By Kat Chow
UW News Lab
“I didn’t really want to rely on written criteria to do things — to get jobs, shows, or grants — based on schooling,” said 25-year-old artist Jason Hirata, referring to degrees and schooling. “I wanted it to be because of my work.”
Hirata, however, did earn two degrees from the University of Washington (UW) — a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and a Bachelor of Arts in the Comparative History of Ideas — though he doesn’t know when he technically finished college. He could have completed his degrees in 2009 or 2010 — he just isn’t sure which year. It’s a detail that perplexes the young, half Japanese American, who has made his way into the Seattle art scene with a laid back, yet purposeful, approach.
The West Seattle native had an overdue movie from one of the UW’s libraries for about $5 or $15, he said. The fine made applying for graduation more troublesome, Hirata said, sitting in a booth next to the rotating conveyor belt at Sushi Land — the same restaurant where his sister Gobe works.
Though Hirata planned to take some extra classes that had always interested him, he became too busy, prepping his work for various shows, including ones at the Greg Kucera and James Harris galleries.
This is also why Hirata didn’t immediately go on to additional schooling once he earned his degrees. He wanted to prove himself as an artist — to legitimize his practice, he said.
It’s not to say that Hirata doesn’t value art school, though. Next year, Hirata, who recently participated in a month-long program at a museum in Munich, plans to return to Germany to attend the Stadelschule, an art academy in Frankfurt.
Hirata first became interested in art when he was young, through comic books — he wanted to be a comic book artist. Then, he discovered anime and wanted to create that too. Anime happened to kick-start Hirata’s love for Japanese culture, he said.
Things started changing a little when he was in high school. He thought filmmaking would be the best path for him, so he took classes at Bellevue College. He wound up in a photography class. He was hooked, and that’s how he found himself studying photography at the UW.
His work has been featured at the PUNCH Gallery, Henry Art Gallery, Hadreen Art Gallery, and Fred Wildlife Refuge, among other places.
“Bubble Tea,” Hirata’s current show at Gallery4Culture, was the result of an artist grant. The show, which is a series of posters, combines Hirata’s own photos of the Taiwanese drinks with exotic stock photos. It’s part advertisement and also partly a statement about the drink’s entrance into mainstream American culture.
“Bubble tea posters — there aren’t many. There are tons of beer posters, for example, that occupy a specific niche,” said Hirata, pointing to one of the beer advertisements hanging in the restaurant. “I thought it’d be interesting to design in that niche.”
Esther Luttikhuizen, a curator at Gallery4Culture, said that she thinks Hirata’s work is heavily influenced by pop culture.
“He’s really messing with traditional ideas of what art is,” said Luttikhuizen. “And I think the panel chose him because of the reputation he has for doing that.”
Some say Hirata has an understated ambition that’s propelled by his thoughtfulness. His drive to create isn’t centered on making a specific piece of art, but rather, on making something that’s completely loved, he said.
“One realization I had not too long ago is that it’s totally possible for an artist to make works that are undeniably lovable,” Hirata said, gesturing to plates as they rolled by on the conveyor belt. “It’s hard to say what it’d be — I mean, salmon nigiri and California rolls are like, ‘Wow. Amazing.’ Soy sauce, amazing. Water, amazing.”
Outside the art realm, Hirata seems undeniably lovable to family and friends.
“Pretty much everyone who’s gotten to know him [knows that] Jason really likes to take the time to get to know his friends,” said Jeffery Kleppinger, who’s known Hirata since high school.
Hirata especially fills the role of big brother.
“He’s the most thoughtful person I’ve ever met in my life, I think, and he really will just drop anything he’s doing to help his close friends or family,” said his sister Gobe, a UW junior.
The two — Hirata says they’ve collaborated on an art project before — are close. Gobe sheepishly admitted that in the past, Hirata walked out of a final exam to help her get a book from school that she needed for a project due the next day.
Hirata’s dad, a third generation Japanese American who works in the real estate business, is also a talented artist — sometimes, he’ll draw Hirata’s pictures.
Three generations ago, Hirata’s family was made up of farmers. Hirata said his grandmother’s family had a farm on what is now Boeing field.
They first moved from their hometown in northern Japan to Hawaii. They eventually moved to Seattle, and Hirata’s grandparents were sent to internment camps, which Hirata said might’ve pushed his family to become more Americanized.
Hirata said he helps his mother, a voice actress of Swedish descent, record her auditions — that’s his “day job.” They read over the copy and bring it to life together, said Hirata, who looked at a text on his phone during the interview. His mom had landed the voicing gig he helped her audition for.
Just as Hirata strayed from identifying with any specific type of media for his art, culturally, Hirata considers himself a product of his upbringing and surroundings. “Some of my friends consider me white. Some consider me Asian, but I don’t really think I’m either,” said Hirata. “Really, I think, you end up being an amalgamation, no matter what cultural environment you come from … I’m essentially American.”
The next steps
So what’s in store for Hirata, this amalgamation? He’ll continue producing art and exploring his craft. Eventually, Hirata, who was a teaching assistant for seven classes at the UW, would like to mentor or help teach other artists. But he’s also made some noise about opening a restaurant with his sister. To him, the food industry seems intriguing.
Whatever Hirata winds up doing, he’ll do with lots of intention. “For me, being an artist has taught me to do things well, to focus on things.” (end)
Jason Hirata’s Bubble Tea will be on display at the Gallery4Culture until Nov. 25. The gallery is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To see more of his work, visit www.jasonhirata.com.
Kat Chow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.