controversial artist megumi igarashi docks her vagina kayak in nyc
Two years ago, Igarashi was arrested on obscenity charges for distributing 3D files of her vulva. During her recent trip to New York, i-D caught up with the feminist rebel to talk censorship, sex ed, and making female anatomy kawaii.
Megumi Igarashi does not look like a person who has just been denied a visa, detained at U.S. Customs, and questioned by authorities for three hours in foreign language. Tokyo's infamous 44-year-old "vagina artist" is beaming like a schoolgirl and looking fresh in a cartoon vulva T-shirt as she sips sparkling water at a busy coffee shop on Manhattan's 8th Avenue. Igarashi, who also goes by the pseudonym Rokudenashiko or "good-for-nothing girl," is used to facing hurdles. Two years ago she was arrested for distributing 3D files of her own vulva to people who supported her crowdfunding campaign to build a kayak modeled off the same piece of anatomy. Her previous works include vulva-shaped chandeliers, necklaces, and iPhone cases, not to mention the kawaii "Manko-chan" vulva mascot that adorns her shirt. Her dream is for Manko-chan to become a pop culture icon. Her more immediate motivation is simply to help women feel more comfortable about their own bodies in a culture that sees them as shameful. "Manko, pussy, has been such a taboo in the Japanese society," Igarashi wrote in a blog post in the midst of her legal woes. "Penis, on the other hand, has been used in illustrations and signed as a part of pop culture. But pussy has never been so cute."
Igarashi's kayak was eventually declared "pop art" by a Japanese court, though she was still found guilty of distributing "obscene" images in the form of the digital data. For now, the feminist artist has planned quite the business trip. It includes the screening of a performance art video, a conversation about Japanese feminist comics, and a pussy-themed drink 'n' draw at a gallery in Bushwick. i-D spoke to Igarashi — with the help of editor and translator Anne Ishii — about her legal struggles, Japan's approach to sexual education, and why her "pussy boat" deserves to be taken seriously.
Tell me about your ordeal at the airport — did you expect to face such issues entering the US?
It actually all began with the process of getting a new passport, because I was recently divorced and needed to go back to my maiden name. What I didn't realize was that because of my arrest history, they were going to give me a limited passport. Then we were applying for a visa to Canada. They ask you if you have a police record, and you have to show a police certificate and a court record, and none of those documents were available. We somehow managed to get the foreign ministry to provide that paperwork for us. Then they denied my application because they said it was incomplete. The immigration lawyer who was consulting us said 'please don't travel if you don't have explicit permission from Canada, because you could get detained or arrested. I went anyway — I decided I'd rather try and fail than not go at all. Weirdly, I passed with no interview or anything. It was super easy to get through to Canada. So then I thought getting into the U.S. was going to be easy. But when I tried to get into the U.S., I did get detained, and they held me for three hours while these intimidating cops were looking over us. They confiscated my phone and started looking through it, I think they looked up my name on the internet and realized what I was doing, so they let me go. But it was really scary.
When did you first start to receive backlash over your art?
From day one actually, but it really started after an article about my work was posted about me online. Immediately there was this backlash on the forum 2chan. There was so much backlash it became an open thread. This was around October 2012.
What was the significance of the kayak?
What I really wanted was just a vehicle. I wanted to turn my vulva art into something that I could ride. A car would have been awesome, but then I'd have to figure out the engineering, and I don't have a driver's license. So I was like, 'Okay, if I make a boat, there's a river right in front of me, and it's manual.' It was a practical decision. But also I like the idea of traveling on bodies of water because it's so fertile and it kind of evokes manko.
Who were your biggest supporters on the crowdfunding platform where you were distributing the files as a reward?
It was mostly women. Actually it was kind of half and half in terms of contributors, or funders, but most of the feedback was from women.
What were these women saying to you?
A lot of people were sort of like, 'This is so idiotic I have to fund it. Someone's actually making a pussy boat? I'm just going to fund it because it's so weird.' But then there were a handful of people who really took it seriously as conceptual art.
You initially came up with the idea for your vulva art because you were unfamiliar with your own anatomy. What is sexual education like in Japan?
Sex ed in Japan is really far behind. Even when they're showing what the female anatomy looks like, it's really just one picture. Or they'll mention condoms, but not how to use them. Or it's just like a picture of a condom in a package, so it's kind of useless information. Adults often teach young women and men that if they have sex then they'll become crazed.
Japan has a giant annual penis festival. Are you angered by seeing male anatomy celebrated so feverishly while female anatomy is seen as shameful?
I've never explicitly made art to combat the double standard. I'm certainly not against that festival — I think it's great. But it is sort of funny to me that the products they sell there are cute little penises, and it's very commercially appealing and positive, whereas it's unfathomable to make something like that for pussies. There's this image in Japan of pussies being the dark genital that you're not supposed to show at all — it shouldn't be cute, it shouldn't be delightful. That's not just something men believe about pussy but that women have begun to internalize about their own bodies. My work is definitely about combating that mentality, and about trying to make pussies lighthearted.
Are there other feminist artists you've met in Japan who are doing similarly bold things to combat this mentality? Or are you all alone in making this statement?
I don't think anybody is doing art that is quite as cheerful. I know artists who are using period blood to paint, or are doing very dark depictions of the female anatomy, but nothing that's cute.
Why is it so important that this art exists and that women see it?
I want people to have a better understanding of the female body, and for women to feel more comfortable about their bodies. I think that's really important. Also, because of the darkness surrounding manko, a lot of women who are victims of sexual violence tend to become victimized and then victim-blamed. Society tends to punish women who experience these things even though it's not their fault. I think it literally all traces back to Japan's poor institutional recognition of manko — with schooling and education being so backwards and outdated. That's my primary motivation, is just to get people more familiarized with the body part. But also, with the penis, it's really obvious what it looks like. Everybody can draw a penis, but if you ask somebody to draw a vagina it's a little less obvious. I'm trying to make it easier for people to imagine an abstraction of the vagina so that it's not so serious or technical. It can actually just be a character.
Have you been surprised by much interest you have received from countries outside of Japan?
I am so happy that people are accepting my art, to say nothing of how many people are accepting it — just the fact that it is being treated with respect and that people view it as positive. In Japan, all I get is bullying. Everybody is just constantly belittling my art, so I'm really excited.
Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Rokudenashiko