Racist Ramen

2 Americans and 2 Japanese walk into a ramen shop.  Walking in with a small crew of friends, my buddy Bunt whispers in my ear, “by the way, the owner of this place hates foreigners.”  “Great, are you kidding me?”, I say.  At this point I am already inside.  Too late to back out now.  I turn to help Blunt with the high tech automatic sliding glass door that is held together by duct tape.  The auto part is no longer functional.  A matter of fact the sliding part is inoperable as well.  We pick the door up by the edges and manually slide it closed.  One challenge down, two magic coins added to my bank.  Second challenge.  The ticket vending machine has only two buttons working.  One says regular and one says big.  We go for regular.  This place is a turn and burn ramen shop.  Customers are meant to sit down shut up and eat.  Since we came as a group of 4, including my friends Ota san and Frankie, we were trying to get 4 seats together.  We found 3 and Blunt decided to pull a stool over that was sitting extra by the window.  As soon as he brings it over to the counter the owner tells him to put it back and then sends him to the corner of the counter far away from us.  He was not happy that Blunt moved the stool.  The rest of us keep quiet and keep our heads down hoping to not attract attention to ourselves.  Challenge two complete.  four magic coins in the bank.  I am not fluent in Japanese by any means but I do usually understand Japanese when people speak it to me.  I combine vocabulary, body language, facial expression and reading lips to decipher what people are saying.  Sadly the owner was wearing a surgical mask as he leaned over and said something in a low pissed off voice.  I could not figure out what he was saying.  Was it “whitey go home”?  I look over at Blunt and he says “Just say yes”.  I say “Yes, please” in Japanese and he proceeds to take a baseball size handful of crushed garlic from a bucket on the floor and throws it into my ramen. “Dick”, I mouthed to blunt.  We all sat silent and ate our bowls.  This was trip one to Hasumi for trash ramen.

Second trip, level two challenge.  After the first trip, Blunt tells me he was just kidding about the place being racist and the owner is just perpetually grumpy with everyone.  Yet now we will always refer to this ramen shop as racist ramen.  These guys are serious about their ramen and they don’t want novices like me to fuck up the vibe.  Now it’s winter in Tokyo and we all decide to make a second trip to racist ramen.  This time it is myself, Blunt and our pal Hooky.  The shop has moved a few blocks up the street to a new location.  I guess that’s their M.O., move when the rent gets increased.  Weirdly the windows are covered with brown craft paper as if to keep what they are doing inside a secret.  At least this time, the front door functions.  Once inside we are greeted by the same dilapidated two button functioning vending machine and the stern glare of the two ramen cooks.  They even brought the filthy ventilation system from the old shop.  This time I don’t say yes to extra garlic.  I get it regular.  Within 5 or 10 minutes we are served the ramen.  Noodles rough, handmade, imperfectly perfect, rich spoons standing up straight pork broth and two big chunks of pork on top.  Quite delicious.  A minute or two into eating we heard banging coming from the restroom that was directly behind us.  After a minute of this we are thinking that someone is having sex in there.  Then the banging gets more forceful.  We attempt to open the door but it won’t budge.  The person on the other side is banging and pushing frantically from inside.  We keep pulling on the knob to no avail.  Then suddenly the door burst open after the dude inside had put his should into it.  Pretty typical looking salary man was on the other side of that door.  He apologized and said the door locked from the outside and he could not get out.  The entire time the owner just stood and glared at us.  The salary man returned to his bowl of ramen and asked the owner about the door.  He answers that it does that all the time.  He said most people just leave the door open while using the restroom.  That guy was trapped in there for at least 10 minutes.  We sat back down and finished our bowls.  We poured out on to the street in a frantic search for peppermint gum to extinguish the raging garlic fire in our mouths.

I don’t know what to do but I’m doing this.

