Big eyes and cultural misappropriation 

I had an interesting conversation with my nephew the other day, he was telling me how over the years he has learned to read bits of Thai and Kanji and how often he has read the most offensive things tattooed on to the skin of European tourists. A lot of people, in many countries around the world don’t take kindly to their cultural heritage being trivialised for the sake of other people’s amusement and when drunk tourists turn up trying to get inked with something that is considered sacred to their culture, they may not like what they walk out with if they could actually read what it says. As the world has become more connected and a greater level of respect has been fostered for other cultures and their beliefs, it is becoming less acceptable to run off with big lumps of other people’s heritage and use them for disrespectful purposes. I’m very attuned to this for a number of reasons, the first being that I spent two years sleeping in the same room as a shrine.

My sister in law is from Cuba and her faith is an interesting one, it’s called Santeria and its beliefs come from West Africa via the Spanish slave trade. The shrine consisted of a large rock, with cowrie shell eyes, covered in bead necklaces and surrounded by iron objects and various offerings. The offerings caused merry hell as they were often sweets and kinder egg toys which my then three year old nephew would constantly run off with which would in turn cause disrespect to “her people” who were the spirits she believes in. Santeria bares a great deal of similarity to voodoo, hoodoo, vodon and all the other variation of African religions imported via slavery. The original West African religions would often get mixed up Catholicism or the various aspects would be represent by catholic symbols such as saints and the Virgin Mary, the most common being Saint Peter, the bouncer at the pearly gates of heaven becoming Papa Legba, guardian of the underworld. I know enough about all this stuff to show it a healthy level of respect and not to piss about with it. This unfortunately means that the last week of February in Hastings where I live is now like chewing tin foil with the bastardisation and import of the Fat Tuesday festival where the New Orleans Mardi Gras has been dragged some six thousand miles east to fill the pubs with punters whilst underpaying the local musicians. 

I guess most people regard me as an old fart but I regard stealing the bits you want of someone’s historically based festival whilst leaving out all the boring religious bits is highly offensive and ignorant. To me, you might as well make crucifix dildos or star of David frisbees or maybe start serving ground beef vishnu burgers in McDonald’s. As far as I’m concerned its wholesale cultural theft and should be treated as such.

I’ve  struggled with this issue on a number of occasions as a lot of what I do is heavily influenced by Japanese culture. Fortunately the area of things big eyed and kawaii, which is my primary area of influence has developed as a conversation of influences between the east and the west, from Bambi to Astro boy, from Margaret kean to marine boy, from dalek to murakami, the eyes have got bigger and bigger and the knowing combination of wide eyed innocence with a much darker undertone to the creation of guro or guro kawaii (grotesquely cute). I doubt whether one in three hundred people truly understand the reasoning behind why I do what I do but it is part of something that, though still obscure, is a much larger phenomenon. There are side issues though with my desire to do something long term relating to Chinese tales regarding Sun wukong, the monkey King, but as Takahashi Murakami is currently working on a version on of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Popes series I figure it’s all just variations of the same conversation. Providing it’s done with respect for the original material it shouldn’t be a problem. 

That is the key word though, respect, and sadly, when booze enters into an equation there isn’t much of that left. 


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