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Tokio Aoyama: The colours of Black America’s music

Written by Xuan Thai.

If you haven’t heard about Tokio Aoyama before, may this be our cue to introduce you to his unique cosmic art. Chances are you've seen his artwork on the cover of Georgia Anne Muldrow’s album, a skateboard sketch of Gil Scott-Heron or that unforgettable canvas of De La Soul. Steppin’ Into Tomorrow's writer Xuan wrote a personal piece about this Japanese artist who has had a profound influence on her for over a decade.

Theo Croker 'BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST' cover art by Tokio Aoyama.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with Asian culture. Being a second generation Vietnamese immigrant growing up in a Western dominated society makes you live in a constant split between the two worlds and consistently feel the urge to balance them out. Next to understanding my own Vietnamese heritage, the Japanese cuIture really quite dominates the second place when it comes to my somewhat insatiable curiosity. I won’t pretend to be knowledgeable about Japanese culture, history and tradition (besides loving the food, the art, the anime, the innovations and the life philosophy). In the grand scheme of things, I can humbly acknowledge I know nothing and barely scratch the surface of understanding or even comprehending the slightest bit of what Japanese culture has contributed to the world. I can only feel that the pull I have for Japan is real and I’m willing to learn and connect the dots when it comes to Japanese art, spirituality and music. What better way is there to start than by studying the art of this Japanese psych-pop artist who's been on my radar since more than a decade ago.

Background and inspiration

Tokio Aoyama’s work combines tangible and vibrant colours with psychedelia, surrealism and a speck of Eastern ancient spirituality. You could somewhat label him a modern day surrealist but for me it’s his distinctive inspiration he visibly draws from artists I look up to, listen to, got inspired by and marveled over as well such as Salvador Dalí, Sun Ra and with (commissioned or not) work for Georgia Anne Muldrow, Shafiq Husayn, Stevie Wonder, Kamasi Washington, Om’Mas Keith, Sade, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Dead Prez, Gil Scott Heron, De La Soul and so on. I will spare you the complete summary of his impressive oeuvre but if you follow his Instagram account @tokioaoyama you can get a hint of his extensive contribution to the world of art, music and spirituality.

I can honestly say that following him is like having unlimited access to this perfectly tailored cult library of cosmic vibration, spirituality, Black American culture, music and breakdance tradition. All the ingredients that have fascinated me ever since I can remember. Believe it or not, when I was seventeen or so, I honestly thought I'd be rich and famous being a fly girl. I mean, I had some hefty dreams. Man, I had dreams. After realizing I couldn't do a windmill for shit, I settled with just continuing loving and appreciating the culture until this very day. It’s this fascinating combination of specific genre of soulful music (jazz, soul and funk) with the Asian spiritual vibe that has a profound resonance with me. I could say I love the colorful use of looking through his kaleidoscopic mind’s eye but that wouldn't do any justice on my part when it comes to capturing the essence of Tokio Aoyama’s work with the limited words I have access to. But let the record say I made an effort to describe the impossible. Maybe his work isn’t meant to be described but to be experienced.

Tokio Aoyama’s work is the perfect example of what music can do and the power it possesses. Although he grew up in the countryside, his dad and older cousins listened to jazz, funk and soul music. It’s time-, border- and culture-transcending. Sheer cosmic power at it’s best. These seeds blossomed into his art being the unique combination of the two worlds that on first glance seem contradictory but upon closer inspection make perfect sense when it comes to the raw, real and soulful music of Black American culture. With deep roots in survival, trauma, pain and the lighter and less disruptive energy of Asian spirituality which begins where that sheer survival mode ends. It lovingly combines both equally valuable forces into this mixture of making the cosmic intention more accessible to us humans.

Miles Davis 'Bitches Brew' cover art by Mati Klarwein.

Tokio Aoyama started painting when he was about two or three years old. He got more serious when he was nineteen. Aoyama credits Mati Klarwein’s work on Miles Davis’ 'Bitches Brew' album as his biggest influence. What triggered Aoyama's own art was the intricate balance between something beautiful with ugly elements in Klarwein’s work. The observation of looking at something beautiful until it almost gets uglier is what zooming in on emotions is like to me. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder but when your vision is blurred with unhealed trauma, something that may look beautiful on the surface can turn fascinatingly ugly real quick.

From a spiritual and just plain life perspective, these are valuable lessons I’m currently learning to practice in daily situations. Knowing when to zoom in and zoom out will be a lifelong personal lesson on my path of humbling (and sometimes not so humble) attempts to achieve a more pure and purposeful life. I’m nowhere near where I'd like to be, but in a strange way, Tokio Aoyama’s work inspires and leads the way for me. I hope it will do the same for you. If not, you can always appreciate the pretty colors and use his extensive portfolio as inspiration to dive deeper into the wonderful artists and music he introduces with his art. That alone is a valuable journey and a psychedelic rabbit hole you won’t want to get out of.

End note

This article didn't turn out to be a rehashing of his biography. I trust you'll all be able to Google the facts yourself. But for me, writing this article has also been somewhat of a personal process and struggle (sorry, Lucas. Thank you for lovingly holding me accountable and pushing me out of this rut). It’s the first article I wrote in at least seven years or more. Struggling with getting myself out of this creative procrastination and believing and trusting myself that I can do justice to Aoyama’s work with my limiting words. I always knew if I were to get back into the game of writing about things I love, it would be about Tokio Aoyama and his art. So, here’s my gratitude for what that means to me on a personal level. That is why this article focuses on the power, responsibility and effect artists and their art have and hold. I can only try to imagine the joy but also the weight of the responsibilities that come with that. And why gratitude for the role they play as vessels for cosmic intentions is a good thing to remember and be conscious about every once in a while. Here’s to you, Tokio Aoyama. I thank you.

Tokio Aoyama painting in London. Picture by Disruptive Wonder.


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