Freak show banners:見世物小屋看板

Freak shows and their tents of horrors were once regular attractions at city and country fairs. Appearing as if out of nowhere, then vanishing as soon as the festival ended, they enticed good men and women to indulge their most prurient feelings of disgust and incredulity. The action would begin outside the tent, where the promoter, a sort of ringmaster, spouted pseudo-scientific sermons about his poor exhibits, people damned by cruel fate or perhaps a single immoral act, to live forever as half-woman half-octopus, a spider woman, or a ‘human pump.’ Roll up, roll up. Pay no more than the price of a bowl of ramen to see for yourself!  

Freak shows made little use of advance publicity; their business model was simply to seize the curiosity of the unknown passerby — and drag him or her inside on the spot. Their chief visual tool was the sensational painted banner, of which four are on display at MORA: a pair of cows with human heads like Elvis and Liz Taylor, a snake woman, a troupe of wrestling banshees, some mermaids.

Freak shows date back to at least the Edo period (1603-1868). As they wound down over the years, many of their legitimate displays, including animals, found their way into museums and zoos. But their most enduring exhibits proved to be the real and dressed-up humans, cautionary examples of the perils of flouting the laws of cause and effect. Even 20 years ago, you could still catch the sort of characters to add mystery and colour to a festival night:  the women who were part-snake, or part-spider, part-cow, part-wolf or part-Tarzan, and even the ‘half body girl.’

Another crucial aspect was that the freak shows’ outlandish claims were rarely fleshed out. A miniature tiger may have looked more like a stray cat. A bit of body paint worked wonders to create savages. But there was genuine horror, too. The imaginations of the boys and girls too young to gain entry, but who nonetheless crowded outside, were surely fertile grounds for the ringmaster’s macabre tales — and who’s to say the shocking visions of the banner illustrations are not still engendering nightmares?

Shimura Seiho  Freak show sign painter

Shimura Seiho (born Shibumura Katsujiro, 1905-1971) is the only artist to have based an entire career on creating freak show banners. Shimura’s startling imagination and confident, precise brushwork is responsible for almost every mural seen at post-war freak shows. Although he all but abandoned painting in the 1950s, his visions of impossible worlds continue to strike awe into those who see them.

Born in Hakata, Kyushu, Shimura, as the characters for his pseudonym ‘Seiho’ suggest, was a quiet boy who loved solitude and art. As a youth, he ran away from home to study painting in Tokyo. But after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, he returned to his hometown, where he fell under the spell of circus banners and apprenticed to one of their creators, the renowned local painter Hakusui Koun, who also painted votive and other images. After earning his independence, Shimura focused on freak shows.

The majority of his commissions were for generic, ‘off the shelf’ banners, and he constructed his compositions freely and energetically, turning out one wonder-world creation after another. He is said to have posted a sign at his studio that read ‘Popular Art Company,’ and demand for his work was high. It may indeed be that the number of people whose retinas have Shimura’s ‘popular art’ burned into them far outnumbers those who have pored over conventional pictures residing comfortably in galleries.

In January 1998, Shimura’s work was shown at an exhibition of circus banners held at the Contemporary Art Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio. He may never have dreamt his art would earn such an accolade. Had he known, would surely have celebrated with his favourite sake and a characteristic touch of humility. Text by Carlos Yamazaki (Rare World Publishing)