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Tokyo subway’s humble duct-tape typographer

Chris Gaul

okyo’s cavernous train stations seem to be permanent construction zones. There is always some part or another shrouded in white sheets and skirted by a maze of endlessly shifting temporary paths. Walk the bowels of these stations long enough and you may come across Shuetsu Sato 佐藤修悦. Sixty-five year old Sato san wears a crisp canary yellow uniform, reflective vest and polished white helmet. His job is to guide rush hour commuters through confusing and hazardous construction areas. When Sato san realised he needed more than his megaphone to perform this duty, he took it upon himself to make some temporary signage. With a few rolls of of duct tape and a craft knife, he has elevated the humble worksite sign to an art form.

「僕が今の仕事(駅の警備)に就いて、13~4 年経つんですよ。新宿駅に最初に行ったのが、2002年くらいかな。最初の勤務が新宿駅でね、構内が工事中で利用客をメガホンで誘導してたんですよね。ものすごい数の人が行き来してるでしょ。それを声だけで誘導するのは大変なんですよ。まあ、ほとんどの人に声が届かないじゃないですか。それで、目立つ案内表示を作ろうと思ったんです」
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修悦さん

‘Shinjuku Station was my first post, and it was under construction at the time, so I had to guide passengers using a megaphone. But there were so many people. Guiding them all with just my voice was impossible. Most of the people couldn’t even hear me. So I decided to make some signs to guide people that would really stand out.’
Shuetsu Sato

Shimokitazawa Station 「京王井の頭線→」(image: Wikimedia / Jim Shine)

Sato san has no formal graphic design training (Before working as security guard, he was a bank teller and worked in a cafeteria). Nevertheless, he has a masterful eye for form and colour. His exceptional letterforms are not only elegant and unique but, more importantly, very easy to read.

Using duct tape to craft the letters gives his work a distinctive style. He begins by running long strips of tape vertically and horizontally across the surface of the sign. He then slices away the excess to form each character. Some extra tape and a few curved cuts make the bends. It’s a straightforward process, but even the simplest signs take him hours to produce.

Sato san makes his signs with long strips of duct tape, removing the excess between letters. The result is that horizontal and vertical elements align across letters.

Sato san has a talent for designing Japanese and English letterforms that suit his duct tape medium. The exaggerated shape of his kanji, forced to their extremes by his grid system, are particularly elegant. He also has an incredible ability for clear visualisations: he often designs complex station diagrams with custom pictograms and colour coding for different lines — all made by hand from duct tape.

One of Sato san’s more complex signs. Image (Flickr / Antjeverena)

Sato san’s purpose is simple: he strives to make life better for the millions of commuters who negotiate station construction sites. His unassuming dedication to craft and service embodies the best side of the Japanese approach to work.

「自分でも思うんですよ。『頼まれてもいないのに』って。でも、頼まれてもいないのに作るのは、お客さん(利用客)目線で安全を考えたら、やっぱり必要なんですよ。あった方が便利だし、高齢者にはとくに必要だと思っている」
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修悦さん

I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing all this even though nobody ever asked me to? Even though I’m making the signs without anyone asking me, if I think about it from the passengers’ safety point of view, then the signs are absolutely necessary. It’s easier when there are signs around, and they’re especially necessary for older passengers.’
Shuetsu Sato

Sato san’s work has not gone unnoticed. His lettering is highly regarded by designers and curators—it even has a name: ‘Shuetsu Sans’ (修悦体). He occasionally gives packed-out demonstrations and, a few years ago, he published an instructional book that shows how anyone can make their own duct tape signage. His work has been exhibited around Japan and he has been asked to design logos, advertisements and film titles. But he is best loved for his station signs. Like Pokémon hunters, his fans are always on the lookout for his latest work, eager to post their captures to social media.

Sato san’s works are an embodiment of the best qualities of design. They are honest, simple responses to a need and, at the same time, they are expressive and delightful. It goes to show that design, at its essence, reflects an approach to life. What we see in these humble, thoughtful and playful signs is Shuetsu Sato himself.

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