Ukiyo-e is a category in the age-old craft of Japanese woodprinting. After being relatively dormant for the majority of the Twentieth century, the art is in the process of getting rediscovered by a completely new generation, as a result of Ukiyo-E Heroes, a collaboration among American illustrator Jed Henry and British craftsman David Bull that reimagines popular video game heroes in medieval Japanese style.
The Ukiyo-E Heroes venture started with Jed Henry. Utah-born artist and illustrator, Henry is a self-described japanophile who was aiming to merge his interests in life– Japan, video games, and illustration–in a way he sensed was important.
Henry spent his youth on a steady stream of video game titles. Employing his absolute favorites as inspiration, he developed a desire for illustrating and consequently attended a college for animation. He was very fascinated by the work of Dave Bull, a traditional wood block printer, and for that reason he reached out to his sensei to find out about working together. Two years later, they began working on a project named Ukiyo-e Heroes. With Henry’s illustration and animation background and Dave’s block printing skills, they have produced a remarkably unique collection of art.
The heroes are attentively illustrated and produced. Initially, they seem like traditional prints, but a closer inspection uncovers that it is a Koopa Troopa pulling Bowser on a rickshaw, and that is Link killing a dragon with a bow and arrow.
“A lot of the design decisions of these old ’80s Nintendo games are inadvertent descendants of Japanese woodblock printing,” Henry tells Co.Design. “Instead of painterly renderings, Japanese game designers would use black pixel outlines and color fills. If classic games like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda were made in Germany or America, they’d look very different, but because of ukiyo-e‘s influence in Japan, they have a distinct style.”
That the centuries-old Japanese artistic traditions has been reawoken by two caucasian guys from the West could be viewed as co-optation of the traditions. Having said that, ukiyo-e have long had an known impact on Western aesthetics. Impressionist artists like Monet and Degas were to a great extent inspired by the color, lines and subject material of the form.
Henry’s artwork is absolutely magnificent and he is consistently creating new pieces. He even has a subscription service, where his supporters can get a brand new hand crafted print each and every month. The prints are sent straight from Tokyo and go to supporting the training of Bull’s apprentices, which assures the continuation of this classic art style.
Similar work in style is done by Andrew Archer, who instead of focussing on video games, instead drew inspiration from the world of basketball.