Hello and welcome. My name is Stephen Black and I work with media, words and art. Media: VR, computer-generated environments,video and photography. Words: articles and books, including Bali Wave Ghost, I Ate Tiong Bahru, Obama Search Words and a few others.

This post is gives you some idea of my current projects.

Thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Black
I Ate Tiong Bahru 2 crowdfunding page…

physical laborers

black and white image of man dropping vase

Ai Wewei, Yesim Agaoglu, Stephen Black, Eugene Soh collaboration in gallery.sg

Jeff Koons Balloon Dog in SPOKEN

Nhung: Floating

low tech in hi tech

Works created with ink

two men smiling

If one person can be said to symbolize the Tiong Bahru Market, it might be this guy in the hat…

SB & 3D (Why I’m excited to be in Eugene Soh’s virtual gallery project)

THIS post was written before SPOKEN started. SPOKEN is a project I am doing with Eugene Soh, an experiment in which art, text, virtual reality and social media intersect. Learn about SPOKEN here.

To enter gallery.sg and experience SPOKEN, click here.
Here is the extremely short version: from 2002 until 2008 I was involved with a visionary virtual reality project that combined educational practices with gamemaking and multimedia. However, the spiritual captain of the project was part Disney, part Microsoft and part Sex Pistols. An unexpected death, treachery, incompetence, inexperience, bureaucratic boondoggles and more made my life “interesting”… I have pages of notes about the events and the spirit of the times. We were doing things like Youtube and Second Life before they started. The project was so close… and yet so far away. (Actually, now that mobile technology has settled down, I hope that the lessons and products of that experience can be revitalized. But that’s yet another story.)
In 2006, as a way of showcasing our technology,  I entered a gamemaking hackathon. A theme was given on a Thursday morning and the next day at five the results were judged.The theme was something about healthy eating, I think. Working with my programmer in Hong Kong, we made a game in which the viewer learned about the calorie count of certain foods. The player competed with an AI character.  It was fun to do.
However, what I remember most was a team that made an incredible flash game. I don’t remember if they won or not, but I do remember two guys on that team very well. George Parel and Eugene Soh were full of energy, knowledge and bursting with creative ideas.
They still are.
I’ve been lucky to work with George and Eugene on a few projects since then. In 2008 I finally had to put the educational gamemaking project on hold while I waited for a programmer and the mobile device situation to stabilize.I put more time into writing and art projects. George and Eugene (that dude from Singapore) however, have kept on doing remarkably creative things with IT, art, design and more.
Virtual reality may seem to be an artificial place, but the gallery Eugene has created fills me with memories and hope. I am honored and very thankful for I Ate Tiong Bahru to be on display in gallery.sg
IATB in virtual gallery
Cheers, Eugene! Cheers, George!

Ebooks: Born to Click (1 of 3)


This informal essay is my way of marking the end of a certain era in ebook history. It’s part snapshot, part reference materials, part journal.At the end of this post are notes about me, my experiences and my books.
Thanks to Doug Rolph for his insights on economics, Eric Hellman for his input and my dad for having taken care of our family by selling books.

το πνεύμα του Ιανού

After I finish writing eight books, I will begin marketing. Until then, I’ll probably study the ebook world less and hopefully do more writing, arting and engaging with Life. When it does comes time for me to contribute to the marketing conversation, I hope I have something to say. For now, I present the following notes, quotes and thoughts as a means of punctuating a phase in the development of ebooks as I have seen and experienced it.

This is an exciting time. The ebook delivery platforms are finally stable, self-publishing has proven to have great value and a number of services have recently appeared that shorten the distances between readers and authors. It seems to me that indie ebooks and ebook marketing are about to enter a new era.

This blog post makes little mention of traditional publishing. This is simply because, as much as I would like to enjoy the benefits of being a Big 5/6 author, that fruit is not now within my reach. I am however, considering joining the Author’s Guild.

Although I’ve done almost no marketing, I have studied the environments in which ebooks are created, presented, bought and sold. Some observations:

1. Except for uploading, nothing about ebooks is easy.
Writing is the anti-social social media, full of long, long hours of pressure-filled solitude. Assembling an error-free book is never simple. The social part, finding an audience, is an immense challenge. I respect all of the authors mentioned in this post for they have successfully met these challenges and more.

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.
Stephen King

Based on my experiences, the work breakdown of an 88,000 word novel looks something like this: 1000 words a day (88 days) or, more likely, 500 words a day (176 days). Call it 200 days to prepare something for a proofreader. Two months for corrections, art, and ebook conversion. So, a book takes about 300 working days to finalize. About…
And then there are the thousands of actions needed to connect with readers… The title of Guy Kawasaki’s excellent book says it all: APE, meaning Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

This document, by Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, is a data-based analysis of the ebook market. Highly recommended, it covers topics important for newbies and veterans. It touches upon issues like word count, pricing, marketing and more. For instance, his research shows that the average bestseller on Smashwords is 100,000 words, and the average romance is 112,195 words. (There are more links to resources at the end of this post.)
Very few traditionally published authors became bestsellers; the same is true for ebook publishing. My goal is not to become a bestseller, but to connect with the largest possible community of people who enjoy the art of reading.

2. A great writer or a great marketer…
….or, the frustration of being caught between not doing enough writing and not doing enough marketing. A writer writes, a salesman sells.
Self-publishing does not equal self-marketing. Spending money wisely on promotion money means income and time to write. (See the links below)
Twitter, Goodreads, FB, LinkedIn and blogging? All have their advantages and disadvantages…

3. There are no independent, hugely successful ebook-only self-publishers.
Note: Two days after this post went up, I became aware of this great piece by Dana Beth Weinberg on Digital Book World. Thank you Jacqueline Church!

