It’s your first day of preschool and it’s time to learn the official order of the colors of the rainbow. We all know it—say it together, class! ROYGBIV. If you’re anything like me (all-questioning and crazy rebellious) you wondered how that cocky indigo secured a high and mighty place amongst the commoners of our crayon boxes. Who do you think you are, Indigo? As I reach the thirtieth year of my life Indigo decides to respond:
I am magic. I am everything you wanted but couldn’t ask for.
I am the baddest-ass blue your prism-challenged eyes have
ever seen. Hashtag, ‘iamthetruth’.”
I found that you too, can go blue when I visited the indigo-dyeing and aizome workshops. These workshops are HERE, Bushwickians. And I’m sharing this trip with you so you may understand what, exactly, the indigo-dyeing presence is here.
Welcome to BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab
Walking into BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab you’re immediately welcomed by smiles, a noseful of rich earth, and a cup of indigo tea. Yes, tea. Indigo tea is a subtly floral, beautifully refreshing, caffeine-free beverage. And don’t worry; your teeth are safe from the hue! Now, sipping on your treat you can take notice of the simple set-up of this DIY operation. Large commercial-sized drums sit in front of a brick wall. These are the “sukumo” vats; the dye you’ve come out to get to know. Specifically, “sukumo” is the name given to the final composted state of indigo leaves. More specifically, this particular “sukumo” was packed in the duffel bag of Indigo Master Kakuo Kaji (one of your lovely artist hosts for this workshop) when he left Tokushima, Japan. This is farm to plane to table, people. And this is what BUAISOU (pronounced, “bwai-so”) is here to do. This is indigo.
From farm to table — Handmade indigo products inside BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab
Indigo is a crazy plant. The Indigofera genus, of which over three hundred different species have been identified, contributes to a rich history of exploration of usage throughout our resourceful and ever curious human history. The use of indigo crosses cultures, generations and mediums – from the lands of Ancient Rome and Egypt to Modern India, West Africa and the Arab world; appearing at all levels of class from everyday fashion to science to medicine and fine art. Fascinating, truly! But you can look more into indigo’s history on Wikipedia later because right now, it’s all about Japan, baby.
Japan’s history with indigo spans the last six hundred years. Indigo’s popularity exploded at the start of the 19th century during Japan’s Edo period. The Japanese government enacted sumptuary laws prohibiting the use of silk fabric, and so the good people found cotton. Plants on plants on plants. Cotton took indigo, indigo loved cotton. Boom. And so very quickly the world came to use the association “Japan-blue” synonymously with the color indigo. Centuries of high demand for indigo-products honed the arduous practices of indigo farming into a respected and coveted tradition.
At the center of the indigo farming tradition is the city of Tokushima, Japan on Shikoku Island. The region’s mild climate conditions work with the nearby Yoshino River to grow beautiful, happy fields of the stuff. The Tokushima prefecture is home to only five farmers harvesting about 70 acres of indigo, according to Kaji. The Japanese government holds these indigo farmers/artisans in high regard as national treasures and farms like the one tended to by BUAISOU are given small subsidies of support.
Still cupping your indigo tea mug, you may be so lucky as to be shown Kaji’s personal indigo art pieces. One Kaji original is a large bandana mapping the one-year cycle of the indigo farming process through illustrative pictograms and free brush strokes. Tradition doesn’t compromise and the BUAISOU team holds fast this legacy. And so we come to the story of how these two crazy kids got together.
How BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab came to be
It was the year 2012. Tokushima was looking for two new indigo farmers – two and only two. Kakuo Kaji and Kenta Watanabe were those two hired applicants, and so BUAISOU was born.
The name itself has two meanings. One meaning gives a respectful, albeit playful nod to Jiro Shirasu, a businessman who owned a villa called “Buaisou” (he is the first Japanese person to ever wear blue jeans)!
