I don't know much about this area. It used to be called Takecho 竹町 but is now the district of Taito 台東 in the ward of Taito 台東. Satake Shotengai 佐竹商店街 in the center of the district is one of the district is one of the oldest shopping arcades in the country—that depends on how you define a shopping arcade, I guess, because it looked like it was a run-of-the-mill Tokyo merchants' street during its early life, rather than something evoking a Parisian arcade, and it wasn't covered until the 1970s when it was finally rebuilt after being leveled in the Second World War. Satake and the rest of the district feels distinct from the rest of the ward, nothing like Ueno and its park and arcades, or the rest of Shitaya: self-contained, with no gangs of tourists yet, and not many hotels, and not many office buildings around, either. The shopping arcade still has a pulse but doesn't look like it's drawn the interest of developers. I don't have much of a sense of the place, to be honest. But, yes, developers have not really been through to carve up the smaller lots, so there are still plenty of tin-sided buildings, most of them workshops or small factories, some restaurants. And I could have gone anywhere in the city to collect pictures of this corrugated metal siding, but this is where I've been walking, the past week or so.
This wall belongs to, if I recall correctly, what might have once been a workshop with an apartment over top but is now a garage with an apartment over top. These walls are everywhere in Taito Ward, especially in neighborhoods like this. Nothing is very old in Tokyo, and this whole area would have been a scorched wasteland seventysomething years ago, and most of the oldest buildings around here are from the '60s, put up to replace whatever went up temporarily in the late-'40s or '50s, and those shacks were definitely made of corrugated tin, too, and concrete bricks and scavenged lumber and war surplus building materials... It's hard to tell how old buildings in Tokyo are, usually nothing to give them away, unless they're incredibly old (and by that I mean, say, usually early-20th century) or incredibly new, but with these tin-sided buildings, you can usually take a guess, based on corrosion and rust and how much they've been patched over the years.
You can see the contrast. Off-white, brown, beige stucco vs. corrugated metal.
This is further to the north, between Iriya Station and Inaricho Station (I know this describes a huge area). The building that once stood in this empty lot was close enough to the tin-clad building to hide it. The street was formerly home to a number of small workshops, and older homes. The only business still operating on the street is a tofu factory. A new apartment block is going in here, now. Throughout the area, new asphalt has been laid down the alleys, new buildings sit alongside old ones. Most of the apartment blocks went up about a decade ago. The tin cladding marks this building out as belonging to the a former generation. The tin and its corrosion and rust and imperfections and asymmetry look out of place, suddenly, as newer buildings go up all around. I've talked about this before, the grey and beige local skylines of Tokyo, get up on a rooftop and you're in a forest of off-white lowrise apartment blocks, as far as the eye can see—maybe a bundle of office towers in there, maybe the Skytree in the distance. This is what it looks like at eye-level, all the off-whites rising around you...
Look at this: corrugated metal, exposed wiring, campaign posters (this one for a Matsuo Akihiro 松尾あきひろ of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan 立憲民主党). Like a concrete wall with stenciled and stickered xiaoguanggao 小广告 represents the Chinese city, this has to be the Tokyo version of that. This is the Tokyo version of, like, an old dormitory building in Chaoyang spraypainted with banzheng 办证 ads.
Because this is Japan, a land of obsessives, there are coffee table books, blogs and Instagram devoted to this totan architectureトタン建築, and I'm a latecomer to this, just like I am to everything else in this country. The Japanese are nostalgic for the Showa like Americans in the '70s were nostalgic for the '50s and maybe it's like me getting drunk, putting on a Pavement album and watching promotional videos for defunct malls on Youtube—just the innocence of the time (rather than Showa militarism and destruction, more the postwar boom times), the relative wealth and comfort of life under the string of Jiminto 自民党 Prime Ministers, building booms, bubbles... But so, nobody is going to save these buildings, which represent that time, since they're not pretty enough to save and probably not built well to survive a major disaster—these ones are still around because of a three decade economic slump, once the bubble burst.
Up until a couple hundred years ago, this area was a backswamp, a slimy wetland routinely flooded by the Iruma and then Sumida. The name Nihonzutsumi 日本堤 (Japan dike?) might originally have been written as 二本堤, referring to the two dikes in the area, one running between Asakusa 浅草 and Minowa 三ノ輪 and then another from Sanya 山谷 to Shodencho 聖天町. What is now the district of Nihonzutsumi within the ward of Taito was formerly way out on the edge of the city and known as a place that outcastes and other people relegated to the filthiest municipal chores, such as hauling night soil and tanning leather. It was not a safe place to live because it was prone to flooding. Eventually, the red light district of Yoshiwara 吉原 relocated from the center of town, and the entertainment district of Asakusa began to grow a bit further south, but Nihonzutsumi became the center of Sanya, a neighborhood whose name has been scrubbed from maps because of its association with outcastes and later the yoseba 寄せ場, an informal labor market, the doyagai ドヤ街, the collection of flophouses and shortstay rentals for workers, and the criminal organizations, dominated by the Kanamachi Ikka 金町一家, that were based in the neighborhood to act as labor brokers and skullcrackers while also doing side business in extorting workers, prostitution, gambling and loansharking.
