One of my favorite book discoveries this summer is Drainspotting by Remo Camerota. The book celebrates an array of fascinating manhole cover designs from Japan. According to Camerota, nearly 95% of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan have their very own customized manhole covers. The country has elevated this humble, practical object to its own art form. The designs depict everything from local landmarks and folk tales to flora and fauna and images created by school children.
Camerota explains the evolution of these custom covers in Drainspotting:
“In the 1980s as communities outside of Japan’s major cities were slated to receive new sewer systems these public works projects were met with resistance, until one dedicated bureaucrat solved the problem by devising a way to make these mostly invisible systems aesthetically appreciated aboveground: customized manhole covers.”
As the book explains, design ideas for the specialized covers originate with the local city or council and are then presented to in-house designers at a municipal foundry. Once local officials and the designers agree upon an image, a prototype is created before the final manhole covers are cast in metal. Hirotaka Nagashima, the president of the Nagashima Foundry, explains the process in Drainspotting:
“We carve the design on a piece of wood. Next we put sand on the wood pattern and make a negative sand pattern; then we pour melted iron into the pattern, clear up the iron,…blast and paint the cover black. When we have colored ones they are done by hand and painted with a thick tree resin, colored from pigment. The tree resin sets rock hard and lasts much longer than paint.”
The Nagashima Foundry, which is the second largest in the country, makes about 400 manhole covers a day. The foundry has made over 6,000 different patterns in all. Not every design finds it way to the streets and sidewalks, however. In Camerota’s interview, Nagashima explains how one design of a shrine gate was abandoned when local priests objected. The priests did not believe it was appropriate for a sacred image of a shrine to be driven over and walked on.
I’ve also assembled this fascinating collection of Japanese manhole covers for you to peruse. Most of these images were taken by various photographers who are sharing their work through the Creative Commons on Flickr. The unattributed images are from Japanese websites. There is also a Japanese Manhole Cover Flickr Group with over 2,500 images, which is enough to keep an avid drainspotter busy for hours.
Perhaps it’s time for cities outside Japan to rethink their own drain-cover designs? This could be a great public art project in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, or any other American city, and it would be fascinating to see the designs various artists created.
To see more Japanese manhole covers, check out Remo Camerota’s book Drainspotting, now available as an eBook for iPad, iPod, and iPhone (or you can explore a print copy.)
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