In the short time Akira Ohiso has lived in Seattle, he’s already picked up on two polarizing issues in the Emerald City: homelessness and gentrification. The emerging artist relocated here with his family last summer from upstate New York.
“The glaring issue of seeing the homeless community was very sort of in my face when I came here. It stuck out to me so strongly,” Ohiso said. “That’s connected to the gentrification.”
Ohiso is interested in psychogeography, which is the practice of meandering around urban environments to study the effects of geography on people. While Ohiso explores city streets and vacant spaces, he takes photos of scenes that catch his eye. Through a drawing app, he uploads a photograph then recreates the scene by drawing lines and sometimes adding colors. From muted abstracts to simple black-and-white digital drawings, each captures different characteristics and characters in Seattle.
“I was always interested in artists who use more of the unconscious or automatic drawing style,” Ohiso said. “I tend to just draw and see what comes out of it.”
This month, his artwork is on display at Populuxe Brewing in Ballard. More than a dozen 18-by-24-inch works are a part of his first solo show. The pieces include “Night Mariner,” which features a bearded man playing an instrument on a street corner near Safeco Field. He’s wearing a Mariner’s jersey and shades. Presumably it’s game day, but in Ohiso’s work the scene is simplified to the man, a building, a light post and a single car.
Ohiso’s favorite is a piece titled “Sleeping in Seattle,” which he said features a powerful juxtaposition outside the Museum of Pop Culture, formerly the Experience Music Project, at Seattle Center. In it, the wavelike shiny exterior is transformed into a subdued black and grey flat wall.
“It reflects all this kind of stuff around its environment. The sleeping person that was there kind of blends into that museum. It talked to me a little bit about the invisibility of people who are experiencing homelessness,” Ohiso said. “If you’re not careful a lot of social issues can just become the fabric of a place and we forget about it.”
Seattle is becoming known for, if not synonymous with, homelessness and gentrification. The 2016 One Night Count tallied 10,688 homeless people in King County. The number includes people living on the street, in shelters and in transitional housing. The growing crisis is compounded with a median cost of rent at $1,800 per month in Seattle. Plus, construction cranes have become a permanent fixture in the city’s skyline as new buildings replace longtime charming structures.
Ohiso is the son of an artist, has a BA in Art and a Master’s in Clinical Social Work. Throughout his career he’s worked with older adults dealing with a myriad of issues including poverty, HIV/aids and the criminal justice system.
“I work in direct services with clients. I try to empathize with people who are having struggles in their life,” Ohiso said. “The social work during the day informs a lot of what I think about. They’re very connected.”
He recently returned to the field after co-founding and editing Green Door magazine, an upstate New York publication promoting green living.
“I’m going to try to be as helpful as I can in helping people have more equality, opportunities and access to things they should be getting,” Ohiso said. “Especially in these political times, I want to be doing instead of talking. I want to be doing things to help. The culture for years now has been a lot of armchair activism. Putting an article somewhere online or Facebook or whatever, you feel like your job is done. I feel like doing would have more of an impact than talking about it.”
Given his artistic eye and work with vulnerable populations, Ohiso gives his audience another way to think about their surroundings.