Lifestyle: Style

Naoto Hinai: Sign writer of our times

Japanese artist’s journey

NUTS1When Naoto Hinai first started to revive an art form that became more or less redundant 70 years ago, he had a notion that his artisan craft would one day be treasured again.

Back in the 1930s, almost every shop and bar featured fascias with beautiful hand-drawn signboards, but as the age of mass production dawned, so analog died a slow, lingering death.

But everything is cyclical and Naoto sensed that there was a niche for him to seamlessly blend his lifelong loves of bikes, American retro and second-hand store memorabilia.

“Even in an era where cost and speed are thought of as priorities, there are always people who understand the beauty in handcraft. I had a certainty that as the movement continued towards mass production, analog handcraft would be increasingly treasured,” he said.

“Things made by human hand with no regret are very valuable, but if I’m honest, it was bumping into people with the same sensitivity that helped me continue with the style to this day.”

For someone with no technical knowledge, like the contemporary sign makers who use cutting sheets, he was initially riven with doubt. Until he read the words of photographer Edward Steichen, who wrote “there never has been a time when the best thing we had was not commercial art”.
“It was like a light being switched on and I felt as if a load had been taken off my shoulders. From then on I was able to break through,” he said.

During his junior high school days, a young Naoto spent most of his time at the local second-hand store in his home town, picking up part-time jobs and dreaming of exploring the capital.He said: “I longed strongly for Tokyo. At the age of 17, I used up all the cash I’d earned from my side job and pocket money from my parents for my first time to go and play in Tokyo.”


The experience was a massive culture shock and exhilarating in equal measure for the provincial teenager: “I was able to find all the vintage items I longed for. Everything was there and it was like opening a treasure box. It affirmed my decision to go to Tokyo after graduating.”

By the age of 25, Naoto had fulfilled a dream of owning a 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air, a purchase that sparked a fascination in Hot Rod culture and customs, which in turn led to a love and appreciation of lettering and pinstripe design.

“There were no internet sources in those days, so I read many Western books and started to draw on a car and furniture, and eventually got an order from friends and acquaintances. It just spiralled from there,” he said.

“In those days there were very few painters like me and luckily my artwork was spread by word of mouth and appeared in magazines, so that something which started as my hobby became my job little by little.”

In 2004 Naoto opened his first atelier in the Japanese capital and a stream of orders from customers seeking something out of the ordinary followed as word spread of the unique hand-drawn Nuts Artwork portfolio.

Among them were the guys from the Southsiders MCC – the brains behind Wheels and Waves – who commissioned him to imagine a poster and new logo for the last two events in the south of France and Spain.

Naoto’s unique take on sign painting and his role in the recent Wheels and Waves Artride has propelled him to the forefront of the motorcycle art world alongside luminaries including Maxwell Paternoster and Adie Gilbert.

He said: “I have always had a certainty that as the movement away from mass production gathered pace, the shift towards handcrafted art will continue to grow and analog handcraft will be treasured more and more.”