January 11, 2022 / Eliza Pillsbury
Yellow leaves the world happier than he found it — one burned-out college student at a time.
When asked to introduce himself, Peelander-Yellow is humble: “Hi, my name is Tom Hanks, and I’m a very famous actor.”
Everyone in the room laughs, though a little caught off guard. But that’s his style.
We’ve set up a makeshift hair and makeup station inside Yellow’s studio in an otherwise nondescript area of East Austin, save for the blue, pink, and (of course) yellow mural on the side of the building. He’s in his uniform of yellow overalls and paint-splattered sneakers, beard freshly dyed a fluorescent neon for the Spark feature shoot.
“I came down from Planet Peelander to make you HAPPY!” Yellow screams while our photographer preps her camera settings.
Kengo Hioki has been painting, performing, and making people happy for decades, but he claimed Peelander-Yellow as his public persona upon the formation of the Japanese punk band Peelander-Z in 1998. With four members each sporting a different color, the band carved out an obscure yet popular niche for themselves, and were even the subject of an internationally screened documentary.
Rehearsing with the band became risky during the pandemic (even more risky than usual, for Yellow is known to do stunts on stage), so Yellow has recently dedicated even more of his energy to his painting and mural projects. He’s painted 60 murals across the United States, including 25 in Austin alone. His energy seems inexhaustible.
When did you first discover your love for art?
Drawing was my first friend. My father designed events, displays for a party or festival. We didn’t have much money, and we lived in a very small house. But inside was his art! It looked like Picasso’s style, like, abstract everywhere.
When I was in preschool or kindergarten, I was kind of crazy. [The teachers] said that everybody needed to paint a frog face, and we would do a play for the parents. Everybody’s frogs were pretty, pretty, pretty. Green, light green, a yellow one. But only me, purple and red, crazy frog! My teacher was scared and called my parents: “You have to see a doctor.” My mom went to check my painting and said, “Oh, this is the same as his father. Don’t worry, it’s Picasso-style!” That was my first art problem!
Has painting always been your primary medium?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a comic artist. I went for four years to Osaka University of Arts. My teacher said, “Hey, I know you like comics. Comics are fun. But fine art is more wide, more huge, more incredible, more fun, more crazy, more bad, more awesome, everything.” But my door was closed. I was 19. But when I got to 20 years old, everything opened. And I decided to work with art ‘til I die.
How did Peelander-Z get started?
After I graduated, I decided to go to New York to learn art. I got a scholarship [to The Art Students League of New York City]. So I was happy — painting, painting, painting. But when I got to 30 years old, I had a lot of stress [living] in New York City. Very hard to be[come] famous, to make money, and I had to go to school. And I wanted to scream. That’s why I started my band. I released all of my stress because I could scream, and everybody said, “Yeah!”
Around the year 2000, I decided that I had two ways. One is music making [people] happy, one is art. At that time, I didn’t know [how to do] both ways. I had to decide on one way, and I decided to do the band.
Why did you move to Austin?
I really, really, really, really wanted to move to Austin when I came here for the first time! (laughs) I was shocked. Everywhere: music, sound, film, food, everything. I mean, I liked New York. I had a job, and I had a studio. I had friends and everything. But everything connected in Austin. Almost every year, [I would visit] two or three times, and in the last three years, almost every two months. Finally, I moved here [in 2016].
How do you think your work has evolved over the years?
Around 2000, I stopped painting, and then for almost 11 years, I didn’t do it. But if you could see what I was doing when I was 20, my paintings look the same. I would tell everybody, “My hand is free. I never use my brain when I’m painting.” But that wasn’t true. I was always thinking, and I was so scared about everything. I wasn’t free. But when I started my band — then I was really free. Now I can say, I never use my brain.
Okay, I actually use my brain a little bit before [a project]. 90 percent is pre-production, and 10 percent is happy time for me. Everybody says, “Preparation is boring. I don’t like it.” But if you do the preparation before your performance, that is how you can feel free. If I create something, it is happy to me. But before happy, we need preparation.
What does happiness mean to you?
Communication. For me, art and music is a tool for communication. Even if I’m not painting, I always wear these shoes. Everybody asks me, “Oh, are you an artist?” Then I can say, “Yes! Check out my Instagram @yellowyellowart!” All my creativity is a very important part of communication, and as human beings, we need communication. I want to be a bridge. That’s my goal.
What inspires you, visually and spiritually?
Everything in my life [inspires me]. If somebody said they needed me to paint that machine, [for example,] before, I [wouldn’t] like it. “Oh, no, I like monsters. I like dogs and cats. That machine is too boring for me.” But now, I’d say: “Okay. I want to try.” If I try, I can open new doors, to new styles and new people.
One last question. Why the color yellow?
Why the planet Earth?
I can’t argue with that.
Before arriving at Yellow’s studio, I too could have screamed from the stress of photoshoot season, midterms, and trying to make time for self-care. But by the time I left, my face hurt from smiling. He had the whole creative team clapping along to a song from Peelander-Z’s 2018 album. The lyrics went something like, “Bike! Bike! Bike, bike! Bike, bike, bike, bike, bike. Oh, my bike!” It was the best time I’d had in months.
Yellow loves biking, making art, and making people happy. Oh, and eating tacos. There’s not much more you need to know. He is a man with simple joys, but a big mission. He’s leaving the world better than he found it — one burned-out college student at a time. ■
by: Eliza Pillsbury
layout: Adriana Torres
photographer: Leah Blom
stylists: Jackson Quinn & David Garcia
hmua: Shania Wagner