Like a majority of the United States I woke up the day after the election in shock and horror. The crazy shit from the current regime is off the charts. I won’t go into each element of bullshit but one stance particularly sticks in my craw: all of the absolute false claims about immigrants. Vilifying Muslims and Mexicans really struck a dischord with me. I have crafted my life around traveling to international locations and getting to know artists and their cities, yet the new oval office temp was telling U.S. residents to fear Muslims and hate Mexicans under completely false pretenses. Sadly like Pavlov’s dogs, the ignorant racists of the United States answered this ringing bell with slack jaws spewing saliva. Like most Americans on that day and in the subsequent days, I felt powerless. Days went by without any real actionable thought on what to do to fight this catastrophe. People around me were posting advice on how to write your political representatives or telling everyone to join their local democratic party and run for office. Everyday someone had a specific action to do or a protest to join. To be honest I’m not really a joiner or a team player so these plans were not going to work for me. Suddenly I remembered what I do. I write books. My books are about exposing foreign artists and their culture to the world. Our post-freedom government was telling America that our neighbors to the south were murderers and rapists who are only here to steal our jobs and deliver drugs. The answer to this manufactured problem, build a wall and ban people from entering the country. Well fuck that. I prefer to get to know my neighbors as opposed to condemning them. The “Tall Trees of Mexico City” will be about getting to know my neighbors and introducing those awesome folks to my United States family.

I have been asked “what city was next?” since the Paris book was released. To be honest Mexico City was not the first place that came to mind. I had been thinking about Montreal, Barcelona and Amsterdam for the next book in the series. I have never been to Mexico City. I have some cursory knowledge about Mexico and its big city but truly like most Americans I am ignorant to Mexican culture. I can’t wait to discover all the nooks and crannies. I also can’t wait to tell everyone else about it. I want to shout it out. Mexico is not the problem, immigrants are not the problem. You are the problem, white folks shaking in dark corners afraid of their own heritage and family story. We are a nation of immigrants. We are mutts. I love mutts, always have. The “Tall Trees of Paris” was started under the cloud of my mother’s death. Her memory fueled me. I have never been more appreciative of the people I met in Paris, for their warmth when I needed it most. This book is being started under the cloud of a shattered United States. I definitely feel helpless and hopeless most days but every day there is a glimmer of humanity piercing the darkness. I hope the Mexico City book will change some minds and build a stronger friendship between our neighbors to the south and us during these dark times ahead. I was raised in the deep racist farmlands of middle America but I knew different. I knew curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Getting to know people is the only way to move beyond the fear. So I’ve picked a fight I guess. I’ve picked my little contribution. I’m doing my part. I want to educate and envelop the voices of fear in a blanket of art and culture.

Charcoal and grease stalactites – Kabuto, piss alley, Shinjuku

I arrived in Tokyo this last year to produce the Ema Show.  I have artists paint Japanese prayer plaques for this show.  As soon as I arrived I knew I was sick.  I had been fighting a cold and the long flight had made it quite a bit worse.  The first 4 days of that trip I spent in bed in my apartment trying to break a fever.  Finally I broke down and went to the hospital.  They fixed me up nicely with pharmaceuticals.  Sadly not the first time I have been to the hospital in Japan.  After 16 years of travel, shit happens and you end up at the Tokyo emergency room.  For those first days my friends kept asking me to go to dinner or lunch.  Instead I mostly ate fruit and convenience store food during that time, supplemented with “Freshness Burger” since it was downstairs from my apartment.  Can’t eat that stuff ever again now.  When I felt better, I wondered how many good meals I had missed out on.  Luckily my buddy Blunt called, and said we should go get dinner to make up for lost time.  I had no idea that it would mean eating 3 separate dinners in one evening.  We had ramen, gyoza and eel that night all with substantial alcohol.  We started early around 5 pm at piss alley in Shinjuku. Kabuto has been around for over 50 years.  My good friend Hooky remembers his dad eating there and later he discovered it.  Now Blunt has introduced the white dude to this amazing place.  The grease film that covered every surface is difficult to describe.  It’s as if someone had used a spray insulation gun to cover the entire shop in a waxy yellowish brown film.  Grease stalactites hung from the ceiling lights and grill ventilation hood. 

