Julia Sherman: Tell me about your upbringing.
Yuri Shimojo: My childhood in Tokyo was a very unconventional. My family descended from Samurai, so as a result, I practiced the Japanese traditional arts since I was at three years old: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, Kabuki and Noh theatrical dance. This was unique for a modern Japanese kid. At the same time, my late “flamboyant” parents also wanted me to travel abroad and access a whole range of social events, so the combination of all of these colorful experiences have influenced me as an artist.
JS: Wait, your ancestors were samurai!?! What exactly does that mean?
YS: It’s just a little more authentic than Tom Cruise’s, “Last Samurai.”
JS: Can you make sense of how you spent your formative years studying the traditional Japanese arts, but ended up in a street art collective?
YS: Not really. (laughs) But, my parents were both rebels; disobedience must be in my blood. My favorite quote is “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” And this is absolutely true.
JS: Alright, how would you describe your career as a television personality? This is fascinating to me!
YS: In Japan it’s kind of easy to become some sort of pop icon if you are in the scene. I used to be “a party girl of Tokyo,” and was in a bunch of magazines etc. My TV show was on a satellite music channel all about subculture called “Bum TV.” We had a weekly live show chitchatting in the living room style. It was like Wayne’s World, but with turntables and DJs. We had famous or obscure guests from all over the world. It was a luxurious public playground before YouTube.
JS: What inspired you to write an autobiography when you were just 29?
YS: I was offered a book deal by an editor who had read some of my various essays in magazines. She encouraged to write a memoir of my unique upbringing. My entire family had died in the preceding years, and the process of writing that book taught me to dig deeper my inner self. I was shy at the beginning, since I wasn’t a “professional” writer, but the process was so raw and direct, it inspired me to paint abstraction that came from a place deep within me, instead of illustrating somebody else’s story.
JS: How did you end up in Williamsburg in the 90s?
YS: In mid 90s I lived in Tokyo, but I was working on an animation project for a Japanese client with a NY team. On my flight from Tokyo to NY, I sat next to a young gentleman with funny hair. He asked me what I did and I said, “I paint.” He asked me what kind of painting I did and I said, “jellyfish.” (I was working on a children’s book about jellyfish at that time). He said, “I paint squid!” We went on a date and I moved to NY the next year to live with him…that was in Williamsburg. Williamsburg in mid 90s reminded me of my childhood neighborhood Kichijoji , a bohemian artist community about 30 minutes from central Tokyo.
JS: What is the story behind this amazing house? How did you find it, and what did you have to do to get it to the state it is in today?
YS: The house found me. I call this little house, “Chogyo-An,” which means, “Mountain Atelier of Birdfish.” It’s located on the old pilgrimage path of monks and esoteric practitioners. I thought I’d never live in Japan again but this house brought me back. I was going to just do some remodeling, but I ended up restoring the entire house. It took more than a year, and we are still working.
JS: You recently designed the devotional offerings for the temple. How was this project different for you than previous projects?
YS: What could be a greater honor than designing something represents hope through people’s prayers? It’s humbly ecstatic.
JS: And where did the design for the offering come from?
YS: It is based off of a mural I made at Picture Farm Gallery in Williamsburg in 2014. The image represents The Year of the Horse.
JS: And that is an ongoing project right?
YS: I’ve been painting mural of zodiac at Picture Farm Gallery in Southside of Williamsburg since 2013. I go back to re-paint it every year. I love knowing that my work is always there in my old neighborhood. It’s my passion and sentiment.
JS: When we first met, we talked about how you may be Japanese, and may have moved back to Japan, but you still identify as a New Yorker. What does that mean to you, now that you are back in your mother country?
YS: After I experienced my family’s death, the fairytale of my party life in Tokyo was over; I wanted to pursue reality. In NY in 80s, people were struggling but they were real. I missed diversity of community. So I left Tokyo and moved back to NY again. NY makes you tough but there is also some essential goodness about humanity in there too. Once you are a New Yorker, you are a New Yorker for the rest of your life, I think.