Amazon is huge, Apple is huge, Kobo and Smashwords are very big. Unless you are selling from your own website or the back of your car, you’re not truly independent.

OK, A bit of an attention grabber there…but the author’s need for a partnership with Amazon and ebook distributors is a dependence that cannot be overlooked. These “automatic partners” will always protect their interests first. They call the shots. Amazon is a business, not an author.

Amanda Hocking is a hugely successful author. At one point, the average daily sales figure of her self-published ebooks was 9000. Again: average DAILY book sales: nine thousand! Her success was based on hard work, technological first mover advantage and an indirect tie-in with Hollywood.
-the successful and pioneering integration of ebook readers into tablets and mobile as well as the launch of the Kindle (2007) and the iPad(2010)
-the large demographic of young women who bought readers and tablets
– the fact that, having written many books, Hocking could quickly provide a new and large market with a variety of new titles
– writing books about the paranormal when Hollywood is pushing the same cannot hurt. Twilight, the hugely successful series of movies about teen vampires began in 2008. Hocking’s first book, My Blood Approves, began selling in 2010.

E.L. James’ book phenomenon began in the fan fiction chat rooms for Twilight. The characters in Fifty Shades of Grey were originally the characters from Twilight. Could Master of the Universe, as her series was originally called, have achieved its success without an existing network of thousands of Twilight fans?

These two women made their mark upon society in two different ways. As shared, collective book-based experiences: WOW!
However, the writing is…”not terrible” or worse

I remember SF/F authors complaining (back in 2011) that their readers hadn’t switched to e-books yet, casting jealous eyes at the outsized romance audience. But as readers did move across, we saw people like David Dalglish and BV Larson breaking out, and the rest of “genre” fiction soon followed.

There are “indie success stories” about authors who “rode into town” on the backs of traditional publishing. Funded by Big 6 money these “indies” were advertised and publicized, sent on book tours and given things like business cards. Possibly, audiobooks were made. Hundreds, if not thousands, of their books were given away, many to reviewers.
As the ‘first mover’possibilities of the ebook market became clear and realistic, these authors, knighted by the Big 6 and armed with credibility and connections, rode onto a battlefield with little opposition… Undoubtedly hard work was involved, but to label them as indies brings to mind the quip about George Bush: “…was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

There certainly are “ebook only” indies connecting with many readers and enjoying sales. I just don’t know of any. (FOUND SOMEONE: LINDSAY BUROKER Please tell me about others! them! Somewhat related to this, are there any “ebook only” awards?

Here, authors talk about their sales experiences.

4. The ebook world evolves to reward the reader; the prepared author benefits from this.
Fan fiction. Goodreads. Ebook readers on mobile phones. The mashup between big data and metadata. Entrepreneurs with vision who see ways to connect authors and readers in a new ways.

It is an exciting time.

Ebooks: Born to Click, Part 2 of 3

visit www.blacksteps.tv for parts 2 and 3 of this post, as well as information on art, books and ebooks


Iron Fire Riceball Singapore Tour

Will work on this tomorrow …But simply, we continued the riceball art project by making  riceballs and offering them to organic stores in Singapore, as well as people we met along the way.

Photos of the stores are coming, but for now, I’ll just mention that we went to most of the organic stores on this list.

misoriceball tour 005_haiku writer misoriceball tour 003_scc riceballs Aliwal wall misoriceball tour 069_Annie Liebovitz guy w riceball

Lorong 16

Carlyn lit the blowtorch.

   Tango delicately lowered his body so he could stare deeper into the rat’s eyes. The rat smelled Tango’s breath and immediately pulled its head back and flattened its body against the bottom of the cage. It couldn’t move back any further. Tango’s nose almost touched the slowly frantic whiskers. The rat started shivering. The cookie pan was ready. Carlyn stepped back. The rat’s tail had been moving back and forth wildly. Now it stopped. Carlyn remembered when that rat was born, when it was pink and blind. Tango opened the cage and she closed her eyes, waiting.

 Click, click, click,click.

 Then, the red hot corner of the cookie pan and the very brief little sizzling sounds. Calmly, Tango picked up the newspaper and walked towards the door that led to outside. Mad Dog held it open and Tango lobbed the rat in front of the window.

 ”Now!” said the girl in the white dress, the moment the rat’s body hit the ground..

 Tango went into the greeting room and stood next to Douglas. The rat had quickly regained consciousness. Now it was letting out long screams, gasping for air and trying to run on its pawless legs.It didn’t go far. It became still.

 ”Now!” the girl in the white dress said again.

 The girl watching the clock said “Forty five seconds”.

 “I win!” said the girl in the green sequinned dress happily, “I bet forty-eight! I win again!” The other girls grumbled in Cantonese and looked ready to kill her.Rizal trotted in, immediately disappointed that he’d missed his chance.

 “The Hold’s getting stronger,” Tango said, understating the obvious.”Yesterday was a minute fifteen.” Douglas turned and walked away. Tango and the girls watched as Carlyn ran out, grabbed the dead rat by the tail and dashed back in,holding her breath the entire time.


 Tango and Rizal had been talking as they walked from the greeting room to Tango’s office.Now, in the doorway to Tango’s office, Rizal stopped. Douglas was inside, sitting behind the coffee table topped with two glasses, a bucket of ice and an almost empty bottle of Glenmorangie. Rizal had been talking about getting more plants from a grower in Malaysia, one up in the Highlands.”Just need a car and a couple of masks for two days… Four hundred dollars should do it.”

