Senju Shunga on His Evolution, Classical Shunga and Instagram
Marijn Kruijff
10 min

Senju Shunga on His Evolution, Classical Shunga and Instagram

10 min

It has been two years since our first interview with the coveted neo shunga artist Senju Shunga (1968). How has he been doing in recent years? What is he doing to reach his audience? How has his art evolved? This and much more in our extensive conversation with this Swedish shunga magician. Some of the questions were suggested by the loyal contributors Darya and JB.

1) How would you describe your evolution as an artist since our last interview in 2018?

The main development is that I went back to digital painting full time. I had a full year where I intensively studied traditional Japanese Nihonga painting techniques and even though I absolutely love the materials and the art you can create with those, I finally realised that I have a quirky zig-zag way to get from A to B. With analogue technique I was constantly starting over and over and I had a hard time completing any works.

So I went back to digital and it felt really at home and great. What was an extra added bonus was that I now could apply all the knowledge from the Nihonga technique into my digital work. It really changed everything!

I have also worked hard at developing new personal techniques in order to reach the result that I want. This often consists of using the painting software in completely strange ways. Actually, the most important mentors for my digital work are Kawanabe Kyosai and Katsushika Hokusai. It’s their painting techniques that shows me the way ahead. They were of course both long dead and gone when digital showed up, but I like to think that such dedicated and groundbreaking artists would have been interested in digital painting as well. For them painting was an absolute necessity in order to stay sane and I feel that if they were still alive they would be busy breaking down barriers and kicking in artistic doors still.

senju shunga ghost painting

Shuushi (autumn Melancholy)‘ (September 2020)

I have also stopped tattooing completely and now paint only. This speeds up the time frame of my artistic evolution and allows me to focus better. My imagination is constantly getting more and more powerful and experimental and I really enjoy just going along of that ride.

Also, me and Anna Sandberg (my life partner) started our own online gallery where we sell our own art to the public. I cannot say that I am becoming wealthy from being a painter. Far from it. In fact, I have been going backwards in salary the whole time and now I am back to just a little more than I made at the transition from tattoo apprentice and professional. It doesn’t really matter though, since I am a subscriber to minimalist ideas and don’t require much to be happy. If you want to make a living on what you love then make sure to cut down on unnecessary spending and bills. Own very few things. Things require maintenance and usually this means both time and money lost for no good reason at all. We get by with our gallery and we can pay rent and food.

Anna, by the way, makes great old style shunga as well as traditional Japanese ghost paintings. We help each other out and feed of each others creativity. In between us we manage everything with the gallery: printing, website, shipping and marketing. It is a lot of fun.

In the gallery we price the prints so that most people can afford to get something. In that sense I am like the ukiyo-e artists whose work was enjoyed by all levels of society. Almost everyone could afford to buy a print back during the Edo period in Japan. I have always liked that idea. I want my work to be seen and enjoyed by as many as possible. it would be terrible if I made a painting and then some rich person bought it, perhaps as an investment, and then it stayed hidden from the public.

“Botan Dōrō” (peony lantern) by Anna Maia

Botan Dōrō (peony lantern)‘ by Anna Maia (aka Anna Sandberg)

ghost painting by anna sandberg

Chimamire (bloodstained) ‘ by Anna Maia

2) In our previous interview, you said that lots of people don’t devote themselves to art because they lack the time or want to conform to the standards of society. Indeed, it happens quite often, but sometimes people quit their artistic activity or even don’t begin it because they realize that, in fact, they lack talent. You may know the words of Chirico complaining that he ran out of ideas too early but lived too long. Have you experienced something like creativity block and if yes, what helped you to overcome it?

The word talent is often used in the wrong way. It seems to me that many people believe that if you are a good at making art then you are somehow born that way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Making great art is mostly about constantly working like a mad person, trying not to give up when things are not working out the way you planned (which for me is almost never, hahaha!) and of course it’s about seeing! Seeing is the most important part. Having visions and believing in them. I think that’s where most people give up.

Looking inside yourself at all the art that just swirls around and awaits its birth is something that needs to be nurtured. It’s easy to think that it’s something you can’t do. I believe that is mostly a psychological and social thing. Most people are led to believe that they are not capable and if you tell a child that art is perhaps not a good career choice, then they will believe you. The damage is done. It’s very tough to break free of the person your parents, family and society creates. Usually you have no idea that this even happened and you go around thinking that You are You. Which is seldom the case.

senju shunga art

Kaishun” (Return of Spring)

Look at it this way. Up to a certain age almost every child can paint and draw. Tell them to draw an elephant and they just do it. It might not look like any elephant you have ever seen but they don’t care about how it’s supposed to look. It’s an elephant to them. The best elephant in the world!

