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Design Festa

Women dance while a man dressed in a yukata plays the saxophone at Design Festa in Tokyo Big Sight

Dancing is one of the many art forms on display (CC)

Design Festa is a celebration of all things artistic and creative – and on a scale that can only be described as ‘very Tokyo’. Held on two weekends a year, once in May and once in November, it comprises over 2,700 individual booths, as well as performance spaces, projection areas, live music stages, and even a mini theatre. In all, it fills four of the huge halls of the ‘Tokyo Big Sight’ exhibition centre. An eclectic stream of visitors arriving at Tokyo Big Sight for Design Festa

One glance should be enough to tell you that Deisgn Festa attracts a very diverse range of attendees (CC)
Design Festa’s philosophy is that it’s open to ‘original art’ of any genre – and attendance at any Design Festa will allow you to confirm that it does indeed encompass just about every form of art imaginable.

There is so much creativity crammed into one room that you would think all the creative potential in the world had been bagged up and brought to Tokyo, but in fact the vast majority of participants are from Japan. The main halls are filled with row upon row of tiny booths, all staffed by people keen to show off their artistic qualities. You could spend all day wandering from booth to booth, at each one encountering a distinct style of art, and very often a different medium too. There’s jewellery, paintings, body art, photographs, sculpture and video installations, all jumbled up next to each other. Within seconds of entering, I was confronted with delicately painted umbrellas, brightly painted bodies, a man with a fish for a head, a metallic blue frog, and serene photographs of flowers – and the variety of works didn’t get any less diverse from there on in.

The performance areas host live music, dance, fashion shows and much more – offering sufficient choice so that there really is something for everyone. Even within a genre, almost every style is on display – the dance styles include traditional Japanese and Brazilian carnival, with dancers correspondingly dressed either in kimonos, or in almost nothing at all. A woman works on a bright coloured abstract painting at Design Festa in Tokyo

Their are many opportunities to see artists at work, as many booth-holders produce new works while at the Festa (CC)
All in all, there is so much art here that it’s doubtful you could really digest it all in a lifetime – let alone in one weekend. Most of the exhibitors are hobbyists, or aspiring professionals who still need to rely on the day job – but there are plenty of established professionals here too. Many of the works are on sale, so there’s a chance to pick up some real bargains. Even if your budget is tiny, you’ll be able to bag a small print, or a handcrafted piece of original jewellery for a few hundred yen.

Perhaps the best thing about the event is that its 100% egalitarian – anyone with original creations who pays the entry fee gets equal treatment. Unlike in an art gallery, there’s no middleman deciding what’s worthy of the public’s attention, and there are no art critics telling us what’s a work of genius and what’s passé. Artists simply put their work on display, and it’s up to us, the public, to look at it or not as we choose. Of course this means that there really is a lot of rubbish as well as brilliance – but that’s true of many conventional art galleries too. What’s even better is that most of the artists man their own booths – giving you the opportunity to interrogate them about the true meaning of their creations. Body art at Design Festa: a woman who is painted all over in bright colours

Some of the more risqué artworks use people as human canvases (CC)
When you need a break from the art, there are plenty of places selling food from all over the world, as well as bars and cafes, or you could just sit in the outside performance area and listen to a succession of bands.

If you’re not in Tokyo when a festa is on, the permanent Design Festa Gallery is the next best thing. It consists of an old block of flats that’s been decorated on the outside, making the whole building into a giant work of art. You’ll be able to recognize it as soon as it comes into sight, as its definitely the most colourful building in the neighbourhood. A side benefit is that you get the chance to see just how small Japanese homes can be – the flats are no bigger than large cupboards would be anywhere else in the world. The gallery is run on the same principle as the festas themselves, so anyone can rent a space and show off their work. Some artists rent whole rooms, others a wall, while some make do with just a small square of space on a communal wall. The atmosphere is very similar to the festa, as the exhibitors often hang out at the gallery, especially on weekends, and they’re usually keen to discuss their work. At the back is a cool cafe, frequented by the gallery community, as well as others who want to soak up the artistic vibe.

A boy weaves textile art by hand at Design Festa in Tokyo

This boy appears to be both extremely talented and very hard-working. Fashion is well-represented among the diverse art forms on show. (CC)

Access: Details of how to get to Tokyo Big Sight are given in the Comic Market article. Design Festa Gallery is in Harajuku, about 10 minutes walk from Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line. Check out the map on the gallery website. It’s free and open seven days a week, 11am to 10pm, except when the festa itself is on.

When: May and November. Check the Design Festa website for the exact dates of the next event.

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