and a half, meanwhile I studied hard and my English was getting better. I also started enjoy the art scene and the club scene in New York City, and I started to meet more American friends. That was when I met Pat (McNiel) and Pat (Miller) in 1999. They were studying at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD), and they brought me to their printing classroom and we made bunch of screen prints. For me this was the beginning of Faile. From there we started making prints and wheat pasting, and we stenciled on the street. The more I did this, the more I started to see something new. The city started to become different, and I started to feel the New York City streets became part of me.  Soon after that we started to travel to Europe, Asia and other parts of the States.

1x: How did Faile operate together as far as creating imagery in the beginning?
Aiko: There would be one person with a doodle and one person would be adding collage, and one would go over everything, adding some letters and images. It was like exchanging a sketch book. Then we would find which imagery would make a good print or wheat paste and cut a stencil from there for street action and working on canvas. It was like a DJ back to back kind of. Each of us had different ideas and styles. It was like a cool band.


1x: So when you left Faile, did you bring any of that iconography into your solo work? 
Aiko:  I’m still painting images of flowers and butterflies. What I created in Faile was also my baby, so those images are still a part of me. But the break up was bitter. It was like a bad divorce. Who’s taking care of the children? I wanted to take care of my children, but I had to leave all my contributions with Faile, so it was really sad and depressing at the time. I think that time changes. I am happy now with the fact that we all grew up and became great artists. We didn’t really know what was going to happen at the time. We were just bombing everyday, same as all the other artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy. We were young and we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, or what was going to happen, but we worked very hard to make it happen.

1x: After Faile, was it just you by yourself, and by that I mean did you have any assistants or collaborators?
Aiko: At that point I was tired of working in the group. Talking about each aspect of each project. What project are we going to do? What image and color are we going to draw? Are we still going to be street artists or focus on studio works?  It wasn’t working for me. We had to have all this agreement. One guy says this, other guy says that. I felt I have to sit, be quiet and work. So the group became really successful as a company, but I was frustrated about my part of it and it made being in the group very difficult.

I haven’t really worked with anyone else until now. I kind of wanted to paint my own stuff and explore as an individual artist. I have been doing my whole production all along, working with mostly girlfriends, and I feel much more comfortable.  I was really tired of having it be dudes vs. girls. I think I got traumatized. Now when I do my own big wall I always call my girlfriends first. They care more about momentos and enjoying the process, instead of it being “my idea is this” or “my idea is that.” I enjoy the work and enjoy the time together.  When I was asked to be the first woman to paint The Bowery Wall I called all my girlfriends, including Martha Cooper, and we made a “Ladies Only” wall. We had such a good time.


The Bowery Wall by Aiko – In 2012 she became the first female artist to paint the infamous NYC Landmark

I first met Martha in 2006, and she is one of my rare collaborators. I made a few stencils from her old pictures from the 1970s. When we met there were not so many girls in the scene, so it was kind of natural for us to meet up and become friends. I asked her if she wanted to come check out Williamsburg, because she lives on the Upper West Side and she didn’t know about the Williamsburg and Bushwick scene. So we took some pictures and put some stickers and tags up. That was the beginning of how we started to hang out. Since then we have traveled to Japan, Africa and many cities in Europe and United States. Martha knows everybody, so she introduced me to old school writers and legends, and that gave me more inspiration and motivation after I started working solo. People would tell me don’t worry about what happened, just do your thing. Everybody was very supportive.

Aiko In Africa

Aiko In Africa


1x: So you mentioned the Bowery Wall, which you were the first woman to paint, how did that come about? 
Aiko:  When Bowery Wall started, I knew one day I was going to paint it. I just knew I had to let all boys do it first. I had to wait patiently. And then it happened.  I painted Wynwood Walls in 2009, and that was curated by Jeffrey Deitch and Tony Goldman, who also curated The Bowery Wall at that time. So Wynwood Walls was one of the first big walls that was painted by a woman and that got good attention, and people started to know about me and my serious stencil murals. People started to realize that female artists also can paint a big wall.


Aiko at Wynwood Walls 2009 – Photo by Martha Cooper


1x: In addition to the murals, were you still doing prints and having gallery shows right away?
Aiko: My first solo show was at Brooklynite Gallery in Brooklyn in 2007. It was a very tiny little show, but we had a great turn out. I did 5 large canvases.  Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force were playing on a special stage in the backyard, we had a real nice time and it was super memorable. My second solo show was in Chelsea at Joshua Liner Gallery, and it was a huge solo show. I killed three rooms with installations, small and large canvases, and found objects.  That was in 2008. I just keep doing whatever I can do, following my heart. In the beginning it was tough, everyone knows Faile, but no one knows Aiko. I did hundreds of group shows and developed my image and technique, just paying bills to survive. Now I can slow down a little bit with traveling and working on more random art stuff for fun.

Aiko At Shut Up

Aiko At Her First Show Shut Up & Look! at Brooklynite

Aiko x Louis Vitton

Aiko x Louis Vitton Collaboration

1x: Has your Japanese heritage always been an inspiration for you? 
Aiko: The more I stay away from Japan, the more I appreciate my country, culture, traditions. I’ve started to study more about Japanese heritage, because I discovered it’s interesting and super unique, and I am from there. Especially the art, fashion and culture in the Edo period, which was all invented and created by working class people in old Tokyo, we used to call Edo City. We used to have such great art forms and techniques such as Kabuki, tattoo, calligraphy, kimono textiles, wood block prints. These were amazing skillful art forms invented in 17th century. Hokusai and Utumaro were the original ukiyoe print masters, and I love and respect them as great artists. Printing was not just happening in the Warhol times, it was happening all the way back in my country 200 years ago. I thought “holy shit! I didn’t realized that my great grandfathers were doing such dope stuff.”


I also discovered that old Japanese people used to do graffiti. The Japanese word for graffiti is RakuGaki. Raku means drop and Gaki means draw, so they used to make a drawing or a print, and they used to drop it on the street anonymously so that people would pick it up. It could be more for a political purpose and message, but it sounds like street art and sounds fun. We also used to have beautiful sticker culture, in that same time around the 17th century. It’s called Senjafuda(Thousand Shrine Tags),  it’s a piece of tiny paper with a small wood block print.  They drew their own symbol, name, crew etc. and they used to carry glue in a small pot and a brush, and when we would go to a temple or shrine once we finished praying we would put their stickers on the ceiling so that our soul will remain in the temple to be protected. That was part of their ritual in the samurai time, but I feel I have that similar kind of ritual when I put my sticker on the street where I have visited and spent some time.

1x: So as you’ve been away you’ve started to appreciate your heritage and delve into it a bit more?
Aiko: Before I left Japan, I was young and ignorant, and I thought it was just normal thing. I couldn’t think that deep. I knew, but I didn’t feel Senjafuda as such a special art form and I wouldn’t search out the origin of RakuGaki.  Since then I have spent about 15 years living outside of Japan and working on street art, and I discovered all those beautiful Japanese traditions, but some are disappearing and being forgotten, so now I enjoy talking about it and reflecting it into my art very much.

Photo by Richard Goodbody

1x: What are your plans for the rest of the year and 2016? 
Aiko: The coming month in Miami is very exciting, I will be part of 7 events and group shows during Basel, I’ll have work with the Lawrence Alkin Gallery and Rumney Gugenheim Gallery at Scope, as well as at The Graffiti Museum with Mana Contemporary in Wynwood. Next year I’ll be having some shows in London and  Los Angeles, and some random street art action. Please check out my Instagram and FB to follow what is going on with my art journey.

1x: Where else can people find you?
Aiko: Website –  Twitter  + Instagram @LadyAiko_Nyc

– 1xRUN

Aiko was interviewed in Detroit, Michigan at by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba.  He has previously interviewed Ricky Powell, Doze Green, Fred Armisen and Shepard Fairey among others. Follow him @Pietro1xRun

Photos by Sal Rodriguez. Follow him @ElJefe313

Additional photos courtesy of Aiko.