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Greg Shimada Interview

Aug 25, 2023

Nepenthes NY established the Artist Spotlight to provide a deeper understanding of the artwork showcased at the store. In this series, we converse with the artists participating in the exhibition, delving into their artistic expressions, presentations, and journeys.

On a hot July evening in Manhattan's Garment District, Nepenthes New York hosted the opening reception for Better Gift Shop's pop-up store and "Mid Summer Night", an art exhibition organized by Greg Shimada. The opening attracted a mass of skaters, artists, stylists, photographers, designers, and aesthetes, filling the store, overflowing into the street, and stopping traffic.

Based in San Francisco, Shimada seamlessly bridges fine art, graffiti, and fashion. As the creative force behind "Mid Summer Night," he gathered nearly 30 artists to participate in the show. This diverse collection of mixed media art, spanning paintings, sculptures, and clothing, finds its coherence through Shimada's curation."

Just a few days after the opening, the artist, in his mid-30s, casually converses with the Nepenthes New York shop staff near the register. Adorned in a New Era baseball cap over a bandana, splattered Dr. Martens 1461 shoes, and a self-designed T-shirt bearing the enigmatic acronym "CCLB," Shimada reflects on his journey, including his unexpected appearance in a surreal comedy video titled "ball champions," a connection that finds its way into the show's narrative.

Mirroring the exhibit's fluid narrative, Shimada's evolution from MLB photographer to art curator defies convention, shaped by his embrace of an organic current. His artistic foundation took root in the San Francisco Bay Area, influenced by his paternal grandparents' migration from Toyama, Japan, and his maternal grandfather's involvement in the 1960s hippie movement in San Francisco. These dual influences, psychedelic counterculture, and Japanese heritage blend seamlessly into his perspective, forging a synthesis of East and West, tradition, and rebellion.

Graffiti emerged as the pivotal influence. Existing on the fringe of society, graffiti serves as an inherently anti-authoritarian mode of self-expression and community. Veiled in secrecy, graffiti crews compete to get up on rooftops, bridges, and trainyards - with the tags comprehensible only to fellow writers. Shimada's journey into graffiti began during middle school, teaming up with a classmate to emulate the writers he admired. Greg calls this early period his "toy era."

Recalling those formative days, he states, "I was just trying to explore the medium at the time. Was I just trying to get up as much as possible? Was I trying to hit hard places? I was looking towards New York, I was looking at Tokyo, I was looking at Europe - everywhere trying to figure out what's what. It was my self-discovery through expression, right? I was trying to figure out who I am and how can I show everyone?". Similar to the Japanese concept of senpai and kohai, younger writers often face threats, with older writers painting over their tags. "People go over you, threaten to beat you up, and you just gotta take it. It's not about being nice or being mean. It's about pushing the culture forward."

While Shimada pursued art during high school, arriving early to spend hours in the school's art studio, he resisted an academic path and fully embraced graffiti life after graduating. "When I turned 19 I amped it up. This was my full-time job, so I was outside daily, going to jail, racking, and selling clothes. I was just a soldier in the trenches, you know? I started the day and made sure I had some spray paint in my bag - it was like car keys or a phone or a wallet to me." Shimada says.

Shimada was naturally drawn to magazines; they became both sources of inspiration and fuel for his dreams, reading "While You're Sleeping," "Purple," "Popeye," and "Mass Appeal." "I was just living day-to-day, but I'd look at magazines all the time and think, I could be in this magazine. I could design this. I could, you know, do an art show." This fascination with magazines ignited a parallel interest in fashion. "I was trying to look nice while tagging. I didn't want to look like I do graffiti to the police or graffiti dudes.", he says, "So the whole time, I'm checking fashion trends, and I want to get into the fashion game, but no one in SF was giving me a lane."

Seeking a community beyond San Francisco's limitations, a girlfriend prompted Shimada's shift to the East Coast. He shares, "I met a girl in the Bay, and she's like, 'If you want to keep dating me, move to New York.'" He continued graffiti on the East Coast. "The main thing I was thinking about this time was doing the best graffiti I can to represent the Bay Area in the World Graffiti Arena, you know? I was trying to push the envelope with that, using tons of colors anywhere I could.", he states.

Transitioning to the realm of art was not a deliberate choice for Shimada; “I was always having to do the buff squad to clean up the graffiti, getting in trouble, going to jail, having to talk to the police sometimes. I was 29, I had two cases, and I couldn't beat either. I was just guilty. I had to plead both out. I couldn't get in trouble or have to do the mandatory jail sentence." Returning to San Francisco, he found work driving taxis. "It was a crazy dark cloud looming over my head, but I always knew that some better days were coming. Luckily enough, someone offered a spot at a studio for the perfect price."

"I had a conversation with the graffiti gods and the art gods. I had to pump the brakes on my legal life and realize what I am here for. Art. Art was always there." Shimada fully embraced painting, experimenting with oil, latex, and aerosol paint before settling on acrylic paint for its speed. Spray paint, though diminished, still finds its way into his work, often in the form of a subtle background layer.

Shimada's art channels his narrative, crafting pieces deeply rooted in his experiences. Away from the frenetic world of graffiti, his focus turned inward. "'It's trippy. I thought a lot about nostalgia and my life as a whole.", he says. "One of my works in this show is of a sign in my neighborhood In the Bay Area. It's a classic place; you can smell it when driving by. I like to call my paintings a printout of my mind at that second."

Several years into his full-time artistic career, Shimada views the transition positively. He asserts, "Being an artist is like being the master of your destiny. It's a thing that I can share with everybody. Graffiti is so secret, sometimes in an abandoned building somewhere."

These days, Shimada spends much of his time on the road. Following a period in Albuquerque during the pandemic, his travels frequently take him to Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo. This constant movement has produced many connections, including interactions with figures like Sascha Jenkins, editor-in-chief of Mass Appeal, collaborations with Supreme, Yoji Yamamoto, Stussy, and, of course, Better Gift Shop. This fusion of aesthetics bridges the worlds of fashion, graffiti, and art. "I've met so many people along the way during my journey. It wasn't a waste of time to live street life and graffiti life because I met all these people."

This community helped Shimada launch the "Mid Summer Night" exhibition, as he tapped into subcultures worldwide, uniting them in New York. He explains the show's name and baseball influence. "It's summertime; I worked at the Giants Stadium, so to me, the show is like an All-Star Team." he says, "I met these artists from traveling, graffiti, sleeping on couches, sleeping on the floor. These are all people I admire, and I wanted to bring it all together in one place. It's a culmination of all that stuff - summertime baseball, All-Stars, Japan, America. This is also just a snapshot of my brain."

“Mid Summer Night” is now on display at Nepenthes New York.