CHOB-ONE is a graffiti writer and graphic designer based in Japan. When I met him for the first time, I was a student enthusiastic about dancing. It was the 2000s, during the golden age of Hip-Hop in the Minami area of Osaka, better known as ‘America-mura’ for its namesake influence. There were many kinds of parties and dance events. CHOB-ONE and I joined as organizing member for an event named “Conquest,” held by a common friend. We handed out flyers together – I was a dancer and he did live painting. I never expected that we would meet again as interviewer and artist.
CHOB-ONE／common name チョビ（Chob）
Born in Osaka, CHOB-ONE started graffiti art as a teenager. He joined several live graffiti performance events, practicing in front of an audience. Later, he moved to Tokyo to work as a graphic designer. Now he serves as a director for a Japanese company called POC Co., Ltd. which makes advertisements for companies, artists and so on. However, his main work is designing CD jackets for famous musicians. He has worked with Avex management, Universal Music, Being, Sony Music, and other famous clients. On the side, he has continued his graffiti.
Learning the Street Craft
Chob’s office is in Ebisu. The interior design is constructed in an industrial style, with aging doors and artistic walls painted by Chob’s friend. The first time we met, he’d been dressed in baggy, oversized clothes, a classic Westside b-boy style; now he has blonde hair and is covered in tattoos, all of which he designed himself. Chob’s tattoos are a major source of his self-identity. It’d been a long time since we’d met, so we talked about what life’s been like and our common friends. And then we started to talk about his story.
“Did you like drawing?” I asked.
“No, my grade for drawing in school was 3 (equivalent to an American ‘C’) and I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t have any dreams or ambitions. For me, I was okay to just have fun, living in the moment. I started dancing with friends and listening to a lot of Hip-Hop music. We would go to clubs — back then there were no regulations like there are now. But I soon realized that I had no talent for dancing.”
“[As a kid] I wasn’t good at [drawing]. I didn’t have any dreams or ambitions. For me, I was okay to just have fun, living in the moment.”
He smiled innocently, as if he was still young.
“At the time, hip-hop music was flowing into Japan, and the most popular style was hardcore hip-hop mixtapes. The four elements of hip-hop are MCing, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti, but there was almost no one doing graffiti. Out of the four, I was most interested in graffiti. In the beginning, I was just killing time.”
He learned about graffiti by absorbing the information he gathered from hip-hop and music magazines. He often practiced drawing on the paper of a comic called “JUMP,” while on the train going to America-mura.
One day, he went to a shop he’d read about that sold spray cans and graffiti paraphernalia. He showed his art to the owner, WA2. WA2 was a graffiti writer responsible for driving the Japanese art scene. From then on, WA2 advised Chob’s graffiti, giving him tips and helping him learn. Chob remembered when WA2 would see his graff and chide him, saying “That’s poor!”
Sometimes Chob would go to places where WA2 was drawing. Everything was new and exciting. Through these connections, he got a chance to do live painting in clubs, like Neo, where we had met.
Every time I went to America-mura, he was there. He was called the “Resident of Sankaku-Koen.” Sankaku-Koen, a concrete park shaped like a triangle (in Japanese, Sankuku means triangle.) Due to being in the center of America-mura, it was the place where people used to meet and hang out.
Chob reflected, “I was in America-mura every night. Bar Melt was our favorite, and we would see dancers, rappers, and people who were interested in street culture. When I walked the town, I would often run into friends coincidentally. I liked that atmosphere, where I knew everyone and we liked the same things.”
Graffiti: A Criminal Love
Chob told me that he always had a guilty conscience when he indulged in graffiti and spent days doing street art. He lived the opposite life of ordinary people. He worked out of sight at night, and was asleep when people started to wake up. In Japanese culture, it is frowned upon to break the rules, and especially to break the law.
“I would prowl around town at 12am looking for a good place to paint. I bombed places from 2 to 4am, making my presence known to other graff artists. I was careful because some people start jogging around 4am During that time, graffiti writers were increasing and some crews were being born. We’d all compete with each other to get up.”
“If you thought a piece on the wall was inferior to yours, you would draw over it. But if your work wasn’t as good as the original piece, you could be excommunicated from the graffiti world. You had to be careful not to disrespect those better than you.”
Chob continued, explaining the mentality of graffiti writer; “For example, if you thought a piece on the wall was inferior to yours, you would draw over it. But if your work wasn’t as good as the original piece, you could be excommunicated from the graffiti world. You had to be careful not to disrespect those better than you.”
He told me that sometimes he would go over other graffiti pieces, and the same thing would happen to him. A lot of writers were beefing for clout. Chob compared it to diss track battles between rappers.
One day, he ran into a problem. While he was on the way home, a police officer asked him what his job was – and then arrested him. The incident upset many of his family and friends, and with it came social shame. Chob felt like he was in hell. From then on, he swore to himself that he would do everything he could not to hurt the people he cared about. However, he didn’t want to stop doing graffiti. He decided to just find a different and less dangerous way.
Chob was heavily inspired by the work of the graffiti artist THE SEVENTH LETTER. He was amazed that the graffiti in the US and Europe seemed to be well-received, while in Japan graffiti was hated and ostracized. Japanese culture would never accept graffiti on public buildings and objects. He’s often thought about changing the Japanese art scene, to make the art he loved more acceptable.
Around that time, one of his dancer friends got him a gig drawing graffiti on the back wall of a local TV show, which would lead him to a new mentor. After Chob finished the wall, the TV producer asked him, “What are you going to do from now on?” He answered, “I want to do graffiti.” The producer suggested that he should learn about design first, and introduced Chob to designer Kenichi Suzuki. Kenichi has worked on artwork for several famous Japanese bands like ZARD and WANDS.
Chob went to Tokyo and learned design from Kenichi. Three years later, he was scouted by a major design company and became an art director. After working there for some time, he went independent. He now manages a design company with some friends.
Halfway to a Dream
To this day, Chob continues to paint while working as a graphic designer, but the designer life has changed his stance on graffiti. In the past he would just bomb the street with tags, but now he has greater ambitions; Chob wants to do art on a bigger scale. Still, although his style of graffiti and career have evolved, Chob still couldn’t shake the sense of guilt – until the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011.
Chob volunteered during the recovery, using his painting skills to help boost morale. He told me, “I did live painting as a volunteer. When I did a body art for a young boy who had been hurt in the earthquake, the boy began to smile. He was having fun despite the trauma. This is encouraged me. I realized I could do good works with graffiti.” With this, he finally began to let go of his graffiti guilt. He thought to himself, “what I like to do is not wrong.”
“What I like to do is not wrong… I want to make a place and region where artist can express themselves freely, on the streets.”
Chob still hopes to change the Japanese art scene. While street art and graffiti have gained some acceptance, there are still only a few places in Japan that understand street culture. While dance and rap are trendy, in his opinion, these two crafts are not for the street, but for the studio and school. “I want to make a place and region where artist can express themselves freely, on the streets.”
Chob hopes to train future young artists and help grow Japan’s distinct style in the street art scene.
“As a graffiti writer, there are some expressions and styles that are unique to Japan. I don’t paint in other countries; I’d rather master my craft here. I’m proud to be a Japanese graffiti artist.”
As we finished our interview, I asked his motto as a graffiti writer and graphic designer.
Chob smiled, “Don’t compromise. Never be satisfied.”
“Don’t compromise. Never be satisfied.”
Learn more about Chob-ONE here.
To see more of the author’s work, check out her personal site.