A very well-seasoned charcoal grill produced smoky charred sticks of eel.  We went for the course menu.  15 bucks gets you 10 skewers consisting of skin, spine, liver and guts along with regular eel meat. Pair that with beer and hot sake to stay consistently lubricated. The sauce was so nice.  Deep black, smokey with a nice helping of chicken fat.  The crust on the bucket indicated it had been the pot of black gold in this place for well over a decade.  During earthquakes, the sauce bucket is the first thing an owner runs out the door with.  Sorry kids, you are on your own.  Through the curtain in the back I could see plates stacked with skewers of raw eel parts.  The owner’s son was like a machine, a machine that impales eel on to bamboo sticks at a comfortably relaxed rate.  My favorite was the liver.  It complimented the cigarette smoke haze and conversation about where to eat our second dinner of the night.

Blek Le Rat “Father of stencil graffiti”

From Blek’s website – 
Blek le Rat, born Xavier Prou in Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris in 1951, was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and the originator of stencil graffiti art.

He began his artwork in 1981, painting stencils of rats on the street walls of Paris, describing the rat as “the only free animal in the city”, and one which “spreads the plague everywhere, just like street art”. His name originates from a childhood cartoon “Blek le Roc”, using “rat” as an anagram for “art”.

Initially influenced by the early graffiti art of New York City after a visit in 1971, he chose a style which he felt better suited Paris, due to the differing architecture of the two cities. He also stated the influence of New York’s Richard Hambilton, who painted large-scale human figures in the 1980s. Blek is credited with being the inventor of the life-sized stencil, as well as the first to transform stencil from basic lettering into pictoral art.

Blek’s identity was revealed to French authorities in 1991 when he was arrested while stenciling a replica of Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child, with the connection to Blek and his artwork being made by police. From that point on, he has worked mainly with pre-stenciled posters, citing the speedier application of the medium to walls, as well as lessened punishment should he be caught in the act.

He has had a great influence on today’s graffiti art and “urban art” movements, the main motivation of his work being social consciousness and the desire to bring art to the people. Many of his pieces are pictorials of solitary individuals in opposition to larger, oppressive groups. He has also been noted for his series of images representing the homeless, begun in 2005, which depict them standing, sitting or laying on sidewalks, in attempts to bring attention to what he views as a global problem.

Blek le Rat’s stencils distill the essence of the human struggle into poetically concise images. Blek shows clarity in his work, he makes every stylized mark count, yielding art that is at once personal and universal, economical in gesture, and bountiful in statement.
—Shepard Fairey

An excerpt from Blek’s questionnaire and a few images from the Tall Trees of Paris.
Q – Do you travel by subway, car/taxi, scooter, bike or by foot? 
Blek – metro, car, bike. It’s simple and practical.  The subway isn’t expensive.

Q – What is your favorite museum in Paris?
Blek – The Louvre of course because I like paintings from earlier centuries.

Q – What are you doing this weekend?
Blek – I work everyday of the week.  There is never a weekend.

Yes, I can eat that – Manten, Nakameguro

Horumon is gut meat. Offal to the food aficionado. This style of restaurant popped up in Osaka in the 1940’s. Horumon is similar to the word hōrumon in the Kansai dialect which means “discarded goods”. Horumon also sounds like the word hormone which means “stimulation” in Greek.  Horumon is supposed give you stamina.  It’s a bullshit claim, horumon is just good.  As far as I recall I have not had a raging hard on after eating it.  The first time eating at a Horumon restaurant was at a place in Nakameguro called “Manten”.  Manten means “the whole sky” in Japanese.  My spirit guide through the last several years in Tokyo has been So Ieki, aka Blunt.  Blunt is the co-owner of Hatos bar in Nakameguro.  Hatos serves American style real pit bbq.  Blunt makes what I consider the best bbq in Japan.  Blunt also knows Tokyo, Blunt knows food and Blunt knows I eat anything.  Manten is small.  Maybe 8 counter seats and 4 or 5 tables on the 3rd floor of a non-descript building on Yamate street. Just a minutes walk from Nakameguro station.  There is a tiny compact car size kitchen with a few men in white prepping and slicing as we enter.  As soon as we sat down I felt the stare from the owner.  We sat at the counter directly across from where the food was being prepared only a couple feet away.  I was on the left, Blunt on the right.  Immediately the owner looks directly at Blunt and asks if I know what food we are about to eat.  He is assured by Blunt that I do know.  My Japanese is shit by academic standards but pretty good by “bullshitting” and fucking with people standards.  I understood what he was asking so I chimed in with “I’m OK” in Japanese.  He wouldn’t even look me in the eye.  His gaze went back to Blunt.  He then says “I don’t think he will like this” and “I have had trouble with serving foreigners in the past”.  I understand and try to sneak in through the back door to get in his good graces by noticing that he was slicing up pork liver and asking in Japanese if that is indeed pork liver?  He nods in disgust. I then pipe up like a 6 year old and say “I like liver”.  He again stays focused on Blunt and says “I don’t think he will like this”.  Blunt gets a bit more serious and explains to him my Japanese credentials and assures him that it will be fine.  After 10 or 15 minutes of this passive negotiation we are allowed to order food.

