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From tattoo shops to Nike: graphic design with Victoria-based Rio Kaneki

Kaneki’s work is resonant to the tattoo and wood carving that influenced him deeply when he lived in Japan
Rio Kaneki in his home studio that he shares with his wife. Kaneki has worked for skateboarding brand Hurley, Nike and does graphic design for local companies like Dumpling Drop and Wheelies. (Samantha Duerksen)

When Victoria-based graphic designer Rio Kaneki was told by his friend Matt – who he used to own a clothing company with – that he might be getting a call from Nike, he didn’t believe it.

“Matt randomly met the Nike SB (skateboarding) design team down in Oregon and he mentioned my name … so that was almost two years ago,” Kaneki said. “My buddy, he called me and said, ‘Hey, I met Nike people and I mentioned your name so they might give you a job.’ I’m like, oh, okay, alright. It was just a shout-out, you know people say that kind of thing all the time. I never thought this thing was actually happening. And then, a year and a half later, Nike actually reached out to me. It was so casual, through one of their employee’s personal accounts, too. He said, ‘Hey man, I like your style. Would you be interested in designing something for Nike SB?’ And I thought this has got to be a prank or something. The next day he reached out to me again. He said, ‘Are you going to take it or not?’ And I said, ‘If this is legit, I’d love to.’”

Kaneki is now finalizing a project with Nike set to be released in Spring, 2024. He is not allowed to disclose the details, other than that it’s been a one-of-a-kind experience.

“It’s a very nerve-wracking thing. Just dealing with the Nike design team and Zoom meetings, those are very intimidating. But it’s one of the best experiences.”

Kaneki is a popular designer in Victoria who has done merch and graphic design for Dumpling Drop, Wheelies Motorcycles & Cafe, The Duke Saloon, Goodnews Skateshop, Fernwood Coffee Company and more. His work stands out for both the bold, clean style and process: he does a lot of wood carving prints (where he carves a piece of wood by hand, then transfers the ink from the impression to paper) and silkscreen.

It’s easy to see the Japanese influences of his work, the country where he was born and first realized his talent when he tried wood carving as part of his education in elementary school.

“I remember I was really good at that compared to other kids and it was something that made me feel proud of myself,” he said.

The place where he really honed his style and learned the craft of design, though, was in the gritty underground tattoo shops of Tokyo.

“I moved to Tokyo with all these guys that ended up becoming tattoo artists … I was three or four years younger than them and I was just attached to them whether or not they liked it, but I always showed up drinking with them and watching them drawing.”

“That’s probably the biggest influence and learning curve that I ever had. Spending time with those guys and how much dedication and integrity they have. They were completely uneducated but they just loved tattooing, and to this day I’ve never really met or seen anyone that loves something as much as they loved tattooing back then. They were working on a construction site, and every paycheck they spent on tattoos.”

“Tattoo culture in Japan is a very grey area because it’s not quite a legitimate business. They’re not accepted. It’s starting to get recognized a little more as an art form, but back then, 20 years ago, it was way different. If you put a sign on the road or something, that there’s a tattoo studio here, you get caught. You could get arrested and fined.”

Apart from frequenting tattoo shops, Kaneki’s other passions, music and skateboarding, actually kept him occupied and away from his art until his early 20s. Hanging out in a skate shop one day, Kaneki said he was offered a job at a screen print shop. When the in-house graphic designer ended up quitting, Kaneki jumped at the opportunity to expand his skills.

“I really wanted to learn how to use Photoshop and Illustrator and that was the start. It was pretty cool, I was getting paid to learn all those things, all the necessities that you learn from school,” Kaneki said.

“I have never been to school. I am completely uneducated,” he added. “I took a bunch of courses on YouTube and stuff, though. It took me a while to just get my shit together in life.”

Self-motivation and self-learning have proven rewarding paths for Kaneki. He also mentions, funnily enough, that he worked for Nike before when he was 25, through the skateboard brand Hurley, a company bought out by Nike in 1999. Kaneki scored the job through a friend who was a pro surfer and sponsored rider by Hurley.

Today, Kaneki shares a cozy, colourful home studio with his wife who is also an artist (plus their dog and cat) and works on branding, graphic design, block prints and silkscreen prints for both local and international companies. He remains old school at heart (“I’m not a social media guy. I don’t even do Facebook and I barely do Instagram.”) and only recently switched from hand drawing for the past 20 years to an iPad.

His design style continues to set him apart: distinguishable and bold, not afraid to demand attention while also intricately detailed, resonant to the tattoo and wood carving that influenced him so deeply when he lived in Japan.

Rio Kaneki holds up a block print that he carved by hand. (Samantha Duerksen)

Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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