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Artist 'jolts people awake' with zippers and T-shirts

By Madison Park, CNN
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
There's a "revealing and surprising" element in zippers, says artist Jun Kitagawa, seen here with his painting at Tokyo's Roppongi Tunnel. There's a "revealing and surprising" element in zippers, says artist Jun Kitagawa, seen here with his painting at Tokyo's Roppongi Tunnel.
Jun Kitagawa's street art
For display purposes only
What lies beneath
Classic art, classic tees
Art or vandalism?
Balloon bottoms
Extreme combinations
Art born from surplus
Beauty in unlikely spaces
Floating flowers
  • Jun Kitagawa has created pop-up installations throughout Japan
  • The artist got his start dressing sculptures with racy T-shirts
  • Kitagawa uses balloons, T-shirts, zippers, ordinary items in his work

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- Jun Kitagawa's foray into public art didn't spring from an epiphany or a burst of passion.

It came from hundreds of unwanted white T-shirts stuffed inside cardboard boxes in his Tokyo apartment.

Seventeen years ago, Kitagawa decided to make T-shirts with images of women in poses so provocative they'd make American Apparel blush.

But no one wanted to buy them.

"It was very disappointing, of course," Kitagawa tells CNN.

One day, he scrambled into a park and dressed a nude sculpture with one of his unloved white tees.

He snapped some pictures then removed the shirt.

He showed the pictures to friends.

"Some people would say 'that's very interesting,' and some would get mad," says Kitagawa.

Either way, the photos elicited strong reactions.

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Before and after. Is it an improvement?
Before and after. Is it an improvement?

Obscene vandalism or public art?

Whether he's dressing nude, Romantic era-styled statues in white tees, creating voluminous balloons shaped like human buttocks or setting up gigantic 3D zippers to protrude out of traditional Japanese gardens, Kitagawa's public art in Japan is whimsical, erotic and playful.

There's a sense that his work functions like a wink -- a reminder not to take everything so seriously.

He takes something vaunted as high art, such as a classical nude statue, with romanticized human proportions and a stately countenance, and mixes it with a white T-shirt.

"I want to make a work that takes two extreme elements -- the highest and lowest elements," he says.

Some critics say his work isn't even art -- that it's vandalism or a prank or even obscene.

"Whether the audience sees my work as pleasing or disturbing, the visual impact that jolts people awake is an essential part of my work," Kitagawa says.

When still in his 20s, Kitagawa quit his job at an architectural firm to become an artist.

Since his father was a landscape painter, Kitagawa says he felt becoming an artist would be a practical profession.

He became an assistant to a sculptor, learning techniques and working with metals and clay.

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These days, he asks for permission

Kitagawa is a slender man with a slight goatee, his hair underneath a pink and green newsboy hat.

He moves quickly, light-footed, almost like a cat -- a trait that served him well back when he had to sneak a ladder into a park to put a T-shirt on a sculpture.

These days, he seeks permission before dressing sculptures in public places.

Usually he gets denied, or receives no response at all.

He says he's still surprised when officials approve his requests.

In the spirit of pop-up art, he removes the shirt from the sculptures after about 7-10 days.

"I just want to let people walking by know something is going on," Kitagawa says. "I want to change something from the ordinary."

Kitagawa also does more traditional work, decorating Japanese festivals, cultural events and the occasional shopping mall.

In several temporary installations, Kitagawa has toyed with zippers.

One giant zipper stretches through a quiet Japanese garden at the Chinzanso Hotel in Tokyo.

Another ran through a house in Tokyo, exposing its flooring and structure beneath. (The house has since been demolished.)

One of his zipper works currently on display at the Roppongi Tunnel was commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to clean up graffiti.

"The zippers convey that what we are actually seeing in this real world is just a surface, and that once we peel it off, we see there's another hidden space, which is completely different from our side," he says.

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