Naoyuki Soyamax. Deep Encounters

For Okinawa-based live painter and calligraphy artist Naoyuki Soyamax, the fundamental value of his art, and for that matter all of art, lies not in its aesthetics, but in its ability to express the unseen, the energy and essence of the people he meets. We met with the artist on the streets of Naha to talk about his practice.

How did you get started in calligraphy?

Naoyuki Soyamax I’ve always had an interest in Chinese characters. However, when I was 18 years old, I was diagnosed with cancer. And for two years, nearly every day, I was in the hospital for treatment. Feeling bored, I’d pass the time painting Chinese characters in a notebook.

Cotonoha Which Chinese character did you enjoy painting the most?

Naoyuki Soyamax My favorite character is the one for fate.

Cotonoha Why? What does fate mean to you?

Naoyuki Soyamax Fate dictates life. As a part of my cancer treatment, I received a bone marrow transplant, without which I wouldn't be alive today. I don't know my donor, and he doesn't know me. I'd love to meet him, but we're fated not to meet.  

Cotonoha Is there a connection between fate and your artwork?

Naoyuki Soyamax I hate art shows. A couple of years ago, I participated in a group exhibition, and the process of creating pieces for that show — working alone in a quiet room — was emotionally painful. And, artwork displayed in such settings disconnects the artist from the viewing public. Exhibitions, somewhat like masturbation, only serve to gratify the participating artist. At present, I travel to different places, meet different people, and create art for them. Fate brings me to these people, and together we forge a deep connection, without which I couldn't begin to make art.

We know that Mushin, being in a meditative state, is essential to traditional Japanese calligraphy, but is it also relevant to your work?

Naoyuki Soyamax I feel that I'm in a meditative state when I paint. When performing, I often talk with onlookers. I can do that and maintain a clear mind which is something practitioners of traditional Japanese calligraphy can't do.

Cotonoha Live painting is often performed in noisy public settings. Is it difficult working in such environments?

Naoyuki Soyamax Not at all. I'm always painting in places where there's music playing and people talking. I'm very relaxed in noisy places, but uncomfortable working in venues that, though full of people, are deadly silent.

Cotonoha You paint the name of new acquaintances on the back of your business card before handing it to them. Is there a connection between graffiti art, more specifically the graffiti tag, and your style of calligraphy?

Naoyuki Soyamax I've had some experience working with graffiti artists. They, just like designers, create a mock design and then reproduce it larger on a wall or some other surface. They follow a layout, I'm improvisational. Our approaches are entirely different.

Do you like any of the work that Japanese calligraphers are producing today?

Naoyuki Soyamax That's a difficult question. I like some, but hate others; in particular, work that copies traditional styles which for me is uninteresting and uninspiring. Nonetheless, the work of visual artist Taro Okamoto is excellent.  

Cotonoha Is there a market for contemporary calligraphy in Japan?

Naoyuki Soyamax Calligraphy for many Japanese is not a necessity, so the domestic market is mainly comprised of a few wealthy and passionate buyers. The Tokyo Olympics are in three years time, so perhaps it will spark an expansion of the international calligraphy market.

Cotonoha What songs are you listening to now?

Naoyuki Soyamax I've been listening to music from a Croatian cello duo called 2Cellos. I don't know why, but I thoroughly enjoy their music.

Cotonoha What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

Naoyuki Soyamax Never look back. It's sometimes okay to stop but never look back.

Daryl Mitchell | Naoko Uchima
Daryl Mitchell
Satoru Yoshikawa