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Interview With Naruki Kukita

By Kyoko Sato, November 20, 2023

Fusing classical depictions of sensuality with Western and Japanese influences, Naruki Kukita's art results in a fresh and unique approach to expressing himself. In tandem with Bushwick Open Studios, Kukita inaugurated the "Naruki Art Dojo," coinciding with the event last September. Stemming from the establishment of his studio, he is now opening his doors again to present "Self Exposure" (Nude self-portraits), running until December 3rd at 184 Noll Street, Brooklyn 11237.

We sat down with him to discuss his background, the factors contributing to his popularity, and his life in New York.

Japan Contemporaries (JC): Congratulations on the opening of the Naruki Art Dojo! We can feel the enthusiasm and love with which you care for your students from the way you have structured your studio as a gallery to exhibit their works. That is the reason for your charisma. What made you decide to open a dojo?

Naruki Kukita (NK): I opened my studio before this year's Bushwick Open Studios. Open studios is an annual event where artists open their spaces for a weekend. Last year, I had a few of my own works in my possession. But this year, I didn't have much of my own work on hand, so for the first time, I opened my studio to showcase my students' work as well. The students loved it and invited many of their friends, making it an even livelier open studio than in previous years. At that time, I realized that having a place to showcase their work would motivate the students to create. As the number of students grew and we were thinking of moving to a larger studio, we started looking for a commercial space to rent and fortunately, we found a good place where we could create and also use as a gallery.

JC: Why did you choose Bushwick, the Mecca of artist studios?

NK: I’ve been based in Bushwick from about 2010. At that time, rents in Manhattan and Williamsburg had skyrocketed, and artists were flocking to Bushwick. Now, Bushwick rents have skyrocketed and are more than double what they were in 2010. Every year, other artists have to decide whether or not to stay in Bushwick.

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​Photo by Jake Price for Japan Contemporaries.

JC: How many students do you have now? What is the gender ratio of each of your students? Also, what are their occupations?


NK: I have about  eight or nine students. At the moment, I only teach one-on-one. So I try not to have more than 10 students, because if I have more than 10 students, I would not be able to devote enough time to my own art. I also get a lot of requests to take online classes, but so far, I have had to turn them down.

I try not to ask my students about their gender identity, so I don't know exactly what their gender is. The occupations are diverse, ranging from graphic designers, architects, stylists, photographers, and other creative people to those who are not. I  also have current art students from Parsons, NYU, SVA, and other art schools who are not satisfied with their school programs. I’ve taught people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, including Americans, Koreans, Mexicans, Poles, Turks, French, Israelis, Australians, Indians, Brazilians, and many others. I believe that this racial diversity is not a coincidence. Because we are in the same situation as foreigners, there is a part of us that can relate to each other.

JC: Why do you only offer one-on-one private lessons?


NK: I have taught groups in workshops and other settings, but I find that the students are much more focused when they work one-on-one. Each student has different needs, so private lessons are the best way to get the best out of them. That said, private lessons are not economically rational, so if you think about it as a business, you should probably consider group lessons or online lessons. That’s my dilemma.

JC: What do you focus on when you are teaching a lesson with your students?

NK: "What's happening on the canvas right now?" That's all. I think students sometimes compare themselves to other students, but I am not conscious of evaluating their qualities or skills, only how we can work together to solve the problems in front of us. I have a lot to learn from them, and I think I may be the one who grows the most through the lessons.

Sean Ford with a pocket monster, 36 x 24 inches, oil on linen, 2022

JC: Why and when did you come to New York? How did you get your visa? 

NK: After graduating from an art college in Japan, I came to the U.S. in 2006 to become a fine artist because I was not comfortable with the commercial art work I had started in Tokyo. I came to the U.S. on a 5-year student visa, attended language school for a year, then attended the Art Students League and the National Academy of Fine Arts, and after finding a job as an artist assistant during my OPT period, I started my own business and now have permanent residency.


JC: I learned about Naruki last year (2022) at the Art Students League, curated by Eric Shiner, or rather, I was transfixed by your tremendous energy. How did you meet Eric, and have you had other collaborations?

NK: Someone had shown Eric my work and he contacted me via email. He and I would be happy to do something together again.


JC: I had the honor of exhibiting with you this past July, how did you feel about being part of this exhibit?

