Of the 120m manhole covers in Japan, many sport eye-catching insignia, continuing a long tradition that pairs industrial design with graphic art. A new book documents this truly street-level subculture…

Remo Camerota is a self-confessed ‘drainspotter’; one of a small legion of ‘manhoru’ maniacs. Manhoru is the Japanese word for ‘manhole’ and, in Tokyo, Camerota’s adopted home, there are thousands of them on the city’s streets. It’s the manhole covers that attract the fans and what Camerota’s new book, Drainspotting, is dedicated to. This seemingly purely functional object, a semi-hidden element of the municipal landscape, is reborn in Japan as a brightly coloured emblem of civic pride.

The word ‘manhoru’ in fact derives from its English equivalent, a result of overseas influence on the modernisation of Japan’s sewerage systems in the late 19th century (more basic versions of which had been in place in the country for around 2,000 years). As Camerota describes in the introduction to his book, it was foreign engineers who were to introduce modern underground systems to Japan – the new, above-ground access points adopting the manhoru name.

The first manhole covers made in Japan were of a fairly basic design, occasionally patterned with geometric shapes merely to improve surface traction. But by the middle of the 20th century bespoke designs were emerging, and by the 1980s, as more areas outside of the country’s major cities had been modernised, manhole covers began to evoke regional identities, local landmarks, flora and fauna, and even Manga characters. Manhoru cover design had become a council-sanctioned form of urban art.

It was while researching his previous book, Graffiti Japan, that Camerota took an avid interest in the varied manhoru covers that peppered the roads. He was aware of ‘drainspotters’ – the breed of ‘otaku’ (fan) dedicated to photographing the best covers and blogging their findings – and decided to embark on his own ‘treasure hunt’: a journey around the prefectures of Japan with the aim of recording some of the most interesting manhoru covers he could find.

“There are two types of covers in Japan,” Camerota says as an introduction to the project. “Every city has their own local fire department design, for use on the points where the firemen can access water, and then there are the designs for each of the prefectures that have something on them specific to the locality; the flowers or birds native to a particular place. In Nagoya, for example, they have a fish on their covers as the area is famous for big tuna.”

So striking are some of the designs Camerota has photographed, that it’s hard to believe they are bolted down on pavements and roads across Japan, when they look like they should be exhibited in a gallery. “The Japanese take pride in visually presenting something,” explains Camerota. “If you buy anything in a shop, the assistant will wrap it beautifully. For me, the manhoru covers are a way of presenting the city to the public. It’s like the icing on the cake, decorating the local area with these everlasting designs.”

Camerota’s travels took him to both of the country’s dedicated manhoru museums (yes, there are two) and also to Nagashima Steel Works, one of the three foundries that have been producing covers since the 1940s.

“In the late 1970s they thought of incorporating the city mascot into the design of the manhole covers,” says Camerota of his meeting with Hirotaka Nagashima, the Nagashima foundry’s president. “They suggested it to one council, who liked the idea, and from there the trend caught on. It was good for tourism and it certainly brightened up the streets.”

The Nagashima foundry now only makes manhole covers, seeing the work through from initial design (the in-house artists are briefed by local councils) to the industrial production process. “Each of the coloured covers costs about $3,000 to design and then up to $30,000 to make the first one,” Camerota explains. “The foundry has banks and banks of archived moulds, about 6,000 different designs on wood. The process begins in wood, then they pack this mould with sand. The metal is then poured onto the sand and they have the final mould.” Instead of then painting a fired finished object, the steel covers are ‘filled’ using a tree resin that contains a colour pigment. “The cover artist uses a plastic tube full of colour,” says Camerota, “that’s how the covers are so perfect and flat; they’re actually filled up with colour that sets with gravity.”

Camerota was also invited to view the design room at Nagashima, though the designs being worked on were guarded with some secrecy. Here, eight designers are responsible for the pictorial elements on the covers; from flowers to fire trucks and civic symbols, with one artist even specialising in Manga. AutoCAD is apparently the design programme of choice, which can give the covers a distinctly ‘vector-art’ appearance.

In fact, the thick black outlines to each manhoru image serve a practical purpose, too: they offer grip to the millions of tyres that will pass over them during the course of their lifetime. And as Drainspotting proves, while there’s much to love about Japan when looking up, there’s also a whole world of great design to be seen on the ground.

Drainspotting by Remo Camerota is published by Mark Batty Publisher in March


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