Thank god we were being served shochu lemon sours during the negotiations.  I was very booze relaxed for the tense moments.  We asked for the chefs choice menu.  Course after course pushed across the counter starting with shredded raw pig stomach in a vinegar based sauce and shredded raw pig liver in a soy/sesame sauce.  Sadly last year, the Japanese Government banned restaurants from serving raw pig liver.  One guy dies and ruins it for everyone.  After that we took a trip from the pigs ass all the way up to his brain.  The liver and throat parts were ridiculously good. Some things were cooked and some were pulled directly from the operating table and presented in their natural state.  On that night we won the lottery.  The owner had scored the pig brain at the meat market that morning and everyone at the counter was going to share in his good fortune.  Pig brain needs to be served fresh.  It quickly goes bad so not many places serve it.  He pulls a rectangular plastic container from the fridge and opens it in front of the counter gallery.  The creamy white brain of our meal was inside.  Small sections were cut and placed in ramen soup spoons and drizzled with rice vinegar and sea salt as well as some other secret ingredient.  We are all served at once and we suck the brains down in one gulp like frat boys doing shots after a round of high fives.  Creamy and firm like tofu.  Super good.
Pork stomach and liver

Nose to tail

Pork brains

The owner had kept an eye on me all night.  I made sure to overreact in my appreciation of each course like publishers clearing house had just knocked at my door.  A small price to pay to keep the dude off my back.  One last lemon sour and it’s time to go.  The owner walks us to the elevator as if he is sad to see us go.  He gives me and Blunt his card.  I give him my card and Blunt sans card explains that he runs a bar in the neighborhood and that I own an art gallery.  We chat like long lost friends for a bit and head out into the night.  On each subsequent trip to Japan without fail, I eat at Manten with Blunt.  Nine times out of ten I don’t have to pass the foreigner test unless there is a new guy working.

Pork liver lightly seared on the outside

Raw pork liver                                

Yaki Onigiri

Poached pork liver

assorted throat parts, stomach parts and some assorted muscles and tendons

 Motsunabe (gut stew)

Tall Trees of Paris book release


Help us celebrate the release of The Tall Trees of Paris book at Gigantic Brewing Saturday April 30th.
– Books will be available for purchase that will include a limited edition post card pack featuring artists in the book.
– Art exhibition featuring the work of artists from Paris
– French delicacies will be served
– Champagne bottles will be sabered
This event is 21+
Gigantic Brewing Company
5224 SE 26th Ave, Portland, Oregon 97202

Ikumi Nakada – Saitama, Japan

1. Ikumi Nakada
2. November 2nd, 1982. 32 years old
3. artist, a member of the artist group “GAZOKU”
4. Omiya city, Saitama. I was born and raised here. It’s a good place to live.
5. Home or Kissa-ten, the Japanese style coffee lounge. I want to have
coffee and kissaten original menu like Neapolitan pizza toast, and
coffee jelly.
6. I don’t have any place to drink regularly because I can’t drink
alcohol. I often go to Chinese restaurant and Izakaya with my friends.
I don’t drink but I like bar food and side dishes.
7. I go to Omiya or the neighboring town Urawa to buy small
things. I feel free when I go there and it is my favorite art museum in
8. I draw while watching TV. I eat snacks, relax and draw and watch TV…
I keep doing these things. I really don’t “watch” TV. It’s like BGM. I
like the old reruns like  TV dramas, travel programs and comedy shows.
9. I find the late-night open kissaten and indulge in thought while
drinking coffee. I like being bored and being absent minded.