While taking cue from common themes within urban environs —gentrification, identity, graf culture, lifestyle, music and real people— Tim Okamura weaves in elements of the traditional and the modern in his large scale paintings about real life.

Words & Interview: Aimstar
Shot & Directed by: William Crump for Crump Films
Images (art): Tim Okamura

You play on so many different aspects of culture and identity, and you seem to be heavily influenced by urban culture. How would you describe the basis for your work?

I guess music is something that I have sort of thought about before, but I think when I tried to assimilate all of the different interests that I had visually, I did think in my mind that there was a sort of real connection to Hip-Hop. I think by that I mean, I was actually DJ’ing at a Hip-Hop radio show [Power Move with Tim Okamura on CJSW 90.0FM in Canada] and I realized that what these guys [rappers] were actually doing was taking this old school sampling of soul records like James Brown, then adding a new beat overtop of the them and then adding rhymes over that so that the amalgamation of these really different elements make something new.

I definitely thought the same way about my painting. I’m influenced by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, old masters’ stuff, and sort of taking lessons from them in terms of technique, but certainly, I think something that really excited me was graffiti, especially when I first moved to New York twenty years ago. It was just so in my face, just really exciting. And I’ve always kind of been into typography in general actually, but to see it in that format large scale, I felt that immediacy to really have it in my work and be a part of what I was doing. So in that way, [my work is influenced by urban culture in my] taking the classical approach to painting and adding in the graffiti aspect to it, which is a lot newer, and then hopefully with some of the messages.

I definitely delve into culture, race, stereotypes, expectations. With figurative work there is a real direct emotional connection with the model and that’s something that I’m also looking for. Emotion is certainly a big part of the work, which you can find—maybe not as much now, but when Hip-Hop was first coming out, it was just such an emotional form of music. So yeah, I think that comparison is apt in my mind.

Yeah Hip-Hop is definitely a creative mash up of cultures, but do you think this is the next wave in art? Kind of steering away from the traditional and fusing in a variety of newer ideas?

I think just the art world in general is kind of a mash up. I think the painter is just one aspect, one discipline of art. I think that no one is afraid to try anything at this point and it’s really come down to message. Bringing it back to Hip-Hop, one thing that really separates what I think is a great artist [from the rest] is the lyrics.


Yeah, because we’ve heard great beats, we heard all of these experimental things that have come up. We could talk about different styles, but for me it really just comes down to the lyrics. So I think it is similar for me in art. We see all of these styles and visually there’s just so many different explorations going on—like genres and subgenres and subgenres and subgenres— it really depends on what you’re into. But for me, the message is what really separates somebody who has a real voice versus somebody who is a copycat and is just here to try to make money. And in my mind, again, it always kind of relates back to music, it’s the same thing. Credibility and authenticity, i think, really make people rise to the top.

Now in terms of messaging, what do you hope people see, feel or think when they see your work? What’s your message?

It varies at different points. I have been interested in sort of making overt social statements at some junctures. Like I did a painting called “King” at one point and it was a play on a painting that’s been painted a few times, that deals with finding The Shroud of Turin. I think the one painting it’s called “The Veil of Veronica.” [In it] They find this veil that somebody is holding and it has the face of Christ on there. And I thought what if we could transpose some of these older mythological ideas into modern settings? So [in “King,” my painting] this guy is standing in a warehouse doorway, finding a shroud that had Martin Luther King’s face on it. These were very contemporary guys of mixed race holding it and to me, that’s one end of what I’m trying to say.

So it’s about engaging dialogue?

Yeah, definitely engaging dialogue, but also about showing that these themes are timeless in terms of being a martyr and that type of thing. It’s sort of an archetype that can play out again in contemporary society. So that’s one extreme of what I’m trying to say. But on another hand, it’s really about, like i said before, the direct emotional connection, and really showing the humanity of people and really having a specific individual be a metaphor for a specific human experience that everybody can relate to. And the fact that you’re looking into the face of, let’s say, a Dominican girl, doesn’t become a barrier…on a subtle level that could be real interesting when people realize they’re having an emotional connection with this person that is different from them but at the same are very similar to them.

Are the people in your paintings real people that you know or figments of your imagination?

[Laughs] They’re always real. I would say that 90% of the time they are friends of mine and other 10%, maybe friends of friends. It’s important for me to spend time with them and I like the specificity of individuals, but also kind of finding that metaphor in everybody for an aspect of the human experience.

So kind of like method acting, but method painting? You’re getting to know these people in attempt to capture their essence on canvas, essentially?

Yeah to some degree. To be acquainted with them, familiar or sometimes being really good friends with them, for me, I think it’s important that if I’m really spending time, like you said, getting to know them, that I like the person [Laughs]. But more important, there is something that comes across, which just occurred to me, just from the interaction with that person that makes me really want to capture their spirit or essence as accurately as I can. So it is a work for me just to have a kind of connection with them myself and that translates to my audience when they see this person for the first time.

Is there a point where the emotional connection or the message that you are trying to convey is too much?

I think for some people it is too much. I think that some people can be intimidated by having a painting kind of staring out at them if the painting has enough convention or reality to it. It can make some people uncomfortable if it has a palpable presence. Some people can and some people can’t cope with it for whatever reason, it just gets too emotional for them. Everything kind of finds its audience. Like some music is pretty non-intrusive and like dance music or other music certainly brings out more emotion, and it really depends on your mind or what your aesthetics are.

Do you consider yourself a street artist or a fine artist?

I consider my self a real appreciator of street art. I certainly have borrowed things from street art and I’m inspired by it, but I’m not out there [Laughs], being that hardcore dude like some people. The core of my work is the painting and the process of painting, which is really time consuming. I almost really don’t have time to be running out on one hand [Laughs]. It’s a part of my visual language, but it’s not everything that I’m about. I respect it and there are things that I love about it, but I don’t consider my self to be a part of that movement.

Will you venture into other mediums?

Not at the moment, but I’ve been thinking about sculpture a lot lately. I’m definitely interested in possibly sculpting some of my subjects or seeing them in a three-dimensional way. So I think I will eventually explore this. But I’m just working on my music [as another outlet for my creativity] for now.

Will we see you rocking at your openings?

[Laughs] Probably not at the openings, but we’ll see where it goes.

Words & Interview: Aimstar
Shot & Directed by: William Crump for Crump Films
Images (art): Tim Okamura

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