Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending pots. Not mending them in the way you’d imagine – so you can’t see they were ever broken. No, it’s mending them in a way that makes a feature of their brokenness, celebrates and enhances it, so that the broken and mended piece becomes more beautiful and valuable than before. It turns our ideas about the meaning of damage and imperfection on their heads. I’ve just been to see a kintsugi artist in action.
In kintsugi, urushi lacquer is used to join the broken pieces – it forms a solid bond which holds the broken fragments together. Then more layers of urushi are applied to the repaired area, allowed to harden and cut back with charcoal or polishing powder to re-instate the original surface of the damaged piece. Finally gold, silver or other metallic powder is applied to the final layer of urushi to make the lines of the repair glitter, adding extra allure to the work. The techniques are the same as those used in maki-e lacquerwork, which I wrote about here.
The kintsugi demonstration I went to see was held at Tokyo Bike, a combined bike and ceramics shop in Shoreditch, just past Old St roundabout. When I arrived the kintsugi artist, Muneaki Shimode, was hard at work, surrounded by a rapt crowd of onlookers.
He was working on this little dish.
The tools of his trade were laid out on the counter in front of him.
Along with the little jars of metallic powder.
The nearly-finished article – it just needs polishing to remove excess powder.
One problem with working with urushi is that contains a irritant similar to poison ivy, so kintsugi artists often get an allergic reaction to it, though apparently they can develop an immunity over time. Hence the protective gloves shown in this video of the technique.
Tokyo Bike invited customers and members of the local community to bring in their own broken ceramics to be repaired for a modest charge, and there was a huge response – so much so that they were turning people away.
Here are some of the finished repairs.
On the day Tokyo Bike were also selling a kit containing the tools, lacquer and metallic powders needed, with printed instructions and a downloadable video. I’m not sure if it’s still available – contact Tokyo Bike for information. (Not me as I’m afraid I can’t help).
You can also get a kit online from Humade.
Muneaki Shimode is from the Maki-e Baisen studio in Kyoto. If you’re visiting the city, you’ll find the studio in front of the Nijo castle, where you can buy lacquerware or take part in a one-day workshop.
I’ve written about Tokyo Bike before. It’s the London branch of a small, independent bike maker from Yanaka in Tokyo. Besides selling and repairing their own range of bikes and holding maintenance classes for customers, they have an interesting range of Japanese ceramics and other artefacts for the home, including my favourite Mashiko Pottery.
They’re open Tuesday-Friday 11-7, Saturday and Sunday 11-5.