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Sho Shibuya, the graphic designer and founder of Placeholder, has been behind products like the biodegradable bamboo bag—a sustainable reimagining of the ubiquitous single-use plastic takeaway—and counts names like Apple, Revlon, and the New York City Ballet as some of his clients.
With so much of his creative effort working to realize the vision of others, Shibuya began a daily painting practice a few years ago through katakana, Japanese weekly letterforms. It was an expressive outlet and a stress reliever. When the stay-at-home order began last spring in New York, he started to paint the sky from a small window in his apartment, using the front page of the New York Times as his canvas. He posted it to Instagram, and the series became a visual diary and source of calm not just for him but tens of thousands of others.
Whitewall spoke with Shibuya about the ongoing ritual of marking the days, whether it be through a frame of the sky, a response to current events, an emotional tribute, a laugh at an infamous Pence-dwelling fly, or even a collaboration with Patti Smith.
WHITEWALL: How did painting become a part of your daily practice?
SS: My first painting was in April 2016. Working as a graphic designer, all of my creative work was done in the interest of clients. Nothing for myself. I wanted a more pure creative outlet for my own self-satisfaction. I used painting to control my stress and anxiety, and channeled it into a series of “katakana” paintings of the Japanese letterforms for each day of the week. It became a daily exercise that brought me peace of mind, and as I continued to find inspiration in these little moments, the series gradually turned into my first gallery exhibition.
WW: Your series of painting the front page of the New York Times has evolved from painting a window of the sky to touching upon current events like the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent presidential election. How has this series evolved for you since April?
SS: In the beginning, I just wanted to capture everyday moments visually, like a diary. If strange or significant things happened, I tried to capture those as well, to raise awareness, and hoped the work could start a conversation, or sometimes just create an homage to people who I respect.
WW: You’ve made beautiful tributes to Enzo Mari and Lea Vergine, Ed Benguiat, John Lewis, Breonna Taylor. Can you tell us what inspired these?
SS: It’s all personal emotion. People I feel inspired by, or when unfair tragedies happened. I tried to capture my own emotions in the painting to share my feeling.
WW: What was it like to collaborate with Patti Smith, and how did that come about?
SS: She saw my “California fire” work last year. She contacted her friend who works at the New York Times and said, “You guys did a fantastic job.” She thought it was from a real New York Times cover. Her friend explained this was done by me. Then she messaged me, and from there we started chatting often, and she would comment on my other paintings and posts.
When I saw her poster on the street, her series “It’s in Our Hands,” urging people to vote and take back control for themselves, I came up with an idea for her five fingers to indicate a countdown, with five days before the election to urge people to vote. I texted her about the concept, and she said, “Yes, I will do it.”
WW: The paintings exist on your Instagram account, and you’ve also displayed them in New York on temporarily boarded-up storefronts. Do you have plans for showing the work to the public in the future?
SS: Yes, I am talking about some places for potential exhibitions. Hopefully, I can show them after everybody can go out safely. Then finally, we can look back to 2020 through my paintings.
WW: How has this series impacted your creative practice overall and going forward?
SS: I am trying to make things as simple as possible. My goal is for the visuals to explain the concept itself. No caption needed. That’s my goal. That philosophy affects all my ongoing projects.
WW: Last year, you debuted a bamboo bag to replace the single-use plastic bag. How do environmental concerns and sustainability inspire your creativity?
SS: As a graphic design studio, we think about environmental issues very seriously. Besides our nonprofit Plastic Paper’s action, we try to reduce our impact on the environment with less packaging or suggest alternative materials to our clients. Sustainability is about thinking about others; it’s inherently an exercise in compassion. The current climate proved our industrial norms need to change. We try to use our creativity to make the world a better place, even with tiny changes.
WW: What lessons from 2020 are you bringing with you into the studio in 2021?
SS: I struggle to relate to typical marketing videos and commercials, especially since the lockdown. You’re starting to hear about big brands skipping their Super Bowl commercials this year. I think that’s some evidence that our current approach is a bit broken, and that we, as a creative industry, need to rethink our approach. So in 2021 I want to continue to think about more fundamental uses of the studio’s creative power, whether that’s for inspiring artwork or sustainability projects or anything else.