Culture The Life Of GuiAfter a tumultuous past in Japan, artist Gui Martinez explains why he now loves his adopted home.
- Words & Images Gui Martinez
At 18, I moved to Japan because I wanted to be in a place where people valued the same things I did. I figured I’d find more diversity and open-mindedness there than in Brazil, where I had limited options as an artist. I’d never been to Japan and knew little about it, but I had a gut feeling about Tokyo, a mysterious and fascinating city. I needed a revolution in my life so I moved, only to learn that Japan isn’t as welcoming as I first thought. After ten years, though, I finally found the beautiful pockets of diversity and incredibly open-minded people I was looking for.
I moved to Tokyo to start a new life focused on photography and art, planning to work as an assistant to a photographer or art director. In Japan, though, assistants typically don’t get paid, and they live at home with their parents’ financial support. My first year in Japan, 2006, tested my limits. Young, inexperienced, and unable to speak the native language, I earned money by working in factories, bars, nightclubs … wherever I could. I moved around between Ikebukuro, Kawasaki, and Ogikubo, which are all places I wouldn’t consider living now; sometimes I stayed out all night, looking for an internet café to sleep in. I took a job as a DJ at a slimy nightclub in Korea Town, where cute hostesses gave attention to horny men, laughed at their shit jokes, lit their cigarettes, and made them think they might get lucky. I had never DJ’ed and played salsa, merengue, and reggaeton; it was so bad. Fortunately, I found a better job in a club in Roppongi where I worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. While I had intended to attend a Japanese school after I arrived, I didn’t have the time and convinced myself that these life experiences would help me grow.
I swam against a tide of people telling me to do things in a more conventional way, to follow the template of "how to be a photographer.
I got to know myself through those difficult times, being completely outside my comfort zone. I learned my limits, what I’m capable of, and how strong I can be— feelings that would eventually blossom into increased confidence and self-worth. At the time, though, those feelings took a toll on me. After one year in Japan, realizing I ended up further from the art world than I had been in Brazil, I left, traveled Europe for months, and ended up in London, where I lived for a year. I landed a paying job as an assistant for an art director, and life slowly started moving uphill. I liked London and struggled to see a future in Japan. I didn’t think I would ever move back, but I was dating a girl from Tokyo. Half British, she would visit me often, and as we grew closer and our relationship became stronger, I decided to move back to Tokyo.
This time, the country felt different — a lot more forgiving. New opportunities popped up, and while I struggled to work full-time in photography and art, I had a better footing than I had two years earlier. I found calm by surrounding myself with people outside of the dirty nightlife scene. I worked as a chef at a Mexican restaurant, I acted, I modeled, and I played drums in a few bands — quick jobs that paid well and gave me free time to focus on my personal work. I carried my Leica M4-P everywhere and shot rolls and rolls of film every single day.
Making my way towards where I wanted to be, I swam against a tide of people telling me to do things in a more conventional way, to follow the template of “how to be a photographer.” Photographers in Japan typically work as an assistant for years, then “graduate” to start their careers. I taught myself, which made it difficult to earn professional credibility, but I persisted. I shot a wide range of styles for my portfolio and focused on producing the best possible work with a personal touch. I explored analog photography and fell deeply in love with film. Soon my clients started hiring me to shoot in my own style, and I felt grateful that people understood my vision and trusted me.
Through years of ups and downs, I learned a lot about what motivates me, what helps me grow, and what my creative self needs to be happy. I learned that in order to produce something I’m proud of, I need to have a balanced life. When I’m not shooting for a client, I’m on a motorcycle trip, or surfing, or simply drinking with a friend. I surround myself with people I love and do something I feel good about that fulfills me. Being in different places and meeting different people inspires me, helps me better understand myself, and is the backbone of my creativity. Traveling through Japan is how I see all this clearly. I can travel in any direction and find myself surrounded by culture, beauty, and kindness.
After 10 years in Japan, this is my home. It’s a place to be inspired. I love it here. I often escape to a rented beach shack, where I surf and ride motorcycles, and I can’t get enough of Japanese cuisine. It’s not always easy living here — I’ll always be a foreigner, no matter how long I live here — but it’s Japanese traditions and practices that make this place so special. That took me a while to understand, and it’s why traveling around the country, from big cities to small country villages, has become an obsession of mine. Locals are proud of their country, and I’m proud of Japan’s culture and how it helped shape the man I am today.