One person whose finger is firmly on the pulse of social events is Sho Shibuya. Calling NYC home since 2011, Sho is a multi-disciplinary graphic designer-turned-artist who’s New York Times covers in response to the events of 2020 and 2021 (literally) rewrote headlines.
From the tragic murder of George Floyd and the resulting resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, to depicting the hues of environmental disasters earlier this year, Sho’s art deals with politics and turns them into art. By painting the cover of the New York Times, Shibuya’s art made a statement without any words at all, and quickly gained traction online. His work has come to define the last couple of years.
As well as his politically-motivated NYT cover artwork, Shibuya took to documenting each morning’s sunrise on the cover of the New York Times, too. And as much as we don’t want to revisit the doom and gloom of lockdown, it gave rise to some inspiring art. Managing to turn what would’ve no doubt been a front page of endless bad news into a hopeful canvas of gradient colour, Shibuya’s art came to define an otherwise utterly despairful era. His process is equally as meditative: taking a day to layer colour shades and gradients on the front page until they match that specific morning’s sky. The series, dubbed ‘Sunrise from a Small Window’, came to symbolise the unwavering fact that this too shall pass; that the sun will always rise tomorrow.
Now, luxury fashion house Saint Laurent has tapped the artist for an exhibition in Miami, which will exhibit 53 of the sunrise paintings in a gallery on Miami Beach. As it opens this week, we hit up Sho to talk through his art, inspiration and how he’s tackling the plastic pollution crisis.
Hey Sho, thanks for speaking with us on such a busy week for you! Talking of which, your colour block artworks on the front of the New York Times have caused quite a stir. Can you talk us through these artworks – the first one you did, inspiration and how the project has blossomed since then?
Thank you so much for having me here.
My first painting on the front page was back in April 2020. The city had just gone into lockdown. I was stuck in my small studio apartment in Brooklyn. Everyday, I was absorbing the bad news, wondering how I could adapt to this new normal without feeling overwhelmed!
Some days passed and I realised that from the small windows of my studio, I could not hear the sounds of honking cars or people shouting. I could hear the birds chirping energetically and the sound of wind in the trees, and I looked up and saw the bright sky, beautiful as ever despite the changed world beneath it. I was intrigued by the contrast between the chaos in the world and stunning sunrises every day. I started to capture the moment in the newspaper, contrasting the anxiety of the news with the serenity of the sky, creating a record of my new normal.
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They definitely captured that central contrast. So was painting an art form you have always favoured, or did you start in a different area of design?
I was learning architecture and interior design at a vocational school in Tokyo, and a friend gave me Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. was immediately into it. I learned how to use it by myself, created posters and stickers for my friends and family, and still remember how they reacted. They were excited about what I designed, and that emotion led me to follow the path of a graphic designer.
When I graduated, I applied for around 50 design jobs all over Tokyo but was rejected for everything. Maybe it was because my portfolio seemed like a hobby, just doing small things for friends and family. Also, I didn’t have an art college diploma, but my first job was working at an architectural studio. It was a great learning moment as a freshman, although frustrating because I knew I really wanted to be a graphic designer.
I kept working on my graphic design portfolio after work hours. Ten months later, I decided to quit. Luckily, I found a job designing magazines at a publishing company in Tokyo. That’s how I landed to start as a graphic designer!
That’s interesting. Did your background in graphic design equip you with a certain creative process, then?
I think so – I spend a lot of time researching to understand what the problem is. If you don’t know the problem, it’s impossible to find a solution. Execution is not the most critical process. I prefer the concept over the visual.
I think that really shines through in your work – you can tell the conceptualising stage is really strong even in the final product. Moving on to Placeholder, which is doing some really interesting work to try and tackle the global plastic pollution crisis. How much of a concern is sustainability for you and your work?
My non-profit project “Plastic Paper” was a passion project that merges cultural observation with ecological activism. At first, it was a yearbook that preserves anonymous design heritage while nudging single-use plastics into retirement. Since the start, it has evolved into a broader creative platform for sustainability projects, and I’ve used the Plastic Paper brand to explore new materials, process designs, and other ways to reduce plastic waste.
The core idea is “Mottainai,” a Japanese concept that I was always taught by my family and culture, which is basically the avoidance of waste, or that every object has purpose and meaning. Hopefully, this project influenced the belief.
I think a standout from that project was the biodegradable bamboo bag – can you talk us through how this design came to be?
The New York State banned single-use plastic bags, and this was supposed to start on March 1, 2020, so this project was in anticipation of that. But before it was postponed, we learned that the ban wasn’t quite airtight. There are loopholes that allow restaurants and other places serving uncooked or prepared foods to continue offering plastic bags. We wanted to find an alternative for all of the lunchtime restaurants; those meals of convenience, when the bags are used for around five minutes before they’re thrown in the trash. That led to the Biodegradable Bamboo Bag, a novel design we discovered in Taiwan and recreated using renewable, sustainable bamboo fibre instead of plastic. The design allows a single sheet of fibre to cradle your lunch without any wasted space or material (in fact, over 75% less material than a standard paper bag), and it’s safe to compost or dispose of when you’re done. Our hope is to find a partner to produce the bag at scale, to help reduce the single-use plastic pollution problem that falls through the cracks in the bag bans.
You’ve already touched on seeking inspiration from your window for the lockdown sunrises series, as well as upcoming bills. How would you characterise your main forces of inspiration?
Yes, it would be nature and politics.
Do you have a favourite project you’ve worked on?
Anything meaningful using creativity to try to change the world for the better. Plastic Paper, mentioned earlier, was one of them.
What’s next for you?
Painting tomorrow morning.