 “I’ll think about it.”

 “Sure, boss.I’m ready any time, but the sooner the better. Safer that way.”

 Tango closed the door and sat back down. Douglas took care of Tango’s drink.  The silence between them was comfortable,as it always was. Sometimes,though, they had music.They listened to the vinyl LPs Douglas had brought over with his treasured record player. The two had memorized and discussed LPs by Fritz Kreisler, Jelly Roll Morton, The Replacements,Dick Lee,Frank Sinatra and Helen Reddy. They debated Hendrix vs. Prince vs Tommy Emmanuel and complained about the Cantopop the girls listened to.Douglas taught Tango some simple blues riffs on the piano.Once in a while Douglas played and Tango sang. Always they ended with Love and Happiness by Al Green.

 Finally, Douglas leaned forward.

 “Just a coincidence… best plants are at a nursery up near the casino…”

 “Probably. Another coincidence… Rizal needs 400 bucks and a cash advance.”

 Douglas looked around the room, then looked through the one way mirror to the greeting room.There the wall behind the couch was completely covered by greenery. “Rizal really does know how to take care of  plants. I wasn’t happy to let him go.”

 “Your loss, my gain. He replaced the rotten wood on the windows. Sealed  ‘perfectly. Took care of that fan. Haven’t had a blackout since he started.I think he’s changed…” Tango took off his jacket, went over and carefully hung it in the flimsy Ikea closet.“…but if he hasn’t, outside he goes. If he’s lucky, he’s lucky. But if The Hold’s like it is today, he’s got twenty seconds to make it to McDonalds.“If they’re open…”

 “…and if he’s got money for the guard.”

 Douglas was leaving in four days, moving to the mountains near Yogyakarta. The two met the day Tango moved in. The Hold didn’t have a name then.


 The first deaths occurred on a cruise ship, the night before it was supposed to dock in Singapore. Only two thousand passengers died. The Straits Times said the deaths were caused by Indonesians burning poisonous plants as they cleared the last remaining jungles for palm oil plantations. Then, two days later, a wave of death struck from Tanjong Pagar and Sentosa to the oil refineries in Jurong and beyond, up into Malaysia: ten thousand people. Scientists then said that global warming and air pollution were interacting to create “super blankets” of carbon dioxide. People could not escape Singapore fast enough. Within a week, the unexplainable asphyxiations–similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, had filled the  Central Business District and the surrounding areas with corpses.The homeless camped in the MRT stations, gathered on Mount Faber and in the inner parts of the heartlands. The world listened as scientists explained why this disaster was uniquely Singaporean. Then, the same catastrophe occurred in Houston. Then Amsterdam. Then New York. Yokohama, Shanghai and Long Beach. Millions of people poisoned by breathing in fatal amounts of carbon dioxide. Within three years most of the world’s coastlines were graveyards,all deathly still because of something like Crib Death. The Apocalypse was started by carbon monoxide poisoning, the coastal lungs of the planet unable to refill themselves with oxygen, with Life. Almost no one knows why this happened.

There’s a knock on the door. Before Tango can reply, Wendy pokes her head in. “Papa, the American! She cut her wrist again!”

 Tango looks at Douglas, rolls his eyes and empties his drink. ”And you think my life is nothing but looking angry and orchestrating orgies of mass destruction,” He puts his glass down with a surprising softness and rolls his office chair back, ”well…it aint.”

    Wendy steps back. “Room 12, Papa. Rei found her.”

  Without speaking, they rush upstairs, down the hall, towards the red light above Room 12.

To be continued

Bullet Point Portrait: Casey Heng, Wine Distributor based in Singapore

-I met Casey at the Tiong Bahru market and immediately we started talking about his wine and my book about Tiong Bahru. Casey grew up in Tiong Bahru and is still a very frequent visitor. Do you know the name of the first movie shown at the King’s Theatre?
Casey is a wine importer and distributor, representing vineyards, producers and distributors from Spain, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and France.
– “The Singapore wine market could expand greatly if the government would take a look at their duty system. I have a beautiful wine that comes in at $3 a bottle and I have to pay a $9 duty! The duty is based on percentage of alcohol and volume. It would be great if this could be re-assessed. We could surpass Hong Kong!”
-A Protege… Casey would like to find someone who is equally passionate about wine, regardless of background. This person would learn about and assist with the business, possibly take it over.
Casey has extensive experience in sales and marketing. He has sold everything from bottle caps to sporting goods to shoes.
-He would like to connect with winemakers and vineyards who are not sure how to enter the Singapore/Southeast Asia market.
-He would like to continue to educate consumers about the values and pleasures of well-crafted wine.
justwine2 ATMARK ymail DOT com
P.S. The first movie shown at the King’s Theatre was Overland Pacific.
This post will be updated soon, with photos of Casey, photos of wines he represents and links to vineyards and other wine-related links.

A great discount/ semi-On Kawara artwork/Fashion!?/a neologism/books/moving

Simple description: I am moving (shifting as they say in Singapore/the UK) and hope to get some of my artworks in the hands of people who understand them. Pay what you like for the following printed books:  Bali Wave Ghost, I Ate Tiong Bahru and Furikake. All of these books have received positive reviews and all are described on this blog elsewhere.

As for the T-shirts:

-they are a means of disseminating information about “compung”, a word I have created. I am now looking for organizations about neologisms, so as to find ways to register “compung” or get it into the mainstream.Compung documentation (T-shirt)

– they reference On Kawara as well as Prince’s use of symbols and  the substitution of letters for words

-they promote the Kampung GUI. GUI stands for ground up initiative, a concept that I strongly believe in.

