Tim Okamura: Guru of Graffiti

By Rebecca Pfliger

The city pays people to cover it up. Most people associate it with gang tags and teenage hoodlums. The intricate curls and vibrant colors of graffiti art still have a stigma attached to them, scoffed at by the upper echelons of society. Over the next three days at the Axis Gallery, ACAD graduate Tim Okamura is giving high society a kick in the ass.

Okamura’s colourful art is currently being displayed at the Axis Gallery in downtown Calgary. Just don’t call it a comeback. Urban Portraits and Brooklyn Mythology is thought provoking and unique, featuring people and scenes from his neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Often featured against walls covered in graffiti, the portraits express a gritty worldview without being pedantic.

The paintings have not only earned him spots in prestigious galleries, but have been featured in movies like Prime, School of Rock, and Jersey Girl. Okamura has even been short-listed to paint a portrait of Queen


Despite any hoity-toityness associated with royal portraiture, Okamura holds life in Brooklyn has been one of the biggest inspirations for his work.

“Tags are kind of like hieroglyphics,” says Okamura. “They’re a record of people who have passed. By painting a portrait in front of this graffiti it creates past and present at the same time. The people that have been there, and the people interacting with what they’ve


Okamura is also interested in graffiti as a cross-cultural art form. Apparently not all graffiti has to be vandalism.

“When I visited Spain I saw a lot of fine-art graffiti,” he explains. “I’m making vandalism or an eyesore into an artistic outgrowth.”

He relates a lot of his artistic expression to hip hop music, and artists like Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots have commissioned Okamura for their private collections.

“Hip hop is old being made new. By sampling unusual, old sounds you make something new,” says Okamura.

Like a DJ with a paintbrush instead of turntables, Okamura samples a variety of cultures in his paintings. There are Japanese and Native motifs, and techniques of artists like Picasso make appearances. Even Sesame Street

influences can be found, if you look closely enough.

“I love unexpected icons showing up in graffiti,” muses Okamura. “I love the idea that some graffiti kid would be aware enough to put some of Guernica on a wall.”

Tim Okamura’s Urban Portraits and Brooklyn Mythology display can be seen at the Axis Gallery, Art Central main level, 107, 100 7th Ave SW, May 19–28. The Queen will not be in attendance.

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