Welcome to a surf art exhibit and interview with Japanese artist and surfer Mayumi Tsubokura. Mayumi has an interesting background, growing up in Japan, studying in France, travelling to exotic locations like Hawaii and Tahiti and rubbing shoulders with some of surfing histories most famous and iconic surfers, pioneers and heroes. Enjoy…
Born and raised in Japan, I imagine a very inspirational place for a young artist?
MT: I come from Roppongi-Akasaka, the hanamachi, red-light, leisure district of Tokyo where there are hundreds of restaurants, ochayas and okiyas, geisha houses: the karyükai. My father, Murakami Genzö, introduced me to this exclusive, artistic and expensive environment where the notorious people gather at night. I was very familiar to the world of Kabuki, its richness crossing literature, music, painting, singing and so on: a very traditional, colourful, almost psychedelic atmosphere. On the other hand I was very curious and interested in the western world, from Otis Redding to Géricault to Rainer Maria Rilke. I had the chance to meet James Brown and Frank Sinatra when I later worked in restaurants and clubs, I was around my eighteens. It blew my mind. Going outside Japan was something necessary for me after that, being so Japanese. As a painter, Hokusai's woodcut The Great Wave off Kanagawa, wave paintings were already fascinating me, but I was seeking for inspiration abroad. I came back to these roots when I started to paint waves in Tahiti years later.
You are a student of the various Japanese martial arts? And you've worked as a bodyguard meeting a host of famous people doing so?
MT: My father understood that I was keener on fighting than acting, even though if as a director he had plans for me. I embraced the Budö, training intensively 4 hours a day for more than ten years. I worked as a bodyguard in Japan and in Europe, meeting a wide range of people, which later enabled me to express my other interests. As a Jeweller, I was body-guarding myself doing diamond broking between Paris and Anvers. But there's even another kind of body-guarding I did… As a part of my martial art training was the practice of karate-influenced Shiatsu, learning massage techniques was necessary to keep my body and the others in good shape during my trainings. I kept using this knowledge with a lot of people. Surfers and sportsmen particularly appreciated this kind of relief after their harsh efforts.
Born in Tokyo, far from the beach… How did you discover your love for surfing?
MT: Tokyo is not that far from the beach. Shimoda is a beautiful beach, 100km away from Tokyo, we were hanging around with friends, bodysurfing. I tried for the first time a shortboard in 1968, which was leant to me by the son of a local fisherman. This board had a Gerry Lopez signature, but without the trademark lightning bolt you can find on those produced in the 70s. I don't know how my friend managed to get this board, I liked this very much and I instantly wanted to know more on this.
When you first travelled to Hawaii in the early 70s, you became known as the "Kamikaze Boy", how did this come to be? And talk to us about your first experience of Hawaii, in your biography you say you left the islands "a changed man"…
MT: This nickname comes from Gerry Lopez, seeing me bodysurfing, swimming Pipeline alone, without fins or any board. I still enjoy bodysurfing on the North Shore nowadays, I was surprised to see filmed footage of me doing so in Surf Movie: reels 1-14.
Before my trip to Hawaii, I never feared anything in my life. I was competing in martial arts since childhood; I was a street fighter in Tokyo. But on this day of 1971, in the first days of my first trip, in the Kuhio Beach Park, I didn't realize the conditions of water. I borrowed a foam board which I lost in the 10 Hawaiian feet waves. I felt I was drowning but just before it was too late, someone pulled me on his board. Back on the beach, this man said to me: "Young man, what's your name?" - "My name is Mayumi" - "My name is Rabbit, 'Usagi san'! You got the chicken today?" - "I got more than that, I got really scared." I was crying. He continued: "You know what? You must not stop surfing today, if you do, you will never surf again. You come back tomorrow morning 7 o'clock, right here." - "Yes sir, but I lost your surfboard." - "It's ok, it's a rental surfboard, we got plenty of them, but we got only one Mayumi san." I cried again. I came back the next morning. My real life started that day. I really thought it was finished this day.
