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  • Tomo Givhan

Japanese Boro, Upcycling, and Memes: Proleta Re Art Interview

In the midst of a rapidly changing world that faces several sustainability crises especially in regards to fashion, it’s no wonder that vintage clothing has become so popular among the youth of industrialized countries. There were always small communities of people who have been interested in clothing that were lost or disregarded by most, but over the past decade such clothing has grabbed the attention of popular culture, reaching a fever pitch. Even though it’s becoming more and more commercialized as of late, for many I believe it’s a total reversal of hyper-consumerist values that have captured the West for a very long time, in that fast fashion is being replaced with curated vintage recycling.

I note this because interestingly, the newfound popularity that vintage and upcycling has seen has coincided with a ‘renaissance’ for Boro, Sashiko, and upcycling in Japan. Boro, meaning tattered and repaired cloth, was for centuries seen as shameful to Japanese people because it showed your poverty; second-hand clothes were viewed similarly in the West. There are now numerous Japanese brands that focus on Boro and upcycling, but PROLETA RE ART, and its head designer Prot, are in a league of their own when it comes to both.

In my interview with him, Prot explains to me some of his design inspirations, saying, “It was shocking to me that something created for purely personal, non-commercial reasons could be so much more exciting than the original.” That mindset of looking at things not for their cultural poise or perfection, but rather their reflection of the user or creator’s true humanity and the beauty in that, is part of what makes Prot’s design process so stunning. It translates beautifully into his creations.

It’s hard to tell where the ‘vintage’ stops and PROLETA RE ART’s garments begin, and that’s all calculated. His artisanal craftsmanship, combined with not just his appreciation and deep knowledge of vintage pieces, but an ambition to push the boundaries of vintage processing to make something truly new, has granted him a lane of his own.

Since February, Prot has been quietly releasing what can only be described as wearable art, his creativity hemorrhaging into every piece, and for him, I expect it to get a whole lot louder!

Greetings, from across the pond! I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me for a bit. If it’s no secret, can I ask for your name, a pseudonym maybe?

We are working under the pseudonym "PROT".

Proletareart, Uroboros, and Meme are the labels you're currently using to channel your creativity. What was the inspiration and meaning behind these names?

PROLETA RE ART is a brand concept that I started, and is quoted from, "Proletariat workers in the non-productive class". We started with the purpose of remaking and customizing old clothes and pieces that have completed their purpose, that were retired, so to speak. Using the power of design, crafting, and vintage processing, while taking advantage of the texture they had, we could reincarnate them as art.

But of course, it is also possible to repair and customize the personal belongings of individual customers.

‘Uroboros’ is quoted from the word ‘Ouroboros’, which means circulation, permanence (death and regeneration / destruction and creation), and infinity (immortality), and is the title of the series with BORO acting as a motif. BORO is none but our special filter, using old cloth made in the Taisho era in Japan alongside old bandanas made in the United States, we are breathing new life into the materials that have once left their owners' hands and finished their roles.

‘Meme’ is quoted from ‘Internet Meme’. Since I was a junior high school student, I've always liked looking for interesting images on the Internet and seeing pictures of bad characters drawn by amateurs. When I was a college student, when I was traveling to Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, etc., I took a picture of a character that everyone knows, for example a poor quality, but tastefully distorted Mickey Mouse drawn on sign boards used for private shops and food stalls. I was very excited to see it. Moreover, they were exposed to the rain and wind, weathered, and melancholy, blended into the landscape of their lives. It struck my heart. For me, more than any great work of art or painting, I like the poor but distorted and tasteful works drawn and made by amateurs and children, and I think they are art. That kind of feeling is incorporated into the design of ‘MEME’.

I love the idea of ‘hacking’ clothes. Your pieces live outside of the matrix… like wearing a red pill. What is it about customizing and upcycling clothes that initially drew you in, and what has kept you in the space?

The use of the word ‘hacking’ is a long story, but I value ‘vintage processing’ as a core element of design.