The name was scrubbed, the string of building booms that brought workers to the city was snipped by the Japanese asset price bubble. The workers had brought life to the neighborhood and that life was drained out when most of those workers moved on, heading back up north or moving on to Yokohama or Osaka. Nihonzutsumi was still home to older workers that had nowhere else to go, living off benefits in the cheap lodging of the doyagai or sleeping rough in Tamahime Park, but the stigma the neighborhood carried meant that nobody was scrambling to snap up cheap property in Sanya. That's changed as the economy has recovered and the rest of the country begins to empty into Tokyo. Outsiders that don't know the history or don't care about the history are happy to live in a quiet neighborhood with fairly low rents and proximity to transit—that's why I moved there.
When I first moved into the neighborhood in early 2016, Nihonzutsumi was dominated by a long shopping arcade called Irohakai いろは会商店街. I remember walking through when I first arrived and noting its uniqueness in Tokyo, where the streetlife is fairly sedate. The roof of Irohakai offered shelter to the working men that still called the neighborhood home, and they'd sit under its shelter and pass around a bottle on a rainy day, take a snooze in the shadows when it got hot. There were a few cheap bars and restaurants along Irohakai that still catered mainly to those men. But the roof of the shopping arcade came down, the arcade's organizing committee disbanded, and people began selling their properties to developers. In just a few years, Nihonzutsumi has been transformed.
The walls around Nihonzutsumi are an expression of the neighborhood's disorderliness and decay (this is relative to the rest of the city, of course). It's one of the few places to see xiaoguanggao 小广告 like you see in China, stenciled torii discouraging public urination, advertising work or short-term rentals, and, instead of just the usual wall decoration of campaign posters, approved and unapproved graffiti by ESOW and affiliated street artists. There was a short-lived scheme to have the shuttered stores on the arcade painted, but they've mostly faded. The wheatpaste art just off Irohakai, looking back at older pictures, was once a colorful piece that stretched across most of the wall. I have in my notes that it was done by an Italian artist but the only references to it online suggest it might have been done by Swoon, an American artist. The smaller white cutout to the left is definitely her work, and another wheatpaste cutout survives right around the corner on one of the Irohakai shutters (I believe it was a liquor store).
It seems like, maybe in another city, cheap rents around Nihonzutsumi should have brought another kind of gentrification, like.... sophisticated young people who would be followed by coffee shops and vintage stores and remodelers of dive bars? (I'm trying to draw this toward a closing point, so this is a parenthetical thought, so but why did that kind of gentrification not happen? Let me speculate. First reason and crucial, there's not much old housing stock over there. Developers would prefer to build crisp new highrises for people that do their shopping and dining out around distant commuter hubs. Second, the stigma attached to the neighborhood is mostly outdated, but supposedly—and this is just what I've heard—it does remain difficult to do business there for various reasons. Third, it's too far away from anything interesting?) So, I can almost imagine this wall becoming some kind of neighborhood Instagram trap, with the liquor store around the corner being converted into one of those Showa-themed pubs where twentysomethings drink Hoppy and eat canned food. But as it is, as I write this, not having walked by that particular wall in a couple months, it might already be gone, replaced by God knows what but probably an apartment block or maybe a drug store.
I took this picture in 2012 or 2013 in Gongrencun 工人村 in Dalian 大连 (or somewhere else nearby, at least Xianglujiao 香炉礁). I was staying in a cheap hotel in the neighborhood, walking around and getting feel for the place. I don't know what the area looks like now, but back then, it was grey and grim. There was an elevated highway running overhead, with three layers traffic dropping into a massive interchange, then wide roads running out to the airport and the northern suburbs. The uniform red and white or green and yellow signs on restaurants, the blue of the phone shops signs, the patches of brown grass, and whatever other shreds of color in the grey were dimmed by the dust blown in from the Gobi and the quarries north of the city and probably falling from the smokestacks of heating plants.
The city was experiencing a building boom, spreading out into new suburbs, turning portions of the central city into workers' slums. There were alleys of shacks around the laoloufang 老楼房, built from concrete blocks, mostly, and tin and tarps. Rumors had circulated for years of the relocation of residents from the neighborhood and many had already relocated out of more permanent dwellings, heading out to the suburbs. On walls down those side streets, layers of paint, paper and glue had formed over a few short years. You can see them, there: a grey wall, then grey oil paint and white glue and black graffiti and posters, and another layer of grey oil paint, glue, daubs of white, graffiti in black ink, posters, and then another layer and another, strips and shreds peeling away from the concrete or the lower layers, and stuck back down with a fresh layer of graffiti and then a fresh layer of grey paint. The graffiti, the xiaoguanggao 小广告, and the posters and stickers—chengshi niupixuan 城市牛皮癣, urban psoriasis, is the name it's been given—always win out, another layer always builds up.