I met all of Rabbit Kekai's lifeguard team: with him and Eddie Aikau, and all their friends, I was the happiest visitor Hawaii has ever seen. And the staggering show of the 1971 Pipe Masters deeply impressed me. I surely left Oahu as a changed man.
After returning from Hawaii, you travelled the world some more before visiting Europe, where you studied in France? Where you now live years later?
MT: I still live in Paris, 37 years after my first visit, this is my hometown, and two of my children are French. I travelled a lot. Paris gave me the opportunity to meet extraordinary people and places like Tahiti. I enjoyed the South West of France during summertime, where the beaches somewhat reminded me of the best beach breaks I saw on the Islands.
Describe your art? What inspires your paintings?
MT: I try to paint my dreams, even if I can paint only the fifth of my day or night visions. We don't see with our eyes, we see with our minds, we must dream, to understand the beauty of our ocean, of our world. I want to bring the beauty of the mind to sense and consciousness. I don't paint surfers but I try to paint what they cherish, their fantasies. My paintings are a patient oneiric depicting of this moving beauty, which has to be mentally processed, a view over nature's universal beauty.
You're given a special mention in the credits for the hit surf film documentary Riding Giants… What was your involvement with the movie?
MT: Back in 1999, I was talking with my friend Franck Marty in his home in Anglet. Being a producer he was thinking that making a surf movie, a documentary somewhat epic about real surfers was a good idea. He told me that he was a fan of Darrick Doerner. He knew that he made the insane surf scene in the movie Point Break. He asked me if I knew him, I said of course, I have his phone number. We called him - it was around 5am in Oahu - Darrick answered. "Hey good morning brother, what's up? I want to introduce you to someone because he wants to make a movie about surf" - "Who is this guy?" - "Hold on, he's right here…" A few months later we were in Hawaii, he met all the boys. Visiting Hawaii, especially during a rainy, windy, gnarly time convinced him even more to do something with these men and this world. Laird Hamilton told me: "You know Mayumi, we like your French friend. Maybe we can do something together…"
You've met some of surfing histories most celebrated and loved characters (as seen in the slideshow above), what have been some of your fondest memories and experiences so far?
MT: The greatest memory I have is the 1997 Pipeline Surf Master. Two men between my hands were Michael Ho and Johnny Boy Gomes. I helped Johnny Boy twice a day for one week, his knee was painful. He came to my house every morning at 8 with a breakfast we took together. The finals were magic, we had a rainbow and extraordinary sunlight, my two friends were celebrating in the water, raising their arms, this moment was unique.
In one of your photos (above) of Duke Kahanamoku and Miki Dora, Miki wrote "You saved my life!" - What did he mean by that? I thought there might be an interesting story there…?
MT: Fifteen years ago in Biarritz, Miki gave me a phone call, he said to me that his neck had been stiff since he came back from a surf trip in South Africa. He asked me if I could check his neck bones but I immediately urged him to go to the hospital, he had incredible fever. His neck was stiff like wood and very hot. He asked me if I could do any bone cracking on his neck, I said "no way"… Mike doesn't like schools, police or hospitals, and was reluctant saying he was okay, so I warned him to go there with me, because if he didn't I'll make him go. We finally moved, and the doctors told him he had meningitis. Miki was truly a force of nature to resist like he did, the doctors couldn't believe it. That's how I got this autograph.
Where can people go to see your work and purchase prints or originals?
MT: There are two permanent exhibitions, one in Noni factory in Maui (Ste 317, 810 Haiku Road, Haiku, HI 96708 www.nonimaui.com), and one at the offices of the Polynesian delegation in Paris (28 boulevard Saint-Germain, 75005 Paris). You can also ask to visit my Parisian studio and of course check my website - www.mayumi.fr. Making a Club Of The Waves exhibition is great by the way, thank you Andrew. Maybe there will be a life-size one someday!
COTW: Haha, who knows, maybe someday ;)
Finally, what does the future hold for Mayumi Tsubokura?
MT: Kenji Ishikawa, a master in moonlight photography and me want to make a common exhibition where I will show what he cannot shoot: night-time waves. New movies I hope, about Eddie Aikau maybe, and about Japanese ocean myths. I'll surely keep you in touch.