NEW: to print and use a stencil by Gomyo, click here.

The world's attitude about graffiti has come a long way since the days when New York mayor Ed Koch called it "a plague on society." Lawmakers aside, most of us are now aware that, with the right intention, graffiti can be beautiful, meaningful, and fun.

Graff writer Gomyo knows something about "right intention." A Buddhist priest living in Japan, he's working to bring the Dharma to the streets, through a movement he calls "Hoodie Monks."

Here, Gomyo sits down and talks with the Horse about it all.


So, what exactly is a Hoodie Monk, and how many are there?


There are four "official" members of the Hoodie Monks right now. All of us are ordained monks who are interested in street culture as an expression of Buddhist thought. I'm the only one actively doing graff on the streets. I have a few [graffiti] writer friends that are interested in Buddhism. Some of them are using Buddhist imagery in their work. One of them has become my student and seems to be on the path to getting ordained. I am on the verge of expanding Hoodie Monks into a full-on graffiti crew and will invite those writers to join. I just heard of another Buddhist monk in another part of Japan that also does graff and I'm in the process of getting in touch with him and finding out if he is interested in joining us.

What's the reaction been like around the streets of Japan?
 

The stuff that I do in the city is treated like any other graff and is buffed regularly, regardless of any Buddhist content. People have been programmed to think that graff is just the scribbles of bad kids acting out and I really don't think most people even look closely enough to get the message I'm putting out there. That may not be true everywhere, but I think it is in Japan.

On the island of Shikoku, where I did a walking stencil tour around an 1100 km
Buddhist pilgrimage route last year, using the stencils as trail markers, the reaction was very positive. I was doing the stencils in broad daylight, not trying to hide it at all. A few times locals asked me what I was doing and when I replied that I was putting up trail markers for the pilgrimage route the response was always something like "Good job, keep it up." Whenever another henro (the word for a pilgrim on this specific pilgrimage) would see me doing the stencils, the response was usually something like "Oh, you're the one doing that?  Thanks.  They have really been helpful." Once I bumped into a group of three western henro, an American couple and an English woman, who treated me almost like a minor celebrity. They told me how they had been taking pictures of the stencils and wanted a pic of me holding the stencil itself because, as one of them put it, "this is gonna be a legend someday."
 

GOMYO: "This is a stencil of a kongo katsuma, an esoteric ritual implement. This one is painted on a utility pole on the island of Shikoku. I painted about 1200 of them around the 1100 km Shikoku pilgrimage trail as markers last year, over a six week period."

[Want to try your hand at using this stencil? Click here.]

 


Can you tell us more about the "Shikoku Project?"


The Shikoku Project is an ongoing research project, partially funded by Shuchi-In University in Kyoto, that is aimed at combining street culture with Buddhist culture, using the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which has its own sticker and marking culture, as the canvas, and recording the reaction in both the Buddhist and graff communities.

How have people reacted to this campaign? How do you want people to react?

I've gotten mad props in both communities as well as on the street in Shikoku. I hope that, through this project, the average joe on the street can gain an appreciation for graff. I also want to show graff writers another way to express themselves that is totally hardcore bombing, yet can be constructive, and maybe even introduce them to Buddhist practice. I started a crew called Shikoku Street Kings and the only way to get in is to walk around Shikoku, doing trail marker tags all the way. The first aspirant is walking around the island as we speak. SSK was an early form of the Hoodie Monks concept and will [end up] being a sub-group of HM.


Just how secretive are the Hoodie Monks? Obviously, you don't wanna get caught, but at the same time, you do post pics of yourselves on-line. Do people know who you are?

So far the Hoodie Monks project has been more [about] a hip hop attitude toward Buddhist practice than an actual street campaign so there hasn't been much of a need for secrecy. That may change as more writers join the project.
 

"This piece is of an orange bubble-style sanskrit seed syllable ham (kan in Japanese), with a couple of characters and the words oni bong. It was painted in an abandoned hotel in Kojima, Okayama, Japan.

"Kan is the seed syllable for Fudo Myo O (Acala Vidya Raja). The seed syllables are an important part of esoteric meditation practices. Oni Bong is a graff crew in Japan that I write with. Oni means devil or demon in Japanese and an aspect of the symbolism that I am studying right now is that it also represents gnosis, which in religion is often associated with the devil and given a bad rap, kinda like graff writers.

"Bong means . . . well, I'm sure you got that part of it."


How did you come to the Dharma?

I was searching for something to help me out of a dark period in my life and had gotten really interested in Taoism. That led me to Zen and later to Shingon Buddhism. Meditation literally saved my life.

Can you say more about that?

Well, I probably woulda died from some accident or offed myself in some other way if I hadnt calmed down a bit at one point.

Is Gomyo a Dharma name? If so, what does it mean and who gave it to you?

Gomyo is the name given to me by my first Buddhist teacher when I was ordained in 2000. Go is the word for enlightenment and can also be read as satori. Myo(u) means strange, mysterious or wonderful, as in Namu myouhou renge kyo. So my name can be translated as mysterious (or, just plain strange and hard to get) enlightenment. A good name for a graff writer monk, I think. There are plenty of people who just don't get me or my expression of the Buddhadharma.

Well, sure -- and people are often surprised to see Buddhist imagery in street art. (Many say they are when they see it on the Horse, for example.) How do you react to people who think that graff is just vandalism?

Graff IS vandalism if you are doing it right!(^-^) [See here for an explanation of that emoticon.] But it is also so much more than that. One of the best stickers I have ever seen said "Vandalism is High Power". Some people can't even see the struggle for power in society, let alone understand how graff and other forms of unsanctioned (in other words, not paid for) expression fit into it. I learned a long time ago not to worry about convincing those people. It's the ones who are on the edge, who know that something is very wrong in society -- even if they don't know what it is or what they could possibly do about it -- that I am trying to reach.
 

"This is of Santoka, painted at the same hotel as the kam/oni bong piece [above].

"Santoka (1882-1940) was a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, haiku poet, and wanderer.

"He was a forerunner of the Hoodie Monks in attitude and expression.  He was very much 'of the street', though it had nothing to do with hip hop, of course."

 

(To learn more about Santoka, click here.)


In what other ways does hip-hop (or any other cultural thing you're into) inform your Dharma practice?

 

I love traditional chanting, especially the way we do it in Shingon, and brush calligraphy and the other classical forms of Buddhist art. What I am trying to do now though, and this was heavily influenced by first hearing the Beastie Boys' "Bodhisattva Vow," is to use all four of the so-called elements of hip hop as forms of expression of Buddhist ideas. I am putting together a hip hop morning ceremony that uses rap as a form of chanting, hip hop beats in place of the traditional drumming, graffiti mandalas, and choreography that incorporates mudras into b-boying (hip hop dance). 

I also think that the whole hip hop attitude of "just don't give a fuck" and questioning authority fits perfectly with the Buddhist attitude of free inquiry, though my take on what it means to "not give a fuck" probably differs from the average gangsta rapper's.
 

"This piece shows the seed syllables for the thirteen Buddhas revered in Shingon buddhism. It is painted on the wall inside my house in Kojima.

"To me, the 13 Buddhas represent stages on the path to awakening, from Fudo Myo O , who represents the determination to enter the path, through to Kokuzo, who represents a mind like all of space."

 

 


And if you liked this, you might wanna check out our piece on
Dolla, as well as the "Dharmaglyphs" found in our archive and on the Horse's blog.

What do you think? Write us:


READERS' RESPONSES SO FAR:

the hoodie monk article is fantastic! thank you so much.
MeditateAndDestroy

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