"It's not surprising that Butera's closing, since we never upgraded to all the modern equipment needed to stay relevant, but it's pretty funny that it's happening now," says Jimmy "Spike" Birmingham, Nakayama's mentor and a Butera teacher for 16 years. "With guys like Kenji and Josh Luke (of Best Dressed Signs in Jamaica Plain) out there, all of a sudden tons of people are really interested in what we do. The last big thing was motorcycle graphics around 2000, and then that died out. But now everyone wants to get into hand-lettering and pin stripe [the detailed, nearly calligraphic line ornamentation that's part of much of Kenji's work], and it's unbelievable because there's no place to go anymore."

Taking a turn at Toyota

Most young middle-class men from Hokkaido don't have many career choices. Some work in the local car and paper industries, running machines or welding auto parts in factories. Others escape the northern island's punishing New England–like winters for Tokyo where, for those fortunate enough, educational opportunities open doors to more upwardly mobile options. No matter where they end up, though, Nakayama says it's customary to remain in your first job until retirement, rewarding or degrading as the duties may be.

Like most of his friends who grew up in a strong Japanese economy, Nakayama left for Tokyo early on. At 17 he enrolled in the Musashi Institute of Technology, where he spent four years studying engineering and learning to make mechanical parts for various products. Without much career vision, he landed full-time employment at the age of 21, designing units for a water filtration company in Tokyo. Everything was as expected — "It was going well," he says — until the filter business was swallowed by a bigger corporation, and Nakayama, still fresh out of school, got the axe.

"After that I got another job at Toyota for a while — working basically in accounting — checking other competitors and trying to find out what could be done to make things cheaper," he says. "I didn't really know what to do — my father worked for the same company as an engineer for more than 30 years. . . . It wasn't overnight, but finally I just realized that kind of job was not what I needed."

By this time Nakayama was 23, and certain that he didn't want to work for a behemoth company where engineers were disposable. He started thinking more like an artist, believing that his creations should bear his name and influence. While at Toyota he'd begun researching the demanding and precise artistic aspects of manufacturing that are becoming lower and lower priorities in the automated mass-production era. Nakayama says the precision-goods industry — everything from tools to dashboards — is increasingly reliant on machines, foregoing the detailed elements that have historically been left to trained artisans.

Spurred by a love of motorcycles, Nakayama began stenciling around 2003. His first rudimentary spray-can creation was a geometric logo splashed on his friend's white Triumph Scrambler. Nakayama's interest in craft went back at least as far as the day his father taught him to form a tin can into a makeshift lantern by knifing slits in the side. He was still thinking of art along utilitarian lines, but that was enough to motivate him to drop everything and leave for Boston.

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Related: Photos: Kenji Nakayama's work, All over Boston, artists, radicals, and entrepreneurs are finding new ways to work — together, Photos: Renzo Piano's new wing at the Gardner Museum, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , STREET ART, Signage, art features,  More more >
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