Indigo Master Kakuo Kaji and BUAISOU’s Brooklyn Lab site owner/manager, Sayaka Toyama
The second, less known meaning is downright poetic. Broken down into three parts this Japanese name sums up the concept for the brand. “Ai” in the center means “indigo” (also love, coincidentally). “Bu” means “no” and “sou” means “to consider.” Kaji and Watanabe are experimenting; “considering” using “no”/less indigo, and may be asking the world to do the same. The traditionalists or so-called “stoneheads” believe the beauty of indigo to be with saturation; with coverage i.e., more is better. Kaji and Watanabe see pieces being produced with their indigo in ways that display “a collaboration between the white and indigo space” – in ways that “respect the white.” Their experimentation and backlash carry over into the things they choose to dye. Their limited edition products include shoelaces, bowties, and bandanas (also tea and candy!). Come back the traditionalists saying the new guys should do as Japan has done and has always done: focus aizome on textiles, kimonos, and duvet covers. BUAISOU responds with moves like creating a line of bracelets of dyed wooden beads made from Yakusugi trees – rare, endangered ancient cedar trees protected by law, only to be harvested after their natural death. And hey, there may also be talks of a denim line in the future.
So how did BUAISOU find their lab base in Brooklyn?
Her name is Sayaka Toyama. She’s the door-opening, tea-brewing, Japanese-translating Bushwickian host you first thanked upon entering this workshop today. You’ve been staring at her fabulous indigo-blue streaks this whole, tea-sippin’ time.
Kaji and Watanabe found Toyama on Airbnb when the decision was made to take aizome off the farm and to the streets.
Watanabe first arrived in Brooklyn this past April to host BUAISOU’s very first aizome workshop. Further exploration of our humble hood revealed a new and exciting truth for the BUAISOU team – Brooklyn and Tokushima are crazy similar. Our fair regions host populations of hungry, hustlin’ young craftspersons of interest. More specifically noted was the existence of makers, sellers, and buyers all in the same place and within distances crossed easily on foot and cycle. Testify!
Okay so we’re back in the room with the drums. And it’s time to lay down our tea and dye. Kaji and Toyama open the drums to reveal the sukumo vats. The smell of compost and earth lays calm and heavy where you stand as you point to the now-open containers of dye. “Bubbles!” you might squeal like a five-year-old as Kaji explains “yes, bubbles,” or how foam that forms on the sukumo vat’s surface is called the “ai no hana,” or the “indigo flower” and that this signifies the continuing healthy and successful fermentation of this vat. Kaji skims the indigo flower carefully off the surface of the dye (to be used later for possible paint pigment purposes) and before you can even think about your next awesome alliteration use you’re elbow deep in indigo. After swishing and massaging your cotton blank beauty around for a few moments you’re hands are brought up and out of the vat by Kaji in true Ghost –fashion and he says a single word – “oxidation.” The air hits your hands and immediately the green dye soaking through your tote starts to change. He moves your hands to a water bucket and like that your tote is baptized in the name of some brilliant blue god. You want to cry. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. You believe in magic and forget all the mean things you said about that stupid crayon.
“Aishi” means “indigo farmer,” “Aizonesi” means “indigo dyer;” BUAISOU does it all – from harvesting the indigo leaves straight through to the product design and production. In this, BUAISOU is a friendly force; able to control their quality and pricing with nothing but love for you and this hue.
Dye Happy Bushwick!
So that’s it, Bushwick. You can find the juicy details of BUAISOU’s operation on their website where the beautiful and painstaking process of the indigo farming cycle is well-documented with photos, fun stats, and plenty of Kaji and Watanabe smiles. All of the upcoming workshop dates for Bushwick (and DUMBO!) are also found there or on their Facebook page. Sign-up. Get excited. Grab all your blank cotton shit. Dye happy.
Jen Sujin Yoon with her first aizome (indigo-dyed) tote during the final moments of oxidation
All the elements necessary for the traditional lye (aku) fermentation used to turn indigo into sukumo, the base for indigo dye vats
A selection of finished works at BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab
BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab is located at 66 Stanhope Street and holds indigo dyeing workshops as well as silkscreen printing and Japanese Batik. Check out their list of classes at www.buaisou-i.com.