Surrealist comedian Mitch Hedberg famously quipped, “An escalator can never break: it can only become stairs.” Well, poor Mitch had never seen a Thomasson.
Actually, that’s probably not true. Everyone's seen a Thomasson, they just don't know it. Thomassons permeate our cities. They warp the space around them into works of art with their transcendent mundanity. Mid-air doors without stairs, stairs to nowhere, guard rails with nothing to guard--all prime examples of a Thomasson.
Reactionary artist and essayist Akasegawa Genpei discovered the first Thomasson in 1972 during a stroll through the Yotsuya neighborhood near Shinjuku. He noticed a small set of stairs that led up to a short landing, then unceremoniously back down, to serve no practical purpose. The stairs were the antithesis of Japan's capitalist society. People aren't supposed to spend money for no reason, damn it!
Upon closer inspection he found that the stairs had recently been serviced with a fresh coat of paint. Someone put time and effort into preserving this architectural dingus. But who, and for whose benefit?
The faceless janitor gave this seemingly worthless object value. Imagine, something that exists simply so someone could look after it, its sole function to consume resources without producing output. Such an object could only be described as art. Or, given how it surpasses common aesthetics, hyper art.
In the same way that measuring a phenomenon alters the result, a Thomasson can only manifest through observation. Discovering a Thomasson makes you its curator. Akasegawa had a plan to turn Tokyo into an open-air hyper art gallery. He just needed a catchy name.
Flash forward to 1982. Major leaguer Gary Thomasson signs with the Yomiuri Giants, the Nippon League's equivalent of the New York Yankees with a bankroll fat enough to buy star talent from at home and abroad. Thomasson smashed salary records and was well on his way to also break the strikeout record before a career-ending knee injury cut his successful losing streak short.
Like the stairs in Yotsuya, Thomasson was built for one specific task but failed to provide any tangent utility for the money lavished upon him. You could only rationalize his sublime strikeouts as a work of living hyper art. Imagine Akasegawa, an avid baseball fan, watching the game as he mutters the word, “Thomasson, Thomasson...” Now you try it. Thomasson--the syllables roll off the tongue.
Eureka! Akasegawa’s buzzword came to him in an epiphany after ten years of contemplation. He introduced Thomasson to the world as a series of essays in the lewd photo journal, Shashin Jidai. Overcompensating for a lack of formal training with pricey gear, he and his Leica stalked the city for Thomassons and he urged readers to follow suit. Thomassons became the cornerstone of a citizen-driven street art movement where the street itself was the art.
And now you too can join the game with our handy Thomasson field guide. The following examples are approved by Akasegawa himself but don't let that stop you from inventing categories of your own. If it tells a story, it's a Thomasson. Or at least it's worth discussing the validity of its Thomassonhood.
For more information I recommend the book Hyper Art: Thomasson, faithfully translated by Matt Fargo in the irreverent yet insightful tone that Akasegawa is famous for. Feel free to submit your findings either to us, the publishers of Hyperart: Thomasson or the professionals of the Tokyo Thomasson Observation Center. Happy hunting!
THOMASSON FIELD GUIDE
Pure Staircase: A staircase that goes up or down but not to a destination.
Pointless gate: A gate that doesn't let anything through.
Eave Thommason: An overhang that's lost something to hang over.
Atago: Mysterious cement sculptures that line the street. Named after the district where Akasegawa discovered the first specimen.
Stratification: Layers of road built upon itself. The sedimentation of poor urban planning.
Buried Alive: A grave so shallow it only half-covers the victim.
Acrobatic: Getting up there is one thing, but how the hell do you get down?
Cement Slug: An organic Atago. They grow on corners of buildings.
Abe Sada: Any castrated object. Named after the woman who cut off her lover's penis and testicles.
Atomic Thommason: The impression of an object leaves on another building like the shadow of an atomic bomb victim. Also referred to as a mid-air stamp.
Spongecake: An object cemented over to leave a spongecake-like protrusion or indent.
Uyama: A sign that gains a new meaning by missing letters.
Aerial ladder: A ladder or staircase that terminates in a leap of faith.
Outie: Any object that pokes out like a big bellybutton.
Border: A railing that create wasted space out of thin air.
Omnivorous Tree: Nature that eats into the urban landscape.
Pure Type: A category for any object that exists for no reason other than to exist. Includes Pure Stairs.
Contortionist: A lazy, or perhaps creative solution to make ends meet.
Evaporation: Text or graphics that couldn't weather the passing of time.