Interview: Street Artist Sasu Talks Creating Peace With Her Floral Mandalas and Designing Labels for Perrier

Tokyo-based street artist Sasu talks creating her signature floral mandalas in Japan and designing labels for Perrier.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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To most people, there is nothing particularly remarkable about labels. Generally speaking, we pass through our days never really looking twice at the packaging of a product. For Tokyo-based street artist Sasu, however, labels hold a bit of magic.

"I like labels, the ones found on food and drinks. When I’m at the supermarket and see something cute, I’ll collect it for my kitchen at home," she said. To her, labels are like "small walls" that have been filled with art. In a way, they are quite similar to the vibrant murals she and her husband Kami create as the art duo Hitotzuki (which means "sun and moon"). 

On a trek through Tokyo, passersby are likely to stumble upon one of Sasu's exploding floral mandalas. Inspired by her own experiences and the natural elements around her, Sasu manages to blend her work into her home city's busy streets. Her murals have a calming, almost meditative quality to them. It seems only appropriate, then, that Perrier enlisted Sasu to design labels for the brand's "Inspired by Street Art" limited edition collection. 

We sat down with Sasu to discuss working alongside her husband, the inspiration behind her floral mandalas, the state of street art in Japan, and her fascination with labels.



Were you always interested in art? How did you get started with making street art in particular?

When I was small, like in elementary school and junior high, I used to make my own zines. They'd have my illustrations, and I would send them to my pen pals who were all around the world. With my zine, I started a kind of cultural club. I didn't realize I was an artist, so I didn’t care and was just drawing for fun. Later on my friend asked me to paint skateboard parts, so I went and bought spray cans. That's when I realized how much I liked it.

Your artistic style is different from that of the cute illustrations found in Japanese zines. How did you develop that unique style?

In 2000, I came to New York. Then, with [a group of] New York artists, I went to North Carolina to paint barns—tobacco barns. You know Barnstormers, the New York/Tokyo-based art collective? One of my friends from the collective lives in New York. His parents’ house is in North Carolina. They have many barns with blank walls. He gathered people, and we went down for a couple days, camping and painting barns individually. Since then, they started organizing shows, and I have come back to New York many times.

I also traveled to many other countries and saw the cultural styles of each country. That’s when I started asking myself, "What is my own unique style?" I was asking this question and consciously developing my style during my travels.

I didn’t study art, so I didn’t know how to create one complete work. I started experimenting, putting images in symmetry so that they would create something like a mandala. I felt like this could be my style. The first couple of times, I just put shapes next to shapes. After 10 years of that, my art is what it is now. It was a gradual process of trial and error.

You met your husband Kami in 1999, right? How did you meet and start working together?

I met him through being published in the same free paper, so I knew his work. One day, a friend of a friend introduced us. He asked me to go to New York with him to do the Barnstorming.

In a previous interview, you talked about how Kami is like the beat, and you’re the melody. It seems like you’re both very in sync. Is it always natural like that?

We fight sometimes, but we like to work on art together. If we fight, afterwards we forget and concentrate on how we can do better together.


Did you guys ever have different visions for a project? He works on the flowing lines of the piece, and you work on the mandalas. What’s that process like?

The first time we got together was in a café. We had a napkin. He would draw something and pass it to me without talking. Then we made a design. It’s been 10 years. Now sometimes there’s more talking, but before we would just start. Before, we didn’t have iPhones to text on while waiting in cafés, so we’d get napkins to draw on and just talk.

What inspires your murals?

I really like the sky and clouds. They have shape, but they’re not bothering our lives. They’re strong but not imposing. I want to be like that.

When I was young, people said I was strange,  so I wanted to be normal and fit in with society. In Japan, there’s a lot of social pressure to act “normal.”

I reflect my experiences through my art. I want to create art that exists but is not necessarily appealing, that's not showing its presence entirely.


So, more subtle?

It’s like a Buddhism idea, to get rid of everything you don’t need and to do this process for a while. That’s something I want to express. It’s not art that’s meant to appeal, it’s just something that exists, kind of like nature. By trying to get rid of the excessive stuff around what is really essential, I feel like I can find my true self.

Has your art helped you achieve that sense of “normalcy”?

It’s impossible to be normal [laughs]. In Japan, the culture is different. People always wear what others wear. If somebody says, "This is the trend," everyone will wear that same thing. I felt sad because I didn’t feel the same. I wanted to feel the same, but I couldn’t. Now I realize it was a mistake [laughs]. Now I don’t care, so I just do my own thing.


I really like the sky and clouds. They have shape, but they’re not bothering our lives. They’re strong but not imposing. I want to be like that.

What’s the environment like for street artists in Japan? I imagine people in Tokyo are probably more receptive to it.

There aren’t that many street artists in Japan compared to the States. The culture is different. It’s illegal to do anything on the streets. It’s difficult. Maybe here [in the U.S.] it’s easier to access old walls if the owners are willing, but in Japan, everything is very organized and proper. We have graffiti but not really murals.

We have to adhere to Japanese law. I knock on people's doors and ask them if I can paint their walls, but many people are afraid. There’s no culture of murals in Japan, so people are scared. I want to crush this, so I’m trying. I paint and show them photos, and people understand. Many people say Japan is very difficult for creating street art, but I love Japan, and I want to stay. I want to keep doing art in Japan. It’s my mission.

I know Tokyo is one of the world’s most populated cities. Your murals seem very spiritual and calming. How does living in Tokyo affect your practice, if it does?

The hustle and bustle, my brain, what’s happening outside, everything happening at once, the houses being small and not spacious, it makes me stressed. That’s why I want to make peaceful work. If I stay in the countryside, there’s a lot of space and no stress, but I want to make a small tiny peaceful spot for me [in Tokyo].

For Perrier, what you’re doing is different because you're not working with your husband. What was it like working on the designs?

When we work separately, we can choose whatever color and shapes we want, but if we work together, we have to talk. This time, I can decide everything by myself. I’m really interested in labels because labels are like small walls. I feel that they’re the art found in our daily lives, so I wanted to do something with them. Now my dream has come true.

Can you talk more about how Perrier found you? Did they know you wanted to design labels?

I don't think so. One day they emailed me. I have a habit of changing labels. I put my stickers on the paint cans as decorations. I made stickers to put on them because it looks nice, and it makes the studio look less messy. I want to make all the labels for everyday items. I like decorating and making everyday objects artistic.


What was your thought process in designing the labels for Perrier?

I created three different designs. The first one was happy and cute. The second one was more adult-like and sophisticated, consisting of not many colors. The third one was more popular and natural, something that suits everyone.

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