People love retro styles; whether it’s the bright, neon style of the 80s, or chic, modern style of the 60s (à la Mad Men), people love to revisit old fashion and art.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t too surprised when I started finding modern artists doing old-school, Japanese woodblock art. Even though it’s been hundreds of years since woodblock art was popular, even today people are falling in love with the old Japanese style all the time.
Art From The Floating World
Whether or not you know it, you undoubtedly have some Japanese woodblock prints seared into your mind.
Everybody on earth has probably seen The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the dramatic painting of a giant wave crashing into a small fleet of boats. It’s an instantly-recognizable, classic Japanese piece of art, and really only the tip of the iceberg.
The Great Wave is just one of many woodblock paintings like it. During the Edo Period of Japanese history (1600s-1800s), these prints, called ukiyo-e, were everywhere.
Ukiyo (浮世) means “the floating world,” which is kind of a weird term. What people meant by “the floating world” was life beyond the ordinary; the kind of exciting lifestyles of urban entertainment, like geisha, kabuki actors, and other entertainers.
These prints gave ordinary people a glimpse into the the glamor of the big cities that they might not normally see.
(The “e” in “ukiyo-e” just means “picture.”)
The depictions of the “floating world” wasn’t necessarily why ukiyo-e were so popular. The reason for that is much more straightforward.
Because the paintings were created from woodblocks, it was easy to cheaply make hundreds of near-identical copies. This meant that unlike most traditional art, which would be one-of-a-kind, woodblock prints were produced in huge quantities.
You suddenly didn’t have to be wealthy or versed in art to buy a piece of art for yourself. Ukiyo-e made art accessible to basically anybody.
Even though it’s been hundreds of years since the heyday of ukiyo-e, people are still strangely attracted to the art style.
Modern Woodblock Art: Video Game Characters, Crabigators
Nowadays, modern artists from around the world have embraced the ukiyo style as their own, tackling new subjects beyond old Japan’s “floating world.”
An artist by the name of Jed Henry has been getting a lot of attention recently for his classic video game inspired ukiyo art. Instead of depicting geisha or Mt. Fuji, his woodblock-style picture show scenes of Mario, Megaman, and Link.
Even thought video game characters aren’t quite what artists were making in the Edo Period, the style is pretty dead-on. And it’s the little details – like Mario’s lotus Fire Flower – that make these pictures great. You can find all of Henry’s paintings on his Facebook page.
There are tons of other artists who use the old Japanese woodblock style in their own art. Take Kim Roberts, who did a wonderful woodblock-style WaniKani illustration for us, uses the style in other ways too.
Check out soccer player turned kappa Nakamura done in the ukiyo style.
Even though these paintings have been updated with modern subjects and settings and aren’t even made with woodblocks anymore, in a lot of ways, these new ukiyo-e stay true to the original intent.
They show fantastic things that you wouldn’t normally see, and thanks to the magic of the internet, they’re accessible to pretty much anybody.
Ain’t technology great?