Rise Again

Aparna Varma 11th Jul, 2021

Wakuda Studio aka Jonathan Fischer tells about his style, the streets, and how artists brought the city built on Rock ‘n Roll back to life.

Last year, Seattle underwent a series of strenuous events: Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, business collapses due to anti-Asian bias, ‘count every vote’ protests, and the pandemic curfews. Within all this chaos, businesses across the city boarded up windows in anticipation of riots, leaving entire streets covered in lifeless wood paneling. Artists began to reclaim desolate districts of Seattle by bringing the boards to life. 

Jonathan Fischer, the man behind Wakuda Studios, was one such artist. Recently, we connected with the artist to know more about the boarded shop murals, his art style, and the reimagined characters he conveys through his work. 

You mention in your video that you wanted to be a cartoonist initially? How did you move to mural making and why? 

Mural work is the most powerful form of visual art you can share with a community. It is also the most intellectually/physically demanding, and I like a challenge. 

Is there any street art/mural, street artist, or muralist that inspired you to become a muralist? 

How and Nosm are one great inspiration of integration between stencil and freehand work. But there is inspiration everywhere- design, music, living. Diego Rivera, Katsushika Hokusai, Johnny Cash.

In a video interview linked on your website, you mention that your visits to Japan exposed you to the cultural differences and motivated you to study both US and Japanese culture. Could you share some observations? A fun fact? Any similarities? 

My parents would have their friends record VHS cassette tapes of Dragon Ball Z episodes, which they would trade for Chicago Bears football games. Years and years later, I would see the same cartoon episodes debut on American cable TV.. 

One of the many murals that Jonathan Fischer made.

Cultural dilution is an inevitable drawback of globalisation. In the integrated style that you have developed for yourself, you stay true to both your American and Japanese legacy. However, there is a personal voice that also emerges in your artwork which separates you from both cultures. You’re in the grey area in a way. How do you deal with this version of belongingness? 

While artists inevitably create in a community, the creation itself must be singular. I can embody different voices in my art whenever I create. Just like Bob Dylan can write songs in any narrator’s voice, a good visual artist has different styles they integrate within themselves. 

You mention on your website that you don’t entirely want to rely on technology and are grateful to be a part of a generation that can switch and balance between analog and digital. Similar thoughts are seen in your works such as ‘Digital Love’, ‘Scareware’ or the series ‘Denizens of the Net.’ Tell us more about your journey of finding balance and being able to switch from digital to analog, modern to traditional and vice versa

Progress is inevitable, yet it doesn’t have to be embraced without critical assessment. Using new ways to explore old methods has been my artistic journey, and going between analog and digital is something many younger people have never experienced. 

In India, there is quite a lot of paperwork involved in painting murals, even on private buildings. This can take months. What’s the process like in Seattle? 

America is a big place and different cities have different attitudes. As far as Seattle, it depends on the building owner/management/community and the nature of the art itself. 

How many boarded up shops did you paint? With each, what kind of artwork were you aiming to make? Was there a political statement involved?

Like many fellow artists in Seattle, I painted multiple boarded up storefronts for several reasons. Part of it is self expression, but during a pandemic it inherently becomes a political statement. The very act of beautification was something that passers by responded to very positively. 

An article on The Slate narrates the stories of how people were encouraging and admiring the artwork by either leaving some money for the artists or starting fundraisers for them. Did you experience any such interaction with people? If yes, do tell us more. 

Muralism is strange in that you can give away so much for free, but it can come back tenfold in a way I’ve never experienced with any other art. There was a fundraiser for artists in Pioneer Square, but you never expect more than the satisfaction of painting something beautiful. 

For you as an artist, was fundraising an option, or was this a self-funded project or were you being invited by store owners to paint the boarded panels?

Oftentimes owners might supply paint or some money. Sometimes they can be self funded. In every case we had been invited or sanctioned by the owners of establishments. 

While working on the streets during trying times, what kind of precautions were you taking to keep yourself safe? Did you have to deal with any aggression? 

Some of my fellow muralists shared that in the initial stages of the pandemic, passers by would yell at them for being outside doing ‘non-critical’ work. However, I would say the psychological lift of art over boarded up buildings is a huge benefit for the community. 

Tell us a little bit about your uniform (the workers’ suit that you wear) while working on murals. 

I wear a jumpsuit to honor my brother serving in the armed forces, and as a functional utility art piece that gives me a recognizable visual image. On the streets, muralists often wear yellow construction jackets. I don’t need to, as I already look the part. 

The murals contributed to building a connection amongst neighbors and also brought hope. How does it feel to be contributing to such a change? Did you predict the magnanimity it could bring? 

People are fickle and have short memories. We are animals after all. They appreciate the art, but will they help foster a community for the artists who made it? These are the bigger questions I don’t have the answers to…

Protests can take a violent turn and may not necessarily be controlled. While making murals on the shops was a way of building morale and spreading hope, what is your stance on the aggression of the protests? What’s an unbiased way to look at it?  

It is not revelatory to say police corruption is systemic and frequent. The true hypocrisy of the American system was on full display January 6th as white Trumpists were not stopped with the militant authority used on BLM protests over the previous summer. 

How often are you looking to make a political statement with your art? What socio-political issues hit the mark for you?

As globally pervasive as it is, there are things bigger than racism. Environmental collapse being one of them. Mural painting, like anything else in life, feeds the practice of consumerism and waste. I try to limit as much as I can, and have started changing my practice to embrace more ecologically friendly art when I can, such as paper or clay. 

All images courtesy: Jonathan Fischer

What’s changed since 2020? In Seattle, for the street art community and for you as an artist? 

The city was already changing so much because of gentrification, but we shall see the result of pandemic closures for years to come. I’m sad and a bit scared for the soul of the city, yet there is a huge artistic subculture that could revive the city. Much of modern Seattle is literally a city built on rock and roll. It could happen again. 

Any takeaways/ lessons in the past couple of years that you can share with our readers? 

The internet is going to continue to warp our perception of reality. While it is a necessary evil, sometimes the best antidote is to unplug and create/control your own analog narrative. Artists should be revered less, and put on a pedestal less. It destroys many of us. Art can, and should be practiced by so much more of our society. 

Fischer is a muralist with a unique style that blends his American and Japanese upbringing. Here’s where you can check out more of his work.

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