-they feature my “unaesthetic” aesthetic. Fun, maybe challenging…


SO… get in touch if you are interested. I would be happy to connect these limited edition artworks with people who “get” them…


Kampung GUI tour pointing


The books are a limited edition, joining these others.


April 23, 2016: Compung (a new word) and Iron Fire Riceball Artwork

Today at the Kampung GUI Eighth Anniversary Event, I debuted a new word and a new artwork. The new word is ‘compung’ and the new artwork was an edible social sculpture: Iron Fire Miso Riceballs.

Compung sounds like, and references, kampung, the Malay language word for village or community. However, the first three letters, c o m, reference computers. ‘Compung’ is a new word that may have a meaning similar to ‘tribes’ (as in the ‘digital tribes’ associated with social media), but with more “real life” interaction. The first conversation of what ‘compung’ might be like was with Brian Lee Xin Yang, at about 10:30 AM.

A Compung Facebook page has been set up.
Compung documentation (T-shirt)Created with  “unaesthetic” fonts and layouts, the information suggests incompleteness; the excitement of an initial sketch. The first line is likely the influence of my life  in Ubud. The second line is meant to be– and look like– the words which form the message; COMPUNG Art Seed Breaking. The next two lines are self-explanatory, and the last line is a kind of shorthand. The use of “mi” suggests music.

There are some T-shirts still available. Do let me know if you’d like one.

A collaboration with Mom from Mom’s Natura Farms in Bali, the Iron Fire Riceballs were well received. There were discussions about fermentaion, miso’s medical properties(including its anti-radiation properties) and the benefits of salt. The iron fire rice balls were an unexpected extension of my Furikake book.

A blog post/short story about Mom, Tokyo, Bali and Furikake is here.

iron fire riceballs and red thumbkway

Lim Lam Hong Confectionery: thank you for always taking the time to make the kways perfect artworks that are delicious!.

Thank you to Tawaraya for supplying us with such delicious Hokkaido Nanatsuboshi rice!

fire iron miso riceball




Inari, Bali and Snow

  • The Author Show audio  interview with Stephen Black on the Furikake book.
  • On Saturday, April 23, Stephen Black will be reading and presenting the thumb kway artworks and a new artwork entitle Miso Furikake Riceballs. Details here.
  • On April 22, this will be added to the book entitled Furikake.
  • This is the final version of Inari, Bali and Snow, replacing other versions of this story that were posted on this blog.


February 21, 2016

Man, this miso stuff is serious!

Mom and I’d been talking about food as social art. Edible, nutritious art. Public sculptures of popcorn and haikus made of glutinous rice. We discussed the pigmentation of palm sugar, sesame seeds, coconut oil and pink Himalayan salt. Mom explained how roasting changes miso’s color and texture. I introduced Mom to the artworks of Ferran Adria and el Bulli. I explained how and why I made kways shaped like my thumbprint. I learned that, in Japanese, “tekka” is written with two kanjis and means “iron fire”. And, in Kyushu, ‘tekka’ means someone with a strong, focused and energetic personality. Like Mom, who just told me that miso has anti-radiation properties and was used as medicine at Hiroshima. Man, this miso stuff is serious…

Mom has a healthy glow. Her eyes are bright and full of depth. Calm with wisdom, yet the signs of overwork show through. Mom is one of those people who are truly aware that we are all in the same tiny boat on the vast River of Time, sometimes going with the flow, sometimes lost without a paddle.

Bamboo Spirit is a center of social energy; a tie-dyed campus at the top of the Penestanan Steps. A Hindu place, a Russian place, a Japanese place…a  quietly glorious Balinese place. Next to a stream, the house-like, open structure is old and made of wood and stone.. From the second floor and the small strange cozy space on the third, one can see rice fields and the hills of Ubud. People celebrate food here. Mom sells her products here on Sundays.

Alex introduced us. Barefoot and standing on the hard ground, we were soon discussing fermentation, the laphet I brought from Myanmar and the tekka miso from her farm. Above us, a canopy of yellow cloth warmed and softened the light, giving everyone and everything a golden shadow. I gave Mom laphet and she gave me mimosa tea. I told Mom I would visit her farm as soon as I could. The farm is in Mas, just outside of Ubud, which is on the island of Bali in the country of Indonesia. In Spanish, ‘mas’ means ‘more’.

Furikake stars:

Faint, bittersweet sands of time

swirling clouds; rice ball.

I Am a Muddy Path With No Banana Leaves

I drove to Mas in darkness.

Mom welcomed me: “Six o’clock. You are on time. Like the Japanese.” She gave me her husband’s boots. My first task was to water “our plants”. That was on Level 1. Later in the morning, Rachel watered Level 2 and Liisa looked for okra on Level 3. There’s a teepee on the edge of Level 4. Mom was everywhere. Lined up at the windows of their classroom, the children from the school yelled “Hello” and “Good morning”, their cute voices and uncontrolled enthusiasm strong enough to cross the big field between us. Later, we heard them singing Balinese songs. I used a sickle on the plants surrounding the wild peanuts and discovered okra blossoms. As she walked in, as though she were laughing, Alex asked me how I was doing.