The walls themselves are beautiful, but the content of the xiaoguanggao is informative, giving a brief look into the anxieties of the people that lived in this particular neighborhood in Dalian in 2012. The main poster is, I think, seeking a missing person, maybe a worker that went north, across the Bohai, from Shandong, lost touch with his family—and who came looking for him? Maybe it was a family friend, a cousin that was working in the city, too, and got word from the family... Who knows! And below that, tagged overtop, someone looking to rent a room with a shared kitchen. It was certainly one of the houses nearby, maybe one of those concrete shacks or maybe a room up in one of the crumbling apartment blocks. And on those walls were always the banzheng 办证 tags, put up by people that could handle the types of documents that a migrant worker in Dalian would need to secure a job or an apartment. The xiaoguanggao go up everywhere, but in a place like this particular neighborhood in Dalian, they covered nearly every surface. The wall itself has surely been knocked down already, along with the rest of the neighborhood.
I took this picture in 2017, somewhere off Hehui Jie 和会街 in Nanjing, a street that runs east to west between Zhongshan Bei Lu 中山北路 and Sanpailou Da Jie 三牌楼大街 in Gulou District 鼓楼区. Right around the corner, there are dozens of similar collections of grey walls, tiled pillars, and other surfaces that have collected years of stickers, tags, and coverups. The banzhengkezhang 办证刻章 ads are there, again, and a poster for a room rental.
I love the way it looks, for some reason. Maybe it's because I am from a place where private property is king and petty vandalism is strictly punished, and I live now in a city without any texture to its walls. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for Chinese cities, sitting here in Tokyo. There's something I love beyond the rough beauty of these fucked up walls, like... maybe what it says about how the country functions? a certain type of community? It's almost like a benign rot visible on the surface, the underground world bubbling up to the surface, an opportunity to see the private impulses and petty scams that underlie the system. And they're the product of dozens, maybe hundreds of people probably unknown to each other, working at cross-purposes: the young men that come through with stickers in the late evening or early morning and other young men with stencils or posters and then whoever is charged with scraping them off and whoever is charged with painting over them.
This was the view out the window of the my apartment in a city in Northern Jiangsu. I think there's probably a Walmart there, now.
I took the picture in 2005 or 2006, maybe to ask what the graffiti meant. I think that probably those characters—办证—were the first two characters I learned to write, since they were among the most common characters to see written in a Chinese city. Whenever I find myself standing at a urinal and have a Sharpie in my pocket, I'll write 办证, along with my first phone number in China, 15951469323.
I like the choice of red, the raking hand on the spraycan that gives each character a slant. I walked recently through several exhibitions of Chinese calligraphy at a museum in Ueno and another in Negishi and none of the work touched me as deeply as that brickwall scrawl.
Everywhere I lived, the walls were tagged, from that shithole in Northern Jiangsu to the pleasant xiaoqu 小区 I called home in Panyu to the filthy apartment block in Datong and every place in between. Always: grey walls with stickers on them, stenciled graffiti advertising the services of plumbers, maybe some more complicated little 4-color posters advertising student prostitutes or dick pills. It's omnipresent. From the hallway when you walk out in the morning, and then on nearly every surface in nearly every xiaoqu, either the xiaoguanggao or the coverups or both, and through every public space in the country.
This is somewhere in Chaoyang in Beijing, probably off Jintai Lu 金台路 or Chaoyang Lu 朝阳路, around that area (beside a shuttered restaurant called Fuji Jiangrou 傅记酱肉, if that helps) where everything still belongs to the People's Daily, I think. The wall is like a Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell painting, and I swear, they could cut that section out before they tear down the building, break it down into a tetraptych and ship it right to the Christie's Hong Kong saleroom.
I stopped beside the wall on a walk from the CBD to Sanlitun to admire the work and also to smoke a cigarette. I was thinking about, like, the elderly caretaker of a People's Daily residential compound coming out sometime in the early-1990s and discovering to his shock and dismay revolutionary graffiti spraypainted across the building—but then he gets up closer and sees it's just an advertisement for fake documents or a shared room. In a decade or two, will people take pictures of the last remaining xiaoguanggao like they do of the faded Cultural Revolution stencils? "The old political graffiti was covered up and replaced with advertising markings that celebrated in their own way the age of Reform and Opening and the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics..." In a thousand years, will people exhibit whatever preserved examples of the form remain, like the rubbings from the Longmen Grottoes that I saw at the Taito City Calligraphy Museum? I guess they do preserve the now relatively ancient graffiti at Longmen, though, right? And they're probably not going to touch the faded Cultural Revolution stencils there, either, right? Maybe a coffee table book of xiaoguanggao for nostalgic urban Chinese, someday.
But, no, probably not.