Then we send them off to school in order to make good little citizens and workers of them and all that art gets lost. Why? Because the adult world doesn’t regard art as real work. Maybe art reminds the adult world that they too have lost that elephant somewhere on the way and now they have to do what other adults with more money and power tell them to do. Adults are usually impressed with art if it’s either really old, very realistic or really expensive. Kids love colors. That is a big difference.

I haven’t really suffered any art blocks. Perhaps this is due partly because I have kept my imagination alive and happy since I was very young. Or the fact that I don’t let anyone but myself define me. I don’t really know for sure.

Sometimes I can loose focus temporarily. Usually this happens when I start to imagine that I should paint what people want to see. After all, I pay my rent by painting pictures. Nowadays I catch it really early in the process and say ”Fuck that!” and paint what comes to me instead. Perhaps that is why I at times seem to stray from my path and suddenly incorporate Art Nouveau in a piece. It just has to be done regardless of what the viewers and followers on Instagram would think about that.

senju shunga art

Fuji no. 37‘ (Work in progress)

I am also not very into subjecting myself to self criticism. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that everything I do works out great or answers up to my vision of the piece. But I don’t hold myself accountable and I really try hard not to judge myself or talk down to myself. I just move on to the next thing. It would be really strange if everything I started ended up amazing. Actually very few do. It’s simple. Thrash is thrash. Throw it away. Do something else. Start a new piece and let that stubborn painting that don’t want to happen lie in a box until it’s ready to come out again. When I throw old banana peels in the garbage I don’t walk around thinking about them later. They’re gone.

I also don’t believe in failure. The word is ugly and all too easy to use on things that are far more complicated than simply failing. What people get totally wrong is that they strive against change and somehow believe that there is something called ”normal” The universe and reality changes every micro second and that is a relentless fact that just wants to be your best friend.

3) Have you ever been disappointed with what you do? If so, how’ve you compensated this feeling? Do you feel like a “maniac” who wouldn’t stop painting even if his works became repetitive, or you’d quit your activity in case if you felt your artistic identity was fading?

About one in every four paintings end up on the scrap heap. Or rather they go to rest a while in the folder on my hard drive that reads ”Resting/re-paint”. There can be many reasons for that but usually it is due to the fact that my vision and idea was to complex for my current skill set or experience. But I don’t see that it as a disappointment . It’s rather like ”Hmm, why won’t it work out the way I wanted?”, and after a short break and a few deep breaths I say to myself ”Well, now carry on. Straight ahead!” and I start something new.

It goes without saying that I can look back at work I did three or four years ago and think ”Jeez, what was I thinking doing it like that?”. Then time travels on and a few years later I can see that piece for what it is. It becomes a part of my personal history as an artist and I start to treasure it instead.

I am a ”maniac” that would never stop working but I feel that if I am open to my personal evolution and growth as an artist then my work will not become repetitive in that bad sense. Over the decades there has been many versions of Senju. Musician, tattooer, writer, photographer and now painter. I have learned to truly enjoy and become energized by these transitions and shifts and without all the prior excursions into various creative fields, my work would not be what it is today.
Again, it is the ability to accept change paired with the immense pleasure of learning that enables me to constantly progress and find new avenues.

senju shunga sentaku

Sentaku (Laundry)‘ (October 2020)

4) How is your status on Instagram at the moment? I read in one of your posts that you received some warnings from them?

Instagram is a vital tool that helps me to reach an audience I would never have been able to without the platform. Since I do create contemporary shunga it is a natural thing to be censored on social media. Even though I know that displaying penises and vaginas is against their rules, it nevertheless becomes frustrating to be almost constantly shadow banned and have your posts deleted. The algorithm of the platform runs on AI and therefore is not very intelligent , hahaha! It has become harder and harder to attract attention from your own followers due to a myriad of little tricks the owner Facebook applies to keep the peoples attention. It has become like a minefield where even using the wrong hashtag can get you in trouble.

I think the most offensive and frustrating part of the whole thing is that Instagram allows people to report your post anonymously. This is the same thing as when totalitarian regimes use its ”concerned citizens” as an extended thought police. If someone has it in for me on a personal level they can make my life really miserable. This year it seems to me that this has happened more than a few times. Certain images gets specifically targeted and in a way that one understands that this is somebody reporting your work.
It is especially sour when one sees all the hate and violence that slips through the moderation of the platform. And the god damn internet trolls! All these men with private accounts, no profile picture and zero followers that spend copious amounts of time ventilating their uneducated, hateful and immature views and ”truths”. If I post something with the hashtags #feminism or #toxicmasculinity it’s just a matter of minutes before they show up. It is a said reminder of the state of minds that are nourished by social media platforms. Suddenly everybody has a view on a subject and they act immediately and without thinking twice. Instant gratification is a strong drug indeed!

senju shunga intercourse close up

Detail of ‘Sentaku

You can check out the exciting second part of the interview by clicking HERE….!!

Let us know your thoughts on the interview in the comment box below…!!