Breakfast, then, in Mom’s bamboo house. Papaya,okra salad and rice balls, everything full of flavor. Rachel mentioned something she’d read about how the visual appearance of food influences t digestion. Another topic: the ideal state of mind for those people who prepare food. Manny talked about food, air, water and McDonald’s and we all discussed furikake, laphet and mimosa tea. I wore the green shirt my mom bought for me, now faded and with a hole between my left shoulder and my heart. During the four hours I was at Mom’s, I was in the center of a beautifully slow and flowing sequence of events, thoughts and exchanges. I drank no coffee. 🙂

But my muddy path task is what made the strongest impression upon me. The farm has a network of paths and the recent rain had made some sections very slippery. Mom told me to make mats from the old leaves and stalks from the banana plants. If I did that, traction and safety would be improved. You don’t want someone falling with a large, sharp cutting instrument in their hands… I didn’t need a plan; in such a cosmic place, everything would be naturally perfect. But, my thinking was wrong.

I should have gained information about: a) the number of banana leaves available, b) the number of trouble spots, c) the “danger rating” of trouble spots, d) “danger ratings” vs. frequency of use, e) location and f) time available to complete the task.

I should have improved the most dangerous high-traffic sections first, starting with the steps between levels. Then, I should have used my limited amount of banana tree resources to prevent new trouble spots from developing. With whatever time was left, I should have put at least one leaf on all of the remaining areas, which would have warned others of danger.

But as it is, many parts of the paths on the farm are still very slippery and one small area in Level 1 is very safe.

Gold furikake

being sprinkled on blue snow,

Hanazono dawn

During my first winter in Asia, my home was a little tatami room in Yotsuya. There, on the morning of January 28, 1985, I awoke well before dawn, bundled up and set out to wander through a snowstorm that, with a continuing, powerful grandeur, had shut down Tokyo. I was hungry; had nothing but coins in my pocket and a camera loaded with black and white film. The glass door made the rolling, shaky noise it always did when it was opened. I stepped out. Immediately my nose and lungs were stung by cold air. I trudged through a maze of snowdrifts until I reached Shinjuku-dori. Then west, past the Sun Music Building that the singer had thrown herself off of. Then Yasukuni-dori, with the thought of going right and visiting Yasukuni Shrine. I’d sat in Yasukuni’s cafeteria once, with a veteran from World War II who said I looked like Gary Cooper. We drank green tea beneath a Mitsubishi Zero attached to the ceiling

But no, I wandered left, towards Shinjuku san-chome, where I stood beneath a traffic light and watched its colored lights tint the swirling snow. Eventually, Mitsukoshi and the other department stores, each big enough to occupy an entire block. Further west, across from the station, the gaudy lights, billboards and neon of Kabukicho had become soft pastels. On small side streets, I passed darkened yakitori-yas, convenience stores and round red akachochins topped with snow and ice. The quiet. The cold. The feeling of being immensely alone. And lost. Lost, lost, lost. Delightfully so.

Flower garden. A French friend and I went drinking near here one night and he told me that the Chinese characters carved in the monument now before me mean Flower Garden. Hanazono Jinja. Hundreds of years ago, the Hanazono family built this shrine dedicated to Inari, the androgynous god of fertility and worldly success. Inari, the god of the arts.

I walk forward, between two dull grey buildings. At the end of the passage, a torii; waiting like a strange goal post, or a letter from an alien alphabet. Tubular, wooden and orange, the torii is a relic from a ceremony of whispers. The people of Tokyo are warm in their beds and sleeping; I am in the cold and dreaming.

The stone basin for washing one’s hands and rinsing one’s mouth; the ice within it is now covered by a lace made of wire mesh and snow. The ema, the small, thin wood plaques covered with neatly written hopes and wishes, are bunched in rows, nooses connecting them to the display stand. The temple grounds are barely lit and surrounded by modernity. And then!

The clouds part and—for an instant– the sun rushes in like a spotlight. Against the dark blue snowy sky, golden light strikes the temple’s black tortoise shell roof, the white frost on the pine trees, and the stone foxes standing guard. The fresh vermillion paint for Oshogatsu, the corridor of red toriis, the simplistic arabesques of gold trim, the precise and clean concrete stairs; the sun is behind me, throwing itself forward everywhere. The gigantic shrine vibrates like a massive, noble flame of Japanese architecture. The vividness of details, the vividness of the whole… Then–just a glimpse– the full moon. Asahi!

I stood alone in that quiet heaven of color until the threat of the freezing cold could be ignored no longer. My feet and hands were paralyzed and one leg was becoming numb.

I vaguely recognized the steps at the back of the shrine, thought they’d be a shortcut to the Dunkin Donuts on Shinjuku-dori. At the top of the stairs, however, I saw that I was overlooking the two-story wooden shacks and alleys of Golden Gai. Somewhere in there was Shunchan’s. Like a wounded cowboy I limped down the stairs into that little white Japanese ghost town. Golden Gai: one of those places that teen aged Western boys imagine they will one day find themselves in. Prostitution, gambling, rendezvous spots, cheap drinking places, yakitori shops, bars specializing in all kinds of music; all connected by very narrow walkways lit by red paper lanterns and old cheap plastic Suntory signs. I was sure Shunchan wouldn’t be there. I was wrong.

Irrrashai!” He said it not with the loud bellowing mechanical style of most shop owners, but as though he were quietly sharing an inside joke. It was 7AM, in a frozen and snowbound Tokyo, but Shunchan smiled at me like it was late on a crowded Friday night after payday. Both serene and slightly nervous, Shunchan is the perfect host. He carefully stabbed the chunk of ice in his hand with a pick while I thought about my order.

Was Shunchan a great friend of mine? No–but he was an anchor, a touchstone.I was a regular; he and his little bar provided a sense of normality in a city full of extremes of all kinds. Always an interesting crowd, packed in around Shunchan and his bar. Whether they were Japanese, Russian or Australian, Shunchan made the hostesses feel relaxed. He treated the English teachers and backpackers like locals. Celebrities, artists and musicians brought in great mixtapes, his drinks weren’t that expensive and Shunchan laughed a lot. He was good friends with the young woman in the bright orange dress.

