No Limit Funk: FunQest
There was a cool crowd up in East Harlem. The National Black Theatre was presenting an art show, Change: Conversations with the Creator. There was a range of work, much of it focused on the black experience in America, with themes exploring ideas of social justice and overcoming adversity through creativity.
I was there on the invitation of FunQest, a Japanese artist whose work takes heavy inspiration from the Harlem scene. Everyone was getting on well, and at the end of the night, I asked FunQest if I could stop by his studio for an interview.
Out front, two vivid portraits guarded the entrance. The intricate flow of colors and lines popped up on the white wall. Between the two, a Nipponese style logo. I continued to the second story walk-up.
FunQest let me in, and I checked out the space. Several in progress and recent pieces hung the walls, older canvases stacked in the corner. I noticed a handwritten scrap of paper that read “absolute power, corrupts absolutely." He offered a drink, and we sat to chat.
FunQest explained the origins of his name. The fun, because he likes to have fun, and the Qest, just like a quest: “a secret journey.” For aesthetics, he prefers it without a "u" and the big "Q." Alternatively, pronounced funk-est, a play on the funkiest.
“I really love black culture and black music.”
R&B, hip-hop, soul, and funk — his style lets music be the muse. Before getting into street art, he pursued life as a singer, but gave it up when he came to Harlem. He joked that he could not compete with the local scene. “The quality is so high!” But to FunQest, East Harlem is home, and it is where he wants to create.
As a street artist, he has worked with organizations like the 100 Gates Project and East Village Walls, painting low in the Lower East Side and up in the Bronx, but the heart of his work remains in Harlem. FunQest lamented that much of the uptown scene has moved to the Upper East Side, but his ambition is to be part of the movement to rejuvenate a new artistic renaissance.
“I want to shine in Harlem.”
It is “the rhythm and feeling” that attract FunQest to the black culture. His aesthetic is based on a sense of respect and tribute to the African-American history. FunQest is fascinated by the Black Panthers [the political movement], and the Harlem Renaissance.
“Black people are so strong… they have a strong heart, and good pride.”
Many of FunQest paintings pull from urban vogue, 90s glasses, 80s jheri curls, 70s fros. The designs themselves are a vibrant labyrinth of geometric shapes, scribbled with cryptic emblems. The reason for the complex textures is a commentary on the state of today:
“This world has too much noise. Too much information. Too many choices. It’s overwhelming.”
When creating, his process is as layered as the final product. FunQest begins by sketching, usually at a local cafe. Then, works at the studio where he draws free hand, making outlines. As he adds the final coats, he paints with acrylic, and later spray paint. Acrylic is a more familiar medium to him, but FunQest likes to explore the two.
This sensory overload of social media has made FunQest rethink how he conceptualizes his art and outlook. As FunQest sees it, the three components of his style are music, fashion, and art. He showed me the tattoo on his neck of the symbolic triangle that connects them. While his canvases are packed with color, his clothing is not. FunQest does it deliberately simple — all black robes, the shades of New York.
Angel and Demon
While a lot of FunQest art pulls from the black culture, he has a multicultural approach to art. I pulled out some of his older canvases, which had a much different feel to them. These pieces were inspired by a blend of ancient Inca patterns and Buddhist philosophies. FunQest respects the power of their histories.
FunQest's journey to New York has been a long one. Born in Gifu, Japan, a rural province in the center of the island, his art was cultivated by his experiences growing up. "When I was a kid, my mom and dad were busy. I had nothing to do. So I was drawing and drawing.”
Around age 15, he started getting into trouble. Big trouble. “I used to be so bad… bad people.” At 22, he was arrested and went to jail. After getting out, he realized he needed to change his ways. “I met music, and I changed my personality,” FunQest told me, “I’m so thankful to art.”
FunQest decided to make the most of his second chance. At 24, he moved to Tokyo, where he pursued his singing career, and began to take painting more seriously. At 30, he moved to New York. It was 4 years after coming to the big city that FunQest entered the world of street art.
Beyond his canvases, he has a presence at art shows for his fashion. FunQest likes to wear flowing black robes and a red, long-nosed tengu mask. Tengu is something of a Japanese folk monster. In FunQest’s words:
"Tengu is very…. strange people. He’s scary. But he’s also… funky.” He laughed, “sometimes strong, sometime crazy, but not bad people.”
According to Wikipedia: "Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Tengu are associated with the ascetic practice of Shugendō [mountain hermits], and they are usually depicted in the garb of its followers, the yamabushi [Japanese monks.]”
FunQest embraces the tengu spirit as a way of dealing with his own duality. When talking about his life as a trouble-maker, FunQest was reluctant to dwell too much on it, though still recognizing the role it played in his life. “I don’t want to go back to that.”
To illustrate the point, FunQest showed me a light he designed, embedded with his logo. The logo [the same as the one embellished next to his murals and on his stickers] depicts a face split in two. One side has an eye open, the other scarred shut.
“This is [my] demon. My inside heart is always demon and angel…” He laughed, “maybe sometimes the demon shows more.”
Mr. No Limit
While much of FunQest art has subtle currents of social commentary, some of his pieces are more overt. In particular, I noticed a painting similar to the one that had been hanging at the National Black Theater, depicting a character named ‘Mr. No Limit’ battling the North Korean dictator, ‘Destroyer Kim.’
Mr. No Limit reappears in other paintings, often rendered in a street-fighter style battle, complete with health bars, against malicious political figures. [Mr. No Limit has also fought Trump, Putin, and soldiers of evil]. FunQest explained the background of Mr. No Limit.
“[He is] my hero… inside. He has no limit. How can I say…. he’s my hero. He saved me. And saved the world. If I find an enemy he’s gonna fight him… but not kill them. He just wants to save.”
Mr. No Limit is meant to be a symbol -- both of FunQest’s own childhood innocence, as well as a desire to offer an alternative to the grim outlook of the world seen in the media. I asked why Mr. No Limit was fighting these political figures.
“[They are] selfish people… I don’t like selfish people. They’re gonna mess up the world. Why? This world is everybody’s.”
I thought back to the note I saw when I stepped in: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. “That’s why my hero is gonna save."
To present his interpretation of the Japanese culture, Mr. No Limit also draws inspiration from anime. “I really love anime.” To FunQest, anime is one of the strongest representations of Japan outside the island, and he wants to bring that to a broad audience. We talked about some of our favorite anime shows: Afro-Samurai, Samurai Champloo, Cowboy Bebop - all of which blend musical and black cultural influences - hip-hop, blues, or jazz.
In addition to Mr. No Limit, I noticed the infinity symbol hidden in several of his canvases. I asked what this symbolizes to him, why the ‘no limit,' and what were his plans for the future. FunQest is considering doing some of his painting under his real name, but what the future holds remains to be seen.
FunQest grinned: “anybody can do anything, if you want. There’s no limit. It’s infinity.”