Aki Yaguchi is a multidisciplinary artist from Naarm (Melbourne). She wears a few hats, but she’s namely an artist and musician who creates work that reflects her personal style and cultural sensibilities. Aki is most well-known for her whimsical designs featuring the ‘Tobu Hime’ — a kind of subversive ‘floating maiden’ that she dreamt up in high school. Since then, Aki has collaborated with the likes of Platypus, Converse, and Puma, and myriad galleries around Naarm have showcased Aki’s creativity.
Welcome, Aki. Please tell us about yourself.
Hi! I’m a multidisciplinary artist currently living and practising in Naarm (Melbourne). My visual art is centred around a character I dreamt up in high school; I call her the “Tobu Hime” (which is very bad Japanese and loosely translates to “Floating Maiden”). She has followed me throughout my youth and we’ve grown together as I’ve matured as an artist.
Can you tell us about your passions growing up? Did you always know that you wanted to become an artist?
As a child I was a passionate dreamer. I would find any way to escape to my own fantasies; I’d draw, role play, and craft. I was alone without siblings for four years before my younger sister came along, so I had plenty of time to learn to entertain myself.
Drawing was always something that I was passionate about. To me, the act of illustrating was always more than just the finished product — it was the journey. Every element I added to the illustration became part of the story.
When I was a kid I wanted to become a famous pop star and would often draw myself as a famous singer. So, I guess that in a way (without releasing) I sort of predicted what I’d be doing in the future…music and art that is.
A lot of your art is inspired by your Japanese heritage. Can you tell us about the Tobu Hime and their significance in your artwork?
My experience as a mixed kid in rural Australia was pretty confusing. Even now as an adult I’m still wrangling with the idea of cultural identity and belonging.
I feel as though I’m neither Japanese nor Aussie enough to fit in with either demographic. I know that this is a common struggle for a lot of people with mixed heritage.
I was in high school when I first drew my Tobu Hime. She was never meant to be anything deep or meaningful; just a pretty picture…an illustration that reflected myself and the things that I liked and found beautiful — anime, pop art, street art, femininity, and Japanese imagery. From reading about artists like Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami I learned that repetition was key — that, and that I couldn’t stop regardless…she was an idea that stuck. Over time she has become something of a companion. I use her in all of my art; she’s a way of exploring my identity and emotion. I’m most excited about where she’ll take me in this life. If I had never drawn her, then I don’t know where I’d be.
Can you talk us through how your work reflects the interplay between your heritage and femininity?
If you’ve ever seen traditional Japanese artwork, then you’d have noticed that women have ghostly white faces (generally Geisha, although Japan has always had a weird/toxic fascination with fair skin). When I first started drawing the Tobu Hime, I drew them similarly to the Geisha, with stark white faces, red lips, and blush. I guess that it was something that I found synonymous with Japanese culture, but was also something that I never was. Though the Tobu Hime usually has long dark hair like mine, I never had fair skin or ‘typically’ Japanese features. No one has ever clocked me as Japanese. Looking back, I think that in the beginning I amped up some of the obvious culturally stylistic things as a way of making my ‘Japanese-ness’ known.
I soon realised that I wanted people to see themselves reflected in her, and now I draw her in every colour. Sometimes she is pink, or green, yellow, orange, brown, purple, or red. It became a non-conformity to what I had originally thought Japanese-ness looked like. She’s still kawaii like an anime character but over time I have stylised her to reflect something personal and original.
As for the femininity in my work, I believe that femininity is synonymous with power. In my life, I’ve found myself in very male dominated spaces but have always been someone who does what they want. Despite feeling pushback or a lack of belonging, I never once allowed those feelings to stop me from doing the things that made me happy. However, there was a period where I felt that I needed to quell the femme side of me to fit into these different spaces. It took me a while to understand that being comfortable with femininity was so empowering; now I am incredibly insistent on channeling what I feel is perceived as ‘girly’ or ‘pretty’ in any and every space.
I am incredibly proud to be a woman. I was raised by one and am surrounded by so many incredible womxn/femmes; I will always champion them.
When did your career really take off? Is there a particular design that sparked interest from the wider community?
I think something clicked after I moved to Naarm and started painting murals. I never really experienced instantaneous success or recognition. Over the last five years I feel like consistency’s been the one thing that has helped my career the most. Although I can definitely recognise the progress, I still don’t think that there’s really been a moment where I’ve made a huge impact. It’s been a long journey to get here and I’ve only just started.
I saw that you recently held a performance with the Good Ideas team. How did you get into music? Can you tell us a bit about this venture/passion of yours?
Yes I did — it was so fun!
I’ve always been musical. When I was younger, my mum made sure to nurture the musician in me. I played violin and trumpet in my formative years but was a terrible music student and didn’t retain much theory. I guess you could say that I know just enough. Luckily, I feel like I’ve always understood it and have an innate ability to remember most tunes.
My music teacher in High School, Mr Winters, was the person who encouraged me to sing and told me to never stop making music. I thought that I was a bad singer for the longest time (I was told this as a child and it really stuck with me). He even accompanied me to audition for The Voice after I graduated (I didn’t get very far).
Years later, before moving to Naarm, I met a wonderful musician named Leon Tussie who I began performing with. We wrote songs; he played the bass, effects pad and drums all at once, looping the music on a pedal for me to sing over. I was gutted when I moved as I felt we’d just started getting somewhere.
It took me a very long time to feel comfortable making music again as I hadn’t made many musical connections in Naarm and didn’t feel like I could focus on both art and music at the same time. It wasn’t until a few years later that I met my wonderful friend Eleftherios and we made our first song. From there, we never really stopped making music. We’ve gone from late night casual production sessions, to rehearsing with a band and performing! Who knows where it will go — but for now, we’re having fun!
What’s your favourite medium to work in?
I’m sitting here trying to come up with an honest answer — but the truth is, I don’t have one. I have terrible focus and jump from one thing to the next. I love experimenting and crafting but I’ve never really found a medium that I love most…I just love making things.
Do art and music influence your personal style?
I’ve never really thought about that! I’m very visual, so I definitely love to incorporate colour. I also sometimes like to embody a feeling or character when I choose my outfits. Other times (most of the time), I go for comfort. I feel most comfortable in baggy silhouettes. I get a lot of wear out of my Needles HD Fatigue Pants!
Tell us about your studio!
My studio is out the back of my home. I think my favourite things in here are my spray paints and my big desk. I’m a bit of a material hoarder, so I have everything you can think of to make anything you can think of. It’s definitely a blessing and a curse…I think that I’ll need a bigger space soon.
We’re huge musos here at Double Double. Is there a particular song or album that you get down to while you’re in your studio?
I’ve been listening to Dijon’s album, “Absolutely”, on repeat. I still can’t stop listening to it.
Is there an artist or person in particular that has influenced your practice?
Toro Y Moi! I’m a huge fan! I love that he’s both a musician and visual artist. I also love how openly he explores genres and themes.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I have a few fun things up my sleeve before the year ends; they’re mostly mural related but possibly the biggest mural projects I’ve done so far! There’s also a music gig that I’m super excited about, but can’t say much about it yet — sorry!