When the technique of vintage processing is maximized, it may wear an aura that goes beyond the texture of old clothes that have existed for a long time. I've always liked and collected vintage clothes, but I feel uncomfortable with the trend of, "Because it's vintage and antique, it's rare and grateful." I don't think it should be like dealing with antiques. When I hear about vintage processing, some people have the negative opinion that, "Reprints of old clothes are just replicas after all." Here, we respect the process as an extremely important element that guarantees the taste and reality of the work.

I don't want to make replicas of antiques, but I value vintage processing if it can create works that are reminiscent of auras and stories that no one has ever seen. I use the word ‘hacking’ at the beginning to mean that old clothes are vintage-processed to accelerate the texture, sublimate as a design, and throw a stone to confuse the values ​​that are appreciated in original vintage products in a good way.

I started upcycling when I saw the unbranded, worn-out leather wallet my dad used when I was still in the lower grades of elementary school. My dad has no interest in fashion and has been using a cheap brown leather wallet for many years. It has been overused, the leather surface is soaked with hand grease, has a black shining luster, with hardware made of brass. The buttons and fasteners were rusted and had patina rust, and the torn part was repaired with a simple tape, which was peeling off. It was a familiar, shabby thing, but for me at that time? The wallet looked more attractive than toys and animations. The story that it told of my dad, and the traces of being treated roughly without much maintenance spoke to me of a certain special aura.

When dad said it was too worn out and it was time to buy a new one, I asked to take over the wallet, and loved it. My father was confused.

When used in this way, customized for your own convenience, and used for many years, the piece wears an aura that reflects the humanity of its owner. I'm very interested in such things, and my reason for upcycling second-hand clothes is that by continuing to repair and customize, clothes change with age, and they look cool, not just aged. I believe that I will keep going because I want to see that continuation with my own eyes.

You very quietly started releasing your work through Instagram earlier this year, first over vintage tops adorned with your beautifully unique ‘Hack Toons.’ In only a few months time, you’ve added various different styles, from your boro-inspired UROBOROS pieces, to your artisanal Meme pieces, which seem to borrow characteristics from the previous two.

I talked a bit about the concept of ‘MEME’ earlier when I first mentioned my inspiration behind ‘Hack Toons’, but there is another story.

I've loved video games and manga since I was a kid, and I used to copy my favorite characters.

When I was a junior high school student in 2002, I happened to hack the data of NES software called ‘HACK ROM’, modify the character design, BGM, effects and stage composition, and play the game. It was then I learned that there is a culture of recreating a completely different game, all while keeping the prototype intact.

Of course, I think it's illegal, but the work, which was remodeled by an enthusiastic nerd just tampering with the NES software, far exceeded the difficulty of the original, surpassing the original when it came to its BGM and effects, which were more exciting and fresh. It was shocking to me that something created for purely personal, non-commercial reasons could be so much more exciting than the original.

Even though it was ages ago, I can’t forget the excitement the original HACK ROM brought me, ultimately leading me to the production of ‘Hack Toons’.

Instagram Video of Mickey Pants

As a fan of boro and sashiko, I’m in love with the UROBOROS pieces. From the beginning, everything you’ve dropped has been very unique, and highly skilled. Do you have any previous experience working at any labels, or have you been mainly customizing on your own for a while?

Before I started attending art school, I used to customize my clothes frequently, but for 10 years I continued to study remakes and vintage processing with craftsmen at an apparel brand.

What, if any, are your major inspirations?

Personally customized and used clothes and tools.

Pictures drawn by children and amateurs, and rotten signboards.

Games and illustrations made by perverted nerds just for themselves.

Early mornings, or late nights? Both?

Staying up the WHOLE night.

Who is your favorite musician at the moment?

A Japanese Hip Hop artist named Primal.

And most importantly, pancakes or waffles?

The question was not understood, even after further continues to haunt my every waking moment...

Proleta Re Art: Instagram Page

Interviewer & Writer: Tomo Givhan


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