Brain Pickings

Drainspotting: Japan’s Unique Visual Subculture

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What dragons have to do with civic identity and geolocation scavenger hunts.

We have a soft spot for street art, especially unusual work that plays with pieces of the urban environment in unexpected ways. (Like those Brazilian storm drain graffiti.) Well, this month, we’re in luck: June 22 marks the official release of the much-anticipated Drainspotting book — a stunning photographic anthology of Japan’s remarkable custom manhole covers, found across nearly 95% of the country’s 1780 municipalities.

The book features a curated selection of over 100 photographs, capturing the best and most visually compelling of Japan’s 6000 distinct manhole cover designs, part of a 20-year beautification program — orchestrated by what’s essentially Japan’s version of the WPA — aiming to make manholes reflect the uniqueness of each city — its mythology, its aesthetic sensibility, its legacy and essence.

The bold colors and dramatic motifs — from doves to dragons — really come to life in the book’s crisp photography and superb art direction. But what makes it all so extraordinary is that what begins as a window into art ends as a door into a rich cultural storytelling and heritage.

It gets better — there’s also a Drainspotting iPad app, a beautiful homage to the classic Japanese intersection of art and technology. The app uses geolocation, inviting users to drainspot Japan, scavenger-hunt-style, and discover more examples of this unique visual subculture that didn’t make the book.

Drainspotting comes out next Tuesday and is now available for pre-order.

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