I sat where I always did, under the old, big posters of bent-over Japanese girls in bikinis on beaches holding mugs full of beer. Even when Shunchan’s was half-full, you had to stand behind the people seated at the bar and couldn’t help but sometimes touch them. Shunchan put down the ice pick and adjusted the kerosene heater at his feet. My hands treasured my glass of hot water and whiskey as my frozen pants started melting.

Then, like the sudden appearance of a deer in a forest, a naked and attractive young Japanese woman tiptoed down the stairs. With her finger, she moved her hair behind her ear. She politely smiled at me, then leaned forward and watched Shunchan make her tea. I immediately became fascinated with the smoke-stained chirashis promoting last year’s offerings of underground movies, independent music, butoh and avante-garde theatre. She was a pixie, flush with the color and smell of sex. She was steamy. She went back upstairs. Shunchan said nothing, I said nothing. A moment later, a young naked Japanese man came down, got a drink and went back up. Then another. Shunchan, smiled at me and began to look for his ice pick. My unforgettable morning was, for him, just another day at work.

So… Tokyo, for quite a few years, New York for a year, then The Handover in Hong Kong, then Tokyo for the millennium, then the excitement of crashing the dot-com boom party. Singapore then, to create Second Life, but before Second Life; and to lay the foundation for something like Youtube, but before Youtube. My indefinably star-like daughter, all the while shining… Scholarly friends, friends who needed a bath like me, friends who drove around in new cars and threw cigarette butts out the window. Supernova relationships with boundless vigor. Roommates with holes in their socks and roommates who blessed me with hearty breakfasts and made me feel like family. Roommates who cheated me. A three-legged cat and driving away from a lover’s home in Paris; the sun rising and the taxi driver playing a ney all the way from the Port of Clouds to Orly. Medicinal mushrooms. The Bioneers, just after 9/11. Sitting in a Clementi coffeeshop, a cheap mobile phone to my ear as I learned how they took a long blood vessel from his leg and put it in his chest to repair his heart. Chemo and radiation treatments. I’m working another shift on Mom’s farm and thinking of all of these things, especially the chemo and radiation. I’m planting black beans and watching the sunrise. Chemo and radiation, chemo and radiation.

The clumps of clay and the big mud stains on my blue jeans give me a Sense of Accomplishment. Komang, myself and the WWOOF volunteers, are having another wonderful meal in the bamboo house. We sip amazake and Sayuri listens to us tell stories. Mom and I discover that we’d been neighbors. We’d very likely waited for trains at Higashi-Nakano station at the same time. There, we could have stood together, maybe almost touching, as we looked inside the ninja school across from the station. We’d both definitely eaten in the Mongolian tent behind the KFC, and both of us remembered the books the owner had made: one about a circus and one about his autistic daughter. Sitting on the tatami at Mom’s, I remembered the life I had lived thirty years before; all of the chaotic, energetic activities with chaotic, energetic people. Mom and Shunchan had been great friends. She’d shared a bed with him–in a nonsexual way– and once pretended to be his fiancee so Shunchan’s mother would stop yelling at him to get married. I’d heard bits and pieces of these stories. Maybe Mom had sat next to me at Shunchan’s and I’d thought of very lustful things.

Earlier, when I was working in Level 3, Komang gave me okra pods that were like striped, brittle antelope horns. Three seeds in a hole. I planted as carefully as I could but then the light was fading and I sped up. Not good to leave something undone. Komang may have seen me rushing, maybe not. He came over and helped. “We always plant with love,” is all he said.

It should be obvious that I consider furikake to be a magnificent concept. A plain riceball is a canvas; furikake makes it an artwork. A composition of furikake, created by culture, geography, science and chance– is placed into the mouth. The brutal critics—the glands, teeth and tongue, decide if the work is something to be savored or spit out like poison.

During many of the days described in this story I wore ragged boxer shorts, shreds of white Japanese cotton shreds patterned with torn, red goldfish. The soft rags that covered my loins were more painful than a hairshirt. The gentle white cotton bit me harder than any cilice. Those boxer shorts were bought for me on the morning of the day we watched the harvest moon rise over the Pacific Ocean. That magical day was one of many moments we shared in that little coastal village that had the best seafood and the richest sake. Silently, we often observed the changing seasons while soaking in the hot spring of our ryokan, located just a couple of train stops from Fukushima.




Stephen Black at the Magical Kampung

Who: Stephen Black, Asia-based artist, writer and producer.

What: Stephen Black will do readings, present his thumb kways and debut a new food artwork entitled Miso Furikake Riceballs, a collaboration with Mom NatuRa.

When: Saturday, April 23, 2016 9:30-4:30

Where: Magical Kampung GUI  91 Lorong Chencharu, Yishun

Ground-Up Initiative (GUI)

Kampung Kampus, 91 Lorong Chencharu (Yishun), Singapore 769

Free admission. There are many events going on at the Kampung GUI, as it is their eighth anniversary.

Stephen Black will be reading selections from his books, which will be available. The titles include Furikake, Contact With Shadow, Obama Search Words and I Ate Tiong Bahru. More information about the books can be found here.

Information about the thumb kway artworks.

Miso Furikake Riceballs, a tasty and nutritious autobiographical piece of social art, will debut at the the event. The artwork features organic tekka miso furikake, co-created with Bali-based Mom from Mom Natura Farm.

There will be a few surprises as well!

Designers I Have Worked With… (part 3)

Part 1 of this post is here.

