Eri Wakiyama’s surreal, manga-inspired paintings reflect her inner world – 71Bait

Eri Wakiyama’s New York bedroom is covered in stickers. There are the ones left behind by her friends who work in the fashion industry representing various cool downtown brands and labels, random sticky souvenirs she’s collected over the years, and ’90s throwbacks to Lisa Frank and hello kitty Her latest solo show, currently on view at the Heaven by Marc Jacobs gallery space in Los Angeles, also reflects the nostalgic, angsty, young-at-heart space: glow-in-the-dark stars and butterflies are mounted on the walls surrounding her surreal paintings.

The show is called ‘Cause I can’t stop thinking, and consists of large-scale works that Eri made while contemplating our present moment, her personal experiences, and just about anything and everything she can’t get out of her head. The paintings feature her signature girls, all moody and fairy-like, floating in space, feeding pet monsters and crying over heartbreak. Although Eri has always been inspired by Japanese manga cartoons, she has honed her unique style through an MFA in Fashion Design from Parsons and through collaborations with artists such as Miu Miu, Supreme, X-Girl and more.

Here, we sat down with Eri to talk about her super-cool new paintings, how art can help people struggling with mental illness, and her signature bright orange hair.

Tell me about your new show in LA.
It is in the gallery next to the Heaven by Marc Jacob store. It’s fairly new; Her last show was with Sofia Coppola. I’ve done some illustrations for her before, so it came about. It’s not a huge space, but it was perfect because I had nine paintings in three months. Ava [Nirui] allowed me to do whatever I wanted, which was super cool. I put all these stickers on the wall and painted on the wall. It happened quite naturally, but it was a huge success.

It also seems quite natural to me, your work and the sky.
Yes. And indeed I came back home and the room resembled my room. My room is basically like a teenager’s room. I have all these toys, little power lights and things like that, stickers all over the place. So in that sense, I wasn’t thinking, I just did it unconsciously. The only big difference is that I don’t have a separate studio, so I do everything in my living room. And the more I paint, the more stuff there is in my room. I wasn’t able to tell if the pieces would fit together harmoniously until I got there. I was really happy with this result even though it was just a mess in my room.

In putting together the exhibition, were there themes or themes that wanted to be explored?
I’ve just started painting on a larger scale. My characters were usually pencil or ink on paper. Many of them were portrait style. So I explore more landscapes. There’s not really a theme, it’s just what I was just thinking or feeling. It just comes out.

I love the picture you took where the girls are throwing those smileys around. It reminds me of a snowball fight.
I thought about these old ones Calvin and Hobbes Series in which there are always snowball fights. It’s also based on war. When I was painting there was just so much hate in the world. I became very overwhelmed by the news and politics. I just wanted peace. I was just like Why can’t people fight for happiness instead of hate? That’s why there are these little smileys on the eggs. When they get hit, they get happier instead of getting hurt, you know. But the girls are in that gear too — they’re wearing those cleats, spiked bottoms and knee pads. They have headbands. I wanted to make it look like they were just playing flag football or a game. Let’s just stop fighting.

How do the characters reflect your own experiences or emotions?
When I look back at magazines from 10 years ago, I have similar themes that I go back to. It’s kind of hard to talk about. Influences come from the past, present and future. At the end of the day, I think just talking is my way. Art almost teaches me.

I have had PTSD since childhood and am still dealing with it as an adult. Flashbacks of repressed feelings seem to come out of nowhere. As a person who struggles with mental illness, I think drawing has always been a way to temporarily heal some issues. My family didn’t talk about feelings, so it’s very difficult for me to put it into words. I’m really fortunate to have an ability that allows me to express the endless turmoil going on in my mind. I also think that my drawings and paintings take me to a different place because sometimes it’s hard to be present in reality. Of course I have to like the things I create, but when others can relate to it and it can help them feel better, freer and less burdened, that makes me so so so so happy.

Over the years you have developed a very specific style and character. Who is she?
All these girls end up being the same kind of girls. I don’t want to draw myself, but a lot of my friends who see my art do like me you are that. I’ve been drawing forever. I used to make these characters, who were all just friends of each other, and made character profiles out of them. I used to read manga, anime and Japanese comics. You would always start out with profiles for every character that appears in this story. Every time I drew a character, I thought, that’s her name, that’s her blood type, that’s her favorite sport. When I finally studied fashion design, our homework was to design clothes on characters a million times. I feel like that’s where I really started to develop my girl as well.

Are there any specific manga or other cartoons that inspire you?
There is a manga artist, Yazawa Ai. She is my favorite manga artist of all time. Their characters really appealed to me and they were also very interested in fashion. But also, I’ve been really bad at reading books my whole life, so I always would have Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield and Japanese comics just hidden. My father also brought these thick monthly comics with him whenever he went on a business trip. They’re pretty dated, but they have 20 different manga in one print edition every month. I needed something visual.

What made you decide to take the leap from fashion design to the art world?
I actually wanted to be a fashion designer. I grew up in a really suburban town, everything was pretty boring. I would read magazines and look at pictures from the runway. When I wear something a certain way, I figured that was my creative outlet, not drawing. I majored in fashion design and really loved it. I still love clothes and many designers inspire me. It was the recession when I graduated, so there were no design jobs available. As if I couldn’t make a living from it. I’ve still worked in fashion, but not in design. I have more time to just draw on the side and I still do both.

What was your relationship with art or fashion growing up?
My parents were very strict, so I wasn’t allowed to shop much. I had to do everything myself, rebellious. Right now I have orange hair and they would have died if I had orange hair. The city I grew up in was also very conservative and everything was the same. In which mean girls era everyone wore miniskirts and uggs, which doesn’t even make sense. Everyone dressed like the others. I really didn’t like that. I wanted to be different.

Her Instagram handle is @mermaidhair. How long have you been dying your hair orange?
I think orange has been my longest color now. It’s probably been over five years, but I’ve had every other color. When I first colored it I referred to that The fifth Element. Was it Leeloo? The character? That was the orange I wanted.

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