A sell-out exhibition at the British Museum has proved once again the popularity of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, whose Great Wave is said to be the world’s most reproduced image. One mural in south London was nearly wiped out when a drug lab exploded next door, but as Alex Marshall explains, there are many more on walls around the world.
In 1997, Dominic Swords, wanting to shake-up his life, went on a personal development course. One part of it required him to lead a community project. “People were abseiling down buildings to raise money for charity. I’m not the sort of person who does that one bit,” he says.
He wasn’t an artist, but he always liked the idea of painting a mural. “I remember going past them with my parents, looking up and just thinking they were the coolest things ever.” He owned a house with a wall big enough to paint one on, so he decided that would be his project. “That was the easy bit,” he says. Deciding what to paint was harder.
One night, he discussed options with a friend. He had decided it had to be something natural – murals of people “always look rubbish”, he says – and had been thinking about a tree, swaying in the wind. But the friend said, “What about a wave?” And then both had the same thought: “How about that Japanese one?”
For 20 years now, Swords’ house in Camberwell, south London, has had a copy of Hokusai’s Great Wave (or Under the Wave off Kanagawa, to give it its actual title) painted across its back. Just as in Hokusai’s original – which master cutters carved into multiple blocks of wood, so it could be printed again and again – the wave is cresting, dozens of foam fingers stretching out from it. But on the house it looks as if it’s about to break into the alley below, and drench anyone passing by, rather than drench the sailors Hokusai painted in three wooden boats.
This is one of a surprising number of murals worldwide that copy Hokusai’s most famous work, originally part of a series called Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. You can find them everywhere from Paris’s catacombs to a Croatian schoolyard, Washington DC to a Bristol street (where a blood red wave is being stared at by telescope-wielding aliens).
How did it come to be something people would want on their home?
Christine Guth, author of Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon, says its initial success was partly down to the use of the intense Prussian blue ink that was then new to Japan – “a promotional device” which was probably the idea of Hokusai’s publisher. Somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 impressions of the work were made from the original woodblocks and sold in Hokusai’s lifetime in Japan, she says, making it “a considerable success”. But it took off globally for a whole host of reasons, she argues, including the fact that the picture can hold whatever meaning you want it to.
“It’s about movement, creation and destruction,” she says. “It can be threatening, it can be about determination.”
It can even be humorous, Guth says.
“When I first saw Dominic’s mural, I started laughing because the wave seems to be about to pour down on people who’re going to walk through that alley.”
Before starting his painting, Swords went into a nearby mechanic’s workshop to check no-one there had any objection.
The garage was owned by a “very truculent Greek”, a chain-smoker never without a greasy cap, he says. “My greatest fear was people would say it was an eyesore or dismiss it as an art school project.”
But when Swords said he was going to paint a mural, the man simply asked, “Which image?” Dominic reached into a shopping bag to pull out a book on Hokusai, but before it was half way out, the mechanic went. “Oh, Hokusai! The Great Wave? I’ve etched that in glass.”
The mechanic turned out to be much more of an artist than Swords. He provided advice on how to paint the mural, even lending Swords a projector so he could take the carved glass and beam the image on to the wall.
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One night, Swords says, “after the pubs closed, we projected the Wave up there, and, half-cut, scrambled around on the scaffold, with pots of black paint, and did the outline. It looked amazing just like that.”
Over the next fortnight, locals and passers-by helped finish it off.
“Kids and mummies would grab a paintbrush and do a little corner,” Swords says, although he admits he became “a little proprietorial” and regularly touched up their work.
The mural instantly transformed his street.
“This alley was where people came to shoot up [drugs] or look through handbags they’d just stolen – literally, you’d find empty ones lying outside. And to create a little bit of beauty in that, which people see and smile… It completely fulfilled the idea of the course that you can create a community.”
The scruffy surroundings seemed quite appropriate for a work that Hokusai began when close to destitute, at the age of 70, bankrupted by his wayward grandson’s gambling debts. In the British Museum’s exhibition, there’s a drawing of Hokusai, showing him with a lice-infested quilt in a room littered with food wrappers.
But 15 years later, a local ne’er-do-well almost blasted the mural to kingdom come. In April 2012, Miguel Carmona Gutierrez, a 42-year-old from Seville, was busy stirring chemicals to make crystal meth in a flat underneath the painting, when something went wrong. The explosion that followed was so loud, armed police quickly arrived fearing a terrorist attack. Gutierrez ran from the remains of building, his clothes on fire, and had to be put out by a local who grabbed a fire extinguisher from his girlfriend’s hair salon. It took five fire engines three hours to tackle the blaze.
“The first I knew was when a friend phoned and said, ‘Your flat’s exploding,'” Swords told a newspaper at the time.
A third of the mural was burnt off, the rest damaged by smoke. But within weeks people were working together to get it back. That October, local community groups and the London Mural Preservation Society put out a call for volunteers to help repaint it, and even managed to get Dulux to donate the paint.
Swords, in a Facebook post, suggested including “the element of fire” in the new painting, to acknowledge the explosion.
When the new mural took shape the following February it included an exploding Mount Fuji – a reference not only to the fire but also to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.
The Washington wave house
One night in the summer of 1974, John McConnell called on some fellow students in Georgetown, Washington DC, and over a bottle of “very nice wine” they wondered what could be done with the blank wall on the side of the building. McConnell suggested Hokusai, and the others quickly agreed.
“Just as I was finishing, someone who was a professor of Asian art set up shop in the alleyway there, and she delivered a whole lecture about Hokusai and the compositional techniques of this particular work,” John says.
It has since become known locally as the Wave House. People have had wedding photos taken alongside it. The building’s current owner recently emailed John to tell him the plaster was beginning to crack and asking how it could be repainted. “It’s so public now, so many people seem, in their heads, to have a stake in it.”
Why has the mural struck such a chord with the community? For the simple reason that Hokusai’s image is timeless, Swords says. “It’s like a Mozart tune – it’s high art but it endures because of its simplicity. It is so simple, but it has such movement. It has power, but it also has grace.
“A lot of people might be dismissive of it – it’s a Hallmark card – but it really says something when people want to put a picture on their walls. You wouldn’t want the Mona Lisa or The Scream on your house, would you?
“When you see a mother walking past and her kid looks up excited to see what it is, open-mouthed, that speaks for itself.”