I first became aware of Ko’s (Kosuke) work in 2006 when he created a video piece with MASH. At that time, fixed gear culture was emerging out of it’s roots in a big way. Ko being from Japan, riding fixed gear bikes, doing his art – came to the front. It was an exciting time for cycling, as it emerged from 80′s and 90′s with a new sense of style and a new set of rules.
I asked Ko if Headset Press could do a feature on him and the response was ‘ok. I am a slow monk’. Not the response I expected! But nonetheless, happy he agreed. Ko is an artist and Shingon monk who lives in Yokohama with his family (wife and daughter). Ko is a mix of Buddhism, bikes and art that seems to blend in a pretty cool way. Although Ko is a monk, he is a regular guy, studied art in New Zealand and is certainly not shut off from the world – more the opposite.
I had never seen work like this before [or since], it seemed like Japanese painting (Taiga) or Japanese calligraphy (Shodo). A term often used is Sumi-E a Japanese term for ink painting (which is deeply connected to Buddhism). It just seemed to be a little more than that, drawing you in to take a closer look, not truly giving away it’s secret, just an element of a mountain or a cloud but, this might just be Ko’s personal style.
Ko is one of those artists I like. The type that explores different mediums but, has a style that is totally unique to them. His mediums seem to show no bound and anything is a surface to explore and apply art. It could be a stone, canvas, crash helmets or surfboards.
Ko chanced upon this [his unique bike art] after a friend suggested putting his work onto bike parts. At the time Ko was working on acrylic boxes, engraving them with his work and with stunning effect as the light catches the sides and reflects each side on to the other. It just doesn’t seem to matter to Ko if he is using a brush or a router and surprisingly the style comes across in similar ways. A style that is similar to the 7th Century Japanese scholars who came back from China and became Zen Buddhist priests. That is probably no surprise considering he is a monk himself. In this sense it’s a lifetime of work.
The really fascinating thing is that art on bikes and bike parts are something rarely done or seen. Sure, people have engraved bikes and bike parts but, not applied art to them. It might not seem a natural connection to join art and cycling together and only recently have we seen more cycling related art due to the growing popularity of cycling (apart from Cinelli and their collaborations). I’m surprised that there is not a greater connection with bikes and artists and all too often the only reference is Marcel Duchamp and his Dada work with the bike wheel.
Ko is a cyclist as well as an artist, not just an artist using the bike for a surface. I asked how many bikes he uses/owns and like any serious cyclist, it was an impressive figure including fixies, road bikes and a Surly big dummy [my fave] for moving the family about! Ko has spent plenty of time building some very nice bikes. Ko has also been cycling since childhood. He never really stopped cycling and takes great delight in bikes and this is why I think his art on bicycles works so well as he understands bikes as a cyclist.
One particular thing I like about the cycling pieces Ko has produced is that they still retain their usability. Art that can be used in a functional way and not just adorning walls – although you are more likely to adorn your walls with it – this makes art tangible and usable and this on it’s own is a great achievement. One collaboration that epitomises this sentiment is with Ahearne Cycles where Ko worked a set of lugs engraving them in his unique style. This is definitely where bikes meet art to form function.
Ko has also worked on stems, handlebars, chainsets, cranks and hubs but, for me his best pieces are his bicycle paintings. My favourite appeared as the cover of COG magazine (Issue 5) which shows his earlier roots with the fixed gear culture. His pictures wonderfully capture the motion of cycling.
Ko has had many exhibitions and worked on many projects and collaborations. He seems pretty relaxed about the future in terms of his art which is refreshing but, it is obvious that the art doesn’t stop and neither does the cycling. His last exhibition was in collaboration with Bridgestone in 2009 where he painted two BS bikes and showed his other works. Since then Ko has focused on raising his family. But, I think when the time is ready we will see another show from him.
As his friend and fellow artist Mark Blake puts it “I can’t wait to see what Ko is making when he’s an old man.”
Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) said the following about making art [and I find it fitting]; “From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvellous artist. At a hundred and ten everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokosai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”
For more info on Ko visit his site here. All pictures © Kosuke Masuda.