So yeah…I should clarify that by the word “designers” I mean graphic and layout designers, the masters of what used to be a paper kingdom. Designers gave paper as much glory as painters gave canvas. I once made a documentary on Kenzo, but that is a different story.


Peter Dean again made magic.. . the 3how CD cover was created during a discussion at Amith’s place that concluded with a selection of photos and fonts. Mr. Dean worked his magic and…  here we have the first studio recording of 3how…The Riverwalk Session.
3how album cover

..which just happens to be available here…

Back to kways, thumb kways to be exact. VotreX Tan helped me to create one of the most personal artworks I’ve ever made. He managed to use my thumbprint as the basis for a mold which is used to make ang ku kueh. You can read about the thumb kways elsewhere, but for now I want to thank Vortex Tan. Find him at PRODD! PRODD! PRODD!

Cultural identity

Edible sculptures by Stephen Black. Traditional Chinese ang ku kueh shaped like a thumbprint

George Parel… I hope George can help me out here. We did a fun little project for The French Stall here in Singapore. Made a game, had characters, made it easy for the customers to see the great food offered. George…send some photos or a link , please!

Shaz! Man, when you are starting down the road it is dirty and uphill and lonely and you really get a sense of who is with you. When I decided to create books I hadn’t had a stockpile of dinero to get me through the rough spots. Shaz not just did a great job with design and catching my mistakes, she, in her own unique way, gave me Hope. I cannot thank her enough. We created this, the first publication I did about Tiong Bahru. Shaz is now helping the homeless who have budget for rental and down payments for homes.

Finally… another very fortunate situation… Debbie Ding had the time to create a book cover! Now, she is wow! She was wow! then too, but was able to make time to create the cover for Contact With Shadow, for which I am most thankful. At this moment I cannot find the original jpeg! The cover here is a fraction of what she did. AAArgh..the hard drive with the full cover is not with me now! AAArgh But the cover used on the ungluing site is also very nice. UNGLUING? What is he talking about? This.

I think the list of designers I have worked with is now complete, though I am not 100% certain. If I have forgotten anyone, I apologize in advance and will do my best to correct the situation  asap. If you are a designer that I have listed, please feel free to add a comment below with your current projects… and THANK YOU.


In conclusion, let me say that maybe I am a little unusual and some of the designers are a little unusual and it is a little unusual to try to give a form to an idea. Design is undoubtedly an art. It also pushes the mind into different areas. I leave you to ponder the following extract from an email of Debbie Ding, used without her permission(but I am asking her). It made perfect sense at the time… anyway, here is the excerpt:

but what about… CEILINGWAX!

to encourage people to lick their ceilings, rather than their floors?

Designers I Have Worked With (part 2)

Part 1 of this post is here.

So,  this post is fun. It is only now that I see the variety of designers I have worked with. Not all are in these two, soon to be three posts. Some were like the guys at Eka Printers in Bali; where I just go in and hope for the best. Because of the language barrier and the race against the clock, I never know exactly what I am going to get. I ENJOY THAT! Of course when it comes time to do an offset run, it is the exact opposite: there must be no surprises or errors. As an example, I should mention that no grammar or historical errors have been found AND the words fit perfectly on the page; there aren’t any one line or one word “orphans” hanging onto the top of a white page. That is due to the patience and expertise of Philipp Aldrup, who allowed me to rewrite on the spot so that the lines end gracefully (without hyphens, for example)  and fill the page in an attractive way.

So…where was I? Oh yes? The first decade of the millenium.

Nicholas Foo, the Lego artist.  I was lucky to meet Nicholas! He had just left his full-time career as a  highly respected graphic designer. He was committing himself to becoming an official Lego artist–Asia’s first. He said he could find the time to work on the packaging for the MGK–the Multipurpose Gamemaking Kit. Package, business card, CD, great stuff. (Must find the jpegs)

Foreigner on a kway

very first document created as a starting point for discussion for the Foreigner kways

The thumb kway idea has stayed with me and I now have plans for a triptych, of sorts. Thanks to Gerald Leow, I was invited to become a member of a short-lived collective called the Foreign Love Club. The Foreigner/kway idea flourished nicely in that fantastic installation set up at Bedok Reservoir. Unfortunately, the process to get a perfect Foreigner kway took longer than expected, so we had to go with the thumb kways.  Tze Yu and Zhiying of litile collective were helpful and patient. Food+ art+ 3D printing= a big yes!

CHARIS! I was shocked, shocked, nicely shocked when Charis, with genuine support and friendliness, allowed me to use one of his Obama digital portraits in Obama Search Words. One of my dreams is to visit him in Greece and take him and his wife out to dinner…

Amith and Tracy and teh Unseen Guest albums… Well, the days of 12inch records seems to be gone, so my dream of creating an album cover seems to be difficult to realize, if not impossible. But with The Unseen Guest, I was able to do the next best thing. Actually, I was extremely lucky because the music of The Unseen Guest is remarkable. It is difficult to define, easy to fall in love with. I worked with Amith and Tracy Bay and I think the results are as appealing to me now as they were at the time we made them. For the first CD we used photos that Amith and Declan had shot when they were in India recording the album. Tracy kept things right on the edge, meaning that we had the look and feel of a record cover made in the Sixties, with just a hint of the second millennium postmodernism. (ooooh..postmodernism!)

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/FBGO0lVrA_g” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>The second album, Out There, used a few of the photographs I had taken in Yangon. Thanks Tracy! Thanks Amith!

<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/GqaO-EofKRE” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>



May Lim…even though she was battling an illness, May patiently and professionally helped me get the word out about Book Merah!

bookmerah_03-page-001 bookmerah_03-page-002 bookmerah_03-page-003 bookmerah_03-page-004 bookmerah_03-page-005 bookmerah_03-page-006 bookmerah_03-page-007 bookmerah_03-page-008 bookmerah_03-page-009 bookmerah_03-page-010

Part 3, coming up soon!

Designers I have worked with…

I was recently reminded of how important the presentation of an object or idea is. I have often disregarded this idea or used it as a filter to separate people who are serious about my work from those who possibly interested in it because of an attractive presentation. With the I Ate Tiong Bahru book, for example, I avoided putting a nicely composed Tiong Bahru street scene or a plate of delicious food on the cover. Both would have been appropriate, but both would have attracted readers that might have been disappointed in the text inside. The stories in IATB are not “avante-garde” or challenging. The mix of styles, plus the way history, fiction, fact and food information are woven together  mean that the reader never knows what to expect on the next page. The  cover, perfectly realized by the photographer/designer Philipp Aldrup, was meant as a suggestive signal that the reader should be open-minded.I Ate Tiong Bahru book cover

With the Voice of Pieces project, I ignore Design, just as I Ignore Art, Commerce,  Logic and more: the VoP Project is about creating an experience and an oral history more than anything else. Lastly, the original cover of Furikake was meant to be the “ugliest cover on Amazon. Designed it myself!

terrible book covers

Furikake once featured the ugliest cover on Amazon!

At the moment I am using this blog post as a way of remembering things, looking at my life from a different perspective. I would like to make time and come back and write about more of the designers and design experiences later. For now, I present you with just the minimum  of info. If you are one of the brilliant designers listed below, please know that whenever I see your works, I am very appreciative and feel very fortunate to have worked with you. THANK YOU!

The Eighties!

Mr. Xerox Machine… Oh, was I happy working with copying machines.!(Am happy!) New York City, Rochester NY, Tokyo, Toledo, Ottawa Lake… the errors, the unevenness, the paper jams, “double exposures”…wow! This video…well…I would love to work on it again… And yep, Paul Dodd, the drummer, has helped me with a design project or two, including the logo for blacksteps, my “sleeping” company. Paul’s work as a painter, however is what makes him one of my favorite Artists.

Danceteria/No Se No…The designers at these places made a great impression upon me, though I did not know them personally and my involvement with Danceteria and No Se No was only very rarely featured on their posters, almost nonexistent.

Izumi Inoue He did the layout and cover for a book I was working on, something called Tonbow, which needs to be rejuvenated. It was my first time to experience the power of self-publishing, though I only made a few copies. Izumi was/is a magician!

Galerie NW House-Endo-san or someone she knew made the postcards for my exhibition. They were simple delights that we put stamps on and mailed.

Tokyo/SPP/Barae..… Barae is a post-butoh dancer/actress. In the early Ninties, we operated an art space together, something called SPP. Our own design work was copy machine/collage style, with one exception. The W postcard was a luscious postcard and the text was in Japanese and English. I must find it and scan it. Working on that was my first lesson in wabi-sabi. Also, whenever Barae had a performance, she worked designers to make chirashii; the results were gorgeous.

Terry Jones. Five minutes when he came in to oversee a story about Stelarc featuring my photos of Stelarc. I-D Japan He will not remember me. At the time I did not know who he was. But he knew what was and–wasn’t– working with the layout.

The Nineties!

Sadato’s 1992 CD cover Never met the designer. Would like to shake his or her hand. Sadato, where are you?

David Bothwell. It was always a treat to work with David and Alice and hang out in their office in Hong Kong. SO PROFESSIONAL! They did the flyer for a photo exhibition of mine, as well as the VHS packaging for Yallah, the Sadato VHS. And then there was the delightful craziness of posters for Hans, the Birdman. David did the cover of Obama Search Words. Roy Chan wowed us all with the look and feel of SPOKEN. Roy also created a postcard for an exhibition I did in Tokyo, that seemed to “inspire”a travel agency poster: the look and feel was exactly the same.

Makiko Kuno. Su go ii!  I watched Tamala being born.

Network TV. Sally Howard. Stefanie Pfeffer,who is now doing all kinds of interesting motion design in Europe Lawrence?–all from TNT/Cartoon Network in Hong Kong. And, the staff who worked with me in the promo department at Fox in Tokyo…yes, I have been very lucky. One of the projects I did, the sales tape launching Cartoon Network in Japan, was featured at the Promax Awards. In TV, designers and graphics people make it happen!And, sometimes, it is Stuart Rankin feeling!

Kumiko Akiyoshi. Unfortunately I cannot now remember the name of her friend who was also a great designer. I do remember she drove a Corvette when she took me to see the restaurant in Kabukicho that we c0-designed!

David Severn, an artist, he did the drawing for an upcoming book of mine called Flame Magnet. We are also hoping to re-energize the characters we created for a virtual game space called Secret Donut World.

The dawn of this important millenium of ours…

Well, things started in Tokyo, when I worked for Fox, then in 2002 where I was with the Youtube-like company (before Youtube that was also a Second Life-like company (before Second Life).CDK Landing page

Though I was Creative Director, most of the packaging was handled by those who worked with  characters.Agaricus blazeii murrill note book cover

I need to retrieve the emails exchanged with the woman who designed the cover of the ABM Notebook. She was great. I say “was great” because, sadly, not long after we finished this project, she was taking photographs and was fatally hit by a car.

It was also around this time that I met the very talented Peter Dean, now a good friend. We worked on something for something like a joint venture between Canon and the gaming/video company I worked for. Kinda experimental, which was a surprise for a company that big… THE DEAN on Facebook.

To be continued!