When Casey Kawaguchi puts down the spray paint can, takes a step back from his mural and sees strangers passing by and commenting on his work, he feels a satisfying sense of purpose.
“Like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing,” he said. “Makes all of it worth it. That, and just getting to see it brought to life — what was just a vision.”
Kawaguchi’s artistic visions have come to life in a variety of murals decorating the metro Denver area. His talents led to him becoming the Arapahoe Libraries’ featured artist for 2023, which community members celebrated during a May reception at Smoky Hill Library in Centennial.
“The Arapahoe Libraries’ featured artists programs showcase the work of a local artist who uses their art to shed light on diverse communities, discuss their culture, history, or social justice, and spark important community conversations,” said Nicole Dumville, the volunteer services and art galleries coordinator for Arapahoe Libraries.
“Our featured artist, Casey Kawaguchi, exemplifies all of these things,” Dumville said. “We’re so excited to say that we have his solo exhibition, ‘Unmei,’ here at Smoky Hill Library for the next month, which is also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.”
Kawaguchi, a Japanese American artist based in Denver, is a self-taught artist whose work often draws from his heritage.
People who see his murals may notice a similar looking character — a woman — in each of them.
“I do paint a repetitive character that sort of developed over my, really, my whole life,” he said. “It is, I feel, like a representation of myself.”
Kawaguchi always had Japanese inspiration, he said. He grew up in Utah, where he was around a tight-knit Japanese community.
“It’s always been a strong part of my identity,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older … I’ve realized these inspirations from when I was a kid have come out in my work.”
As part of the reception, Kawaguchi showed videos of a documentary that captured some of the most meaningful work he has created.
When he paints the walls to create a mural, he sees it as being similar to martial arts, he said. He described it as a physical meditation and a practice of something that is internal.
“The practice of it is allowing something that’s internal to grow alongside of the physical practice,” he said. “The practice of doing it is, like, something you never get to, and it is a practice — like a target you’re aiming at but you never hit.”
Part of his path as an artist was realizing that he can take something negative and out of his control, and use his artwork as a way to transform that struggle and give it new meaning, creating something that can inspire others.
“And so, making art, I feel like, is a necessity to me,” he said. “I think being able to convey that and share it is part of my purpose.”
Kawaguchi’s interest in artwork started at a young age because his older brother had a talent for drawing, becoming Kawaguchi’s earliest inspiration.
“I grew up drawing from photos and comic books and almost, just, obsessively trying to perfect what I was drawing,” he said. “But then, when I started to go away from reference and just drawing from my imagination, there was a turning point.
“And that was, I feel like, the start of what became my character.”
Over time, Kawaguchi began painting and found an interest in spray painting.
“I never would have imagined being able to have these opportunities and painting murals that are seen by so many people when I was a kid,” he said.
One interaction that has stuck with Kawaguchi was when he was painting a mural and a family came by with a young boy around the age of 7.
The family told Kawaguchi that they had to bring the young boy because he had seen Kawaguchi’s work and was inspired, starting to draw samurai himself.
“They wanted to bring him by and show him in person the painting,” Kawaguchi said.
Wanting to enhance the young boy’s experience, Kawaguchi let the boy use spray paint for the first time and tag his name on Kawaguchi’s wall.
These opportunities to share his artwork with young people excites him, he said.
“I imagined if I had seen people painting, like painting a large mural or using spray painting and stuff, when I was a little kid, it would’ve changed — it would’ve changed my life,” he said.
Among the crowd of people who gathered to see Kawaguchi and his work was Jenni DeWitt Walker and her husband and two daughters.
DeWitt Walker often checks what is happening at Arapahoe Libraries, and given her 14-year-old daughter, Rayanne Walker, has a passion for art, the family decided to attend the reception.
“It was amazing. His artwork is incredible,” Dewitt Walker said about the event. “It’s very, like, awe-inspiring for me.”
Rayanne’s favorite part of the night was seeing Kawaguchi’s artwork, she said, adding that she was interested to hear how he got to where he is today, especially given that he is self-taught.
For Kawaguchi, his favorite part was the opportunity to convey in words what he feels about his art.
He said he hopes attendees connected with their own source of inspiration and gathered the message that when they find something that inspires them, that is a compass for them to follow.
“Those things that you do feel, the inspiration you do feel — there’s a reason why you feel that,” he said. “You not only can but are meant to do that.”
“Follow your heart.”
Those interested in learning more about Kawaguchi can visit his website, caseykawaguchi.com. To see a map of where his murals are, visit bit.ly/muralmaps.