NK: I was happy to be able to participate in a show related to Japan, as many of my Japanese friends have gone back home and I have not had much contact with Japanese people recently. So, I am looking forward to participating in an art fair in Kyoto in October. (Presented by Peter Augustus gallery in Dallas, TX at Art Collaboration Kyoto, Oct 28-30, 2023)

Naruki 20231013.00_37_59_14.Still002-topaz-standard4x-no den-denoise-enhance-2x.jpeg

Photo by Jake Price for Japan Contemporaries.​

JC: Your style of following European and Japanese classics and adding animation to the comic book form is exquisite. When did you start and how did the idea come about?

NK: I started at the beginning of 2017. Before that, I had admired and studied Western art, but at the same time I had the dilemma, "Why do I, as an Asian, imitate the West?" On the other hand, as a modern person, I could not suddenly express myself in the ancient Japanese style because I did not feel a sense of reality. I believe that Japanese culture has always been a hybrid. In ancient times, it imported culture from China, and in modern times, it imported culture from the West and not only imitated it, but sublimated it in its own unique way to create something new. When I reviewed my background, I thought that this hybrid nature was realistic for me, and I arrived at the technique of putting different expressions on one canvass.


Photo by Jake Price for Japan Contemporaries.​

JC: Naruki, you have generously praised sex without making it taboo, for example by using porn actors as models. Can you tell us about the background behind this?

NK: Most of my models are friends. I don't go out much these days, but I often ask friends who are Go Go dancers or porn actors that I made during a time when I was drinking four days a week to model for me. They are easy to ask because they are less afraid of being naked. Sexual expression is both a cultural challenge and a challenge to myself to make sexual diversity acceptable in society. Some people link the content of my work with my personal life, but in reality there is a big gap.

JC: Looking at the canvasses, the viewer definitely senses that Naruki has combined the things he loves to the fullest. This conveys fun, joy, and freedom of ideas. That is why my eyes were initially drawn to your work. How did you manage to reach such a daring and cutting-edge state of the art?

NK: For me, I think it is a style that was born out of bitterness when I was in a corner for many years without any recognition, rather than out of positive emotions such as enjoyment and joy. When I was in a corner, things that had been buried inside me may have erupted. Of course, I would be happy and honored if the viewers of my work feel positive emotions.

JC: Have you ever had a request from a woman to draw nudes?

NK: Not yet, but I will take commissions when they come in.


JC: What are you concentrating on right now?


NK: Lately I've been spending a lot of time updating the gallery space. When I do a show, people bring flowers, and I realize that I need a vase to run the gallery, or when it rains, I realize that I need an umbrella stand, etc. So every day I am slowly building up my awareness of the obvious. These days, when I go to other galleries, I can't help but notice the lighting and the way the walls are set up.


Naruki Kukita and his student Sean Bonney. The painting on the easel, left, is a portrait of Bonney by Kukita. Photo by Jake Price for Japan Contemporaries.​

JC: And what do you want to do in the future?

NK: I vaguely think that in the future, it would be easier for me to concentrate on my own production if my students could inherit my skills and teach.

JC: What is your ultimate goal?

NK: The current art scene is far from equal, where only the children of the top 20% of wealthy families can pay huge tuition fees, go to prestigious art schools, belong to powerful galleries, and have a ticket to success as an artist. Eighty-five percent of the art market is white male. My dream is to break that status quo and bring art education and equity of opportunity for artists to society.

JC: Excellent! What is the secret to your survival as an artist in New York?

NK: I am afraid I am speaking only from the landscape I have seen, but I believe that in order to survive as an artist in New York, it is important to separate the problems on an individual level from those faced by society. There are barriers that cannot be overcome by individual talent and effort alone. One of the ways for minority artists to survive is not to blame themselves more than necessary, but to share the recognition with other artists who are in the same situation, and to think about how to overcome the problems of the society together.

JC: Do you have a message for future artists who want to come to New York?

NK: Be more successful than me and help me. That's what I always tell my students.

The week after this interview in September, I also visited his class. The student was Sean Bonney (31), who works in architecture and also did the interior design of the dojo. When I asked Sean why he decided to study painting with Kukita, he replied, "I wanted to learn Naruki's style. His technique is great. Plus, the combination of classical and contemporary is very appealing."

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