Lucas and Kaori shot in 2000 for Tokion's New issue by the late Shoji Ueda
Tokion issue 1 and advertising poster
Dreams (featuring Nigo) and McDonalds issues
Friends and Final issues
On The Road and Green issues
The complete catalogue of Tokion covers
Lucas with Paul Smith in the early days
Collaboration: Tokion × Real Mad Hectic clock
A Japanese magazine featuring Tokion's early collaborations
The now famous Tokion × A Bathing Ape airpack T-shirt
Tokion × Tomo Gokita collaboration for the On The Road issue
Early editions of Mammoth magazine were packaged in boxes
Mammoth magazine covers
Mammoth and Metro Min covers
3 Feet High kid’s select shop in Osaka’s stylish Minami Horie neighborhood
Entrance sign for the Mammoth Pow-Wow
Kids enjoying a story in the woods at the Mammoth Pow-Wow camp
Mammoth Pow-Wow camp by night
Ships × Mammoth sweatshirts
Part of the Mammoth collaboration product collection
Knee High's Tokyo office restoration
Artist Kami decorating the Knee High wall
Knee High office
Knee High office garden
Knee High office garden
View through traditional screen doors onto the upstairs balcony
Knee High office with artwork by Kami & Sasu (Hitotzuki). The building doubles as a rental photo studio called Green Studio Tokyo
Lucas Badtke-Berkow has been exploring the world of the printed page in Japan for the past 16 years with his company Knee High Media, producing inspirational, independent and open-minded publications and consistently looking at things with new eyes and an infectious inquisitiveness of the world around him.
The first time I’d seen anything published by Knee High was issue two of Tokion, a magazine I’d picked up by chance, back in 1997. It was expensive, oversized, and I’d never seen anything like it. You have to remember that this was a time when the internet was in its early days so most of the information we take for granted wasn’t around, especially this kind of glimpse into a special and unknown world. It’s quite possible that this copy of Tokion, now beginning to fade with sunlight, was the catalyst in a string of events that lead me to Japan in 1999. Lucas sees that kind of influence, in essence, as the power that well-made magazines can have. They can make the world a better place by presenting ideas, emotions, people and places that will hopefully become seeds for a new way of thinking—“widescreen thinking” as he describes it—a way of seeing the world from multiple viewpoints and expanding the reader’s mindset enough to enjoy all of the unique experiences that life can offer. Some magazines have that rare quality that transports you into somebody else’s world and another way of being. It was skateboarding and BMX magazines from the USA’s west coast that affected me when I was a growing up; Lucas left that same west coast 18 years ago, the day after graduating college, and headed directly for Japan.
For him, magazines have always been a great love, not just the content of a magazine, but all of the minutia; the details of the paper, the design, illustration and photography, right down to the root of each story, describing them as “art, culture and history sandwiched between two covers.” He made his first magazine in sixth grade and has continued producing various forms of print from then on. It was only when a friend reminded him that he hadn’t produced anything of his own since arriving in Japan that Knee High began to slowly grow as an idea. After working as a freelance writer for two years on a variety of publications, the first issue of Tokion magazine entered the world in the Autumn of 1996. It was oversized, bright orange, and the cover featured a naked woman painted with the Japanese character for ‘power’—the theme of the first issue.
The name ‘Tokion’ itself was created by combining the Japanese kanji ‘TOKI’ (time) and ‘ON’ (sound) translated to mean ‘the sound of now’. The idea was to focus on representing what they were feeling at that moment and the mood of the time, and put it within the magazine pages without separating themselves from the reader. The title also said something about the place in which it was being created, identifying its roots in the wider communal space, something else that was important to them.
Every issue exposed its readers to an array of interesting people and everything that they were doing. It wasn’t about what was cool, it was about what was actually happening and feeling part of it. Lucas explains that it was about getting across the feeling, the smell and the sounds of the scene and transporting the reader there and making the pages come alive.
This single publication opened up a world of underground culture and creativity in Japan that had, until then, been relatively unknown. It was this element of street-level Japanese culture that Lucas wanted to share with Japan and the rest of the world. At the time, much of the celebrated cultural media came from outside, which was strange considering there was so much creativity already in place, just waiting to be discovered and taken seriously. The list of people involved and featured within now reads like a who’s who of people influencing culture at the time. One of the first to take part was Paul Smith, who immediately got what they were trying to do and wanted to get involved even before the first issue had been printed. They met when Lucas interviewed Smith for a newspaper while freelancing, a meeting which sparked a friendship which continues to this day.
Looking back, the development and refinement of the magazine is clear, although it wasn’t obvious at the time. With thirty issues spanning six years, what began as a spewing of art and culture in a chaotic two-colour publication of ideas soon became a full-colour magazine available across the globe, featuring hundreds of amazing people each with something interesting to say, shot by some of the most important photographers in the last sixty years. Among the many things they pioneered was product collaborations between companies, a phenomenon that is still growing; A Bathing Ape, Hiroshi Fujiwara, Head Porter, Benetton, Shepherd Fairey, Stüssy, Reebok, Crocs, Ships, Casio, Timex and Lee Jeans all got involved, with goods ranging from T-shirts to bags to pillows, clocks, paper trees and more.
The issues themselves were all led by singular themes, such as Dreams, Sex, Sound, Roots, Water, and Horror. A McDonalds issue in 1999 devoted an entire magazine to the golden arches, bringing you everything you would ever need to know about McDonalds in Japan. There were obsessive badge collectors, bootleg McDonalds vinyl enthusiasts, 24 hours in a Shinjuku restaurant and a 38-page photo essay by Takashi Homma and Tetsuya Yamamoto, a beautiful insight into the lives of others through photographs and stories, all relating to the home of the Terriaki McBurger.
In 2000 Kaori Sakurai, Lucas’s wife, who’d been working alongside him since issue two of Tokion, took over as editor of the magazine, and Lucas was able to spend more time developing new ideas at Knee High. While Tokion was in full flow he was developing something new, something very different. Many of the people working on and featured in the magazine at the time were starting to become parents, and they decided to get their creative heads together to develop something that would benefit the next generation with a positive influence on their lives. The title of the resulting magazine, Mammoth, initially came from a random ramen restaurant encounter, a name everybody decided was perfect because it was cute, soft and scary, not to mention big: all things that kids love.
Mammoth initially started as a biannual magazine with the intention of getting kids excited about life and creativity. But this wasn’t just a bunch of adults deciding what was good for kids, the central idea of the magazine was ‘For Kids, By Kids’, from the fashion shoots right through to the articles. They would have meetings with kids once a month to discuss what they were into, what they were thinking and what they were feeling. The first incarnation came as a brightly designed box with the magazine and a collection of original collaboration items like CDs, stickers, fridge magnets and pencil sets. The price was set at 500¥, a single coin in Japan, making it easy for kids to buy. Over the first three years, they found that making a magazine with kids was amazingly rewarding—but selling it to them is something else entirely. A strategic rethink was in order. The new format of the magazine was aimed more at the parents, almost a reinvention of a school textbook where interesting articles, great design and fun were all key factors. It was all about getting parents and kids excited about learning as a life skill you shouldn’t let go of, learning in a fun and playful way.
In 2008, while they were working on the Music issue they decided there should be an event, because as great as books and magazines are, they don’t make any sound. So the idea of the Mammoth POW-WOW came about and is now in its fourth year. It’s a camping and music event where kids get together to take part in all kinds of activities, such as cooking, learning to play instruments, creating T-shirts and exploring on bikes.
For the past eight years Mammoth have collaborated with one of Japan’s largest clothing brands, Ships, to produce a range of clothes that fit the theme of the magazine and can be found at the Ships Kids stores. Knee High also designed a shop for the kids themselves, called 3 Feet High, with a kids-only front door which was exactly three feet high (there was also an adults door). The place had a book section stocked by Hiroshi Eguchi of cult Tokyo book store and gallery Utrecht, and a selection of toys and clothes for babies and children—but only children up to the height of three feet.
In 2010 Mammoth entered its third stage of development, and after 10 years in print it’s going to be in a larger format and will now become a free paper, but a free paper designed so you want to keep and collect it in the custom binders they’re creating. The magazine is now part of a larger project called Mammoth School, the philosophy behind it being hands on, fun learning with environmental and green studies as an important part of the curriculum. Lucas thinks it’s important to shape kids for the future, “creating children that can be leaders in the complex world they are going to inherit.” They’ve devised five areas of study which they’ll gradually begin to create workshops for: Green Study, Outdoor & Sports, Creative Art, World Culture and Nippon Learning.
Around the same time Tokion and Mammoth were growing, the Knee High office remained a tiny space at the bottom of a modern office building. They’d been looking for a new place with more space for six months when Lucas, out walking, spotted an old house just a minute from their old office. The place looked empty so he enquired at the real estate office and found that it was just about to come on to the market. It was perfect. Made largely from traditional wooden beams, it had two floors, a garden, and the added bonus of cheap rent, as the Japanese tend not to like old buildings. They spent the next three months replacing the tatami matts with hardwood floors, removing cupboards, repairing doors, generally brightening up the place and transforming it into a beautiful space which feels very modern despite it being over sixty years old. They didn’t interfere with the character of the building, which is one of the few remaining old houses in Tokyo, built just after the second world war and now occasionally rented out for photo shoots under the name Green