So how did a railway employee who carves temporary lettering out of gaffer tape shoot to multimedia fame? Why did so many people turn up to watch Mr Sato do live tape-cutting at his gallery show that it was impossible to see past the forest of raised digital cameras?
It all began when members of a collective called Trio4 noticed the tape lettering, and its unusual gothic forms, in temporary signage at Shinjuku station back in 2003. These kids -- members of the Koenji Shiroto no Ran or Amateur Revolution group I blogged about back in June -- had been casting about for something to make a documentary about, and these letters seemed to be the perfect subject. At first, Sato-San proved a reluctant folk hero. ”In the beginning," Trio4's Hikaru Yamashita told Pingmag, "Mr. Sato wasn’t friendly at all. Later, he told me that me approaching him seemed kind of troublesome… However, he was much nicer in our second meeting. He agreed to do an interview and to demonstrate his skills on our live show”.
Little by little the young hipsters upped the charmingly gap-toothed old man's cultural capital with their curation. "Skills" became street smart "skillz", which eventually became "art" and -- the final apotheosis! -- goods marketing.
Here's the documentary Trio4 made about Sato, The Shinjuku Gaffer Tape Guide. This video is the basic alchemical act, the place where Sato's transmogrification began. It's quite basic as a document, full of stills, almost as handmade as Sato's own lettering. Perhaps this lo-fi approach is part of the Amateur Revolution's electronic folk style: the DVD cover boasts that their documentaries are a YouTube movement. But the decision to pay aesthetic attention to something practical is the film's crucial value-adding act, the Trio4 collective's basic curatorial decision. What really matters here is the original moment of seeing, and the subsequent framing.
The film reminds me of the chatty, informal investigations of Rojo, a group of friends (including architect Terunobu Fujimori) who travel Japan observing quirky details.
The reason I wanted to add to the blanket coverage of Mr Sato is that his work touches on a number of themes dear to me. First, I love the Japanese train networks. Second, I'm always snapping this sort of lettering. Third, the idea of folk heroes has been central to my work since "Folktronic". Fourth, I'm fascinated by the relationship between analog and digital here. Look at all the digital cameras in Patrick's photo of the gallery performance. They're snapping a defiantly analog event -- a man cutting tape by hand to make a stubbornly pre-digital letterform. Or is this actually a crucial part of post-digital celebrity, what I've called the post-bit atom age? Must our folk heroes shun computers precisely because we're all chained to them these days? It's also ironic that Mr Sato's work concerns orientation -- his exhibition was titled "You Are Here" -- and yet, in an age of satnav systems, it's lo-fi tape arrows that orient us best.
Mr Sato embodies another interesting paradox. He isn't just a pre-digital man (one of his first jobs was hand-lettering newspaper headlines) who makes perfect grist to the digital mill, he's also a bit of a wallflower in an age of attention-seeking and hype -- and therefore the perfect subject for exactly such hype. The true folk hero is a reluctant one. "Many people create something because they long for attention from others," Hikaru Yamashita told Pingmag, "but Mr. Sato is different… He just wanted to offer more safety and better accessibility for the passengers. I really do respect that.” Sato's self-effacing pragmatism is what makes him a star, a bit like the communist-era worker's statues which still line the streets of East Berlin.
I can't fail to relate this to Superlegitimacy, of course. "It will always amaze me how seriously some people take their job in Japan," says one commenter after the Pingmag article, "even if it’s just a seemingly trivial one as 'train guardian'". But here we come across another paradox -- several of the Pingmag commenters seem to want to learn Sato's gaffer tape skillz for the purpose of illegal street art. Yet they're full of respect for this superlegitimate, uniformed guru, this folk hero who confines his "street art" to his train organization.
The gap between legal and illegal street art, then, is a rather narrow one. As is the gap between what Sato does and the work of tape installation hero Jim Lambie -- the gap, in other words, between practical tape and art tape. In the words of the famous underground slogan: "Don't mind the gap!"