Preserving the Past....Promoting the Future                                                               TMSIDESHOW WORLD

Takeshi Yamada’s Works at Theaters/Amusement Park


Eriko N. Bond


Following is an excerpt from Takeshi Yamada’s new fine art book entitled “Takeshi Yamada’s Museum of World Wonders: Coney Island Circus Sideshow”.  Based on the numerous personal interviews with Yamada at his fine art production center in Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York, following manuscript was produced by Dr. Eriko N. Bond, noted art critic and book author in New York City.  The photographs featured here were all provided by the artist, Takeshi Yamada, from his Artist’s Library of Yamada Art Center, strictly for the book publication. The obtained special permission from Takeshi Yamada to feature this segment of the above mentioned book in the website for our audience. 


Many scholars, art critics and researchers believe that Yamada started circus sideshow gaffs only after seeing the traveling circus sideshow of Bobby Reynolds in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York in 2001.  This is not correct at all.  In reality, Yamada has been creating his sideshow gaffs professionally (which means being paid to do so by clients) as early as 1985.  If one considers Yamada’s creation of gaff for his own ends (not for the sale for corporate orders but “artworks for art’s sake”), then the history of Yamada’s gaff creation would goes back as early as 1960’s.  Yamada says that creating three-dimensional sculpture is at least 1,000 times more difficult and challenging than creating two-dimensional paintings. This is because mastering the craftsmanship of vast variety of materials whether it is fiber glass, marble stone, polymers, oil/acrylic varnish or acrylic resin, papers, canvases, variety of raw color pigments, rubbers etc., in creating three dimensional objects (not mentioning mastering the skills to manipulate a variety of manual & electric devices to shape the artworks) takes exhausting long time, concentrations and money.  In specifically, the kind of super-realistic style of the artwork of “life-like” sculpture, that Yamada creates, requires variety of unique materials to form and assemble in great details and precision with unique tools based on his vision.  I have written in great detail about Yamada’s creations of gaffs in 1960’s, in his previous 3-volumes of book entitled “An Atlas of the Horseshoe Crab: Life, Mythology, and Artwork of a Living Fossil” published from Yamada Art Center in 2005.


To feature Yamada’s long years of involvement about the culture of amusement parks and circus sideshow business in its completion, I interviewed him in multiple occasions regarding his rich experience in this specific field and business, before his move to New York City.  After all, the gaffs, artworks and props to be shown at amusement parks and circus sideshow tents are quite different from those so call ‘artworks” to be displayed at museums or galleries in their own merits.


Yamada said that his first experience of working as a prop artist and gaff artist was in Baltimore, Maryland in1984.  It was only one year after he moved to the United States and shortly after obtaining J-1 student working Visa through his school, Maryland Institute College of Art there.


For a big public art/culture project called “Baltimore 350”, Yamada worked for a local theater-production company at the Harbor Place.  The Harbor Place is the most popular and crowded area of Baltimore furnished with an Aquarium, Science Center, and a large shopping mall year around.  Harbor Place is one of the most popular places in Baltimore and the most popular spot for tourists. It was less than 40-minutes for Yamada to visit there by his bicycle from his apartment on the Mount Royal Avenue right by his art school at that time.


For the “Baltimore 350”, Yamada worked with a team of painters to complete the murals on large special vinyl sheets to be mounted on a gigantic ship-like theater structure.  His trompe l’oeil painting skills to turn the vinyl sheets into aged wood and his mounted faux objects with absolute authenticity amazed other artists immediately there.  He also built numerous large and small props with other construction art crew, including the recreation of a living room as the part of the theater, which looked like a few hundred years old.  The theater production and evens to cerebrate the 350 years of glorious history and proud culture of Baltimore was a great success and featured in TV, radio, numerous newspapers and magazines.  Yamada felt as if he was a part of the great history page of Baltimore and its people – and he was correct.  Baltimore is the birthplace of the lyrics of the National Anthem of the United States.


In 1985, by the word of mouth, Yamada was asked to work with prop artists for famous Six Flags on the occasion of their making a brand new amusement park called “Power Plant” in Harbor Place in Baltimore, Maryland again.  He was thrilled and poured his all energy and time into the amusement park building project.  Its location was near the previous year’s “Baltimore 350” ground. He commuted from his apartment to the Harber Place by his bicycle everyday again.  His boss recognized Yamada’s unparalleled detail oriented sharp eyes and craftsmanship of rendering variety of subject matters in super-realistic style. Before long, he earned twice more money than the rest of the fellow artists (some even with Master of Fine Art Degree) working there.


Yamada wore a United States military uniform (he purchased it ay a local use military supply store) to make himself look “tough” because he had to come home by his bicycle after midnight every day.  When his transportation was stolen on his birthday, his boss immediately granted him a new bicycle.


Here is a list of selected major works, which Yamada undertook at the "Power Plant" amusement park.  He worked variety of sections of this world-class huge amusement park, including “Circus of the Mystery” (display of gaffs collected from all over the world) section, “Censorium Theater” (3-D theater to view with special eye glasses, people also smells the projected special air from their seat corresponding object seen on the screen they see), “Magic Lantern Theater” (anime-tronic robot theater), “Future Living” (grand-scale miniature cityscape of the future of the Baltimore) section etc.


The photographs shown below were taken by Yamada and his friends on the location.  Due to the extremely busy work schedule and crowded working environment, Yamada could not photograph every single one of his completed artworks there at the “Power Plant”.  Nevertheless, it is this author’s hope that these photographic records shows how seriously and professionally Yamada involved with the business of gaff artist at the major amusement park from his very early creative career.  These photographs also show the remarkably high quality of Yamada’s artworks (unquestionably the level of the seasoned artist working at any Museum of Natural History) at the amusement park’s circus sideshow areas, despite their very restricted working environment and limited equipments.


·  Yamada painted 50-feet mural for one of the circus sideshows called “Fountain of Youth”; this large installation piece gives viewers illusion of freezing waters in the mid air (from a large vase hold by the Goddess) using computer-controlled special flashing light. He also marbleized the statue of Goddess holding a large vase in the middle of the display. At the beginning, three artists including Yamada worked with a large airbrush and paint brushes on the wall.  Nevertheless, when they started painting the details of trees and leaves, the head of the production department realized the significant difference in skill and speed between Yamada and other two artists (they were also an art school students), thus Yamada was asked to complete the mural all by himself. 




·  Circus sideshow banner for “Leprechaun” at the sideshow gallery. The holographic animated image was projected on a real chair.  Yamada was asked to repainted one-quarter of this circus sideshow banner after it was mounted on the pole for display. This was often the case when artworks arrived with problems. Due to the defects (such as wrong colors, typos, damages etc.), some of the circus sideshow banners had to be repaired or even completely changed. Yamada erased and inserted new letterings at the bottom for this circus sideshow banner.


·  Marbleizing of the entire floor of “Pandora’s Box” room to make the floor more dramatic. The holographic animated images of monsters came out from the “Pandora’s Box” (also controlled with a computer to open/close the top lid and lightings) on display and moved around the showroom.


·  Marbilization of large fiberglass relief sculpture pieces resembles those of the ancient Greek marble relief pieces. Yamada also marbleized, stained and aged the 50-feet wall behind them as seen in the photograph in the right to make them dramatically fit together.


·  Yamada painted wood grains on the entire section of the concrete floor of “ship in the Bottle” display. The ship inside of a bottle moves by the ocean tide and disappears after facing the storm – these dramatic motions (including the lifting of the red drape in the middle of the viewing window) were controlled by the computer. Surprisingly, painting faux wood on the floor with acrylic-base paint with bristle hair flat brushes by Yamada (professional visual artist) was far cheaper and faster than placing actual wood by contractors (professional licensed construction workers.  Not all the special effect is expensive and time-consuming, and the same can be said to the works by mat-painting artist on science fiction movies.  


·  Yamada painted large logos on the wall above the entrance & exit of the Sensorium Theater. Yamada also mobilized the wooden round columns, and designed and painted decorative patterns. At this “Sensorium Theater”, people wore special eye glasses to see 3-D movie while smelling special scented air projected from their chairs corresponding image on the screen such as roses or forest. Deeply inspired by the creative nature of this theater, Yamada use the image of female reproductive organs as a base to create the decorative pattern here – scent is sensuous as Yamada says – as seen in the photograph in the left.


·  Touch up paintings for the circus sideshow banner of “Big Foot” display.  Yamada also undertook detail enhancement of the three dimensional display (made of fiber glass, grass, real hat, etc. in glass display case) of the footprint of the monster as seen in these photographs. Sometimes, the strong spotlight wiped out the subtle textures and three-dimensional appearance of the gaff, and thus, these problems had to be corrected by modifying the shapes and placement of objects, and adding shading colors. 


·  Lettering of “Four Stages of Men”. The reverse shaped faces (which were lighted from below) of four ages of men keep looking at views as they walk by due to the optical illusion.

·  Marbilization of the floor and steps of the “Room of the Professor Flagg”. The six-feet-tall face of the imaginary person (Professor Flagg) changed his facial expressions; thousands of small light balls that change the lightness controlled by a computer were used to achieve this spectacular special visual effect.

·  Marbilization of floor and steps of the energy generating machine room.  Yamada also modified and changed the appearances of machines (aged and made it more dramatic) there with his paint and brushes.

·  Painted miniature buildings of “Future of Baltimore” showroom.

·  Large calligraphy letterings (gold color base and black color lettering) for 6-feet portraits of Edison and Ziegfeld for the Central Robot Theater

·  Painted variety of machines (such as dish cleaner, which destroys dirty dishes and recreate new clean dishes from the fragments) of “Kitchen of the Future” showroom

·  Painted variety of letterings and numberings for the machines and meters of the future. In the middle of those large electric meters, Yamada painted fine letterings of a fictional company “Yamada Electric Co.”, which people actually thought “Your Mother Electric Company Corporation”.


After he completed his Bachelor of Fine Art degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, Yamada moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to study art at graduate school of the University of Michigan School of Art during 1985 and 1987.  (Yamada was granted a full-tuition scholarship as one of the best students.  He also taught Basic Drawing 101 class to students as a Teaching Assistant three times a week for two years there.)  During the time, he was also commissioned and created numerous large banners, large sign boards, illustrations (water color and acrylic on illustration board), portrait oil paintings etc. for active Buddhism organizations in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois; and Tokyo in Japan. Yamada’s large oil paintings on canvases are permanent collection of NSA Chicago Culture Center in Chicago, Illinois, and NSA Detroit Community Center in Detroit, Michigan.  (Note: One of Yamada’s family religions is Buddhism.  Almost every Japanese people in Japan belong to multiple religions simultaneously unlike Westerners. This author wrote about this unique Japanese culture in details in the previous books of Yamada.)



Yamada created numerous large banners and large sign boards etc. for Buddhism organizations at his art production studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  These photos show his art production studio scenes with some of his commissioned vividly colored large banners and sign board with fine details in 1985, when he was a graduate school student of University of Michigan. The French beret he wears here is an official commencement day hat of the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he obtained his Bachelor of Fine Art Degree in 1985. 


Note: Yamada’s first commissioned large signboard painting was created when he was only an elementary school student (5th grade?) at Hishiyanishi Elementary School in Osaka, Japan.  He painted a larger than life full figure of boxer Joe Yabuki, who was a very famous Japanese sports Manga (cartoon) character. Joe Yabuki was one of Yamada’s favorite Japanese sports Manga (Ashitano Joe, “Joe of Tomorrow”) characters, and the Manga even made a weekly TV series at prime time, at that time. This artwork was painted on a 6x4 feet wooden panel in acrylic paint, on the occasion of the school’s annual sport festival in Osaka, Japan. He used an old Renaissance technique of grit system to transfer the image in accurate proportion onto the wooden panel. It was a dynamic-looking signboard of Joe on the ring about to through his first punch to his opponent with passion. Yamada obtained the 1st prized for his large masterpiece among competitors for the year. The picture of his masterpiece was featured in the school’s graduate photo album. Incidentally, Yamada won 1st prized at every single art juried shows and poster contests at elementary school. It appears that Yamada developed his love and passions for his artistic expressions in painting in both small and large scales for his audience from very early age. This tendency of his creativity can be still observed in his creation of miniature artworks (“scrimshaw on sperm whale tooth”, “human-faced fly” etc.) and mural-size paintings (“Battle of Coney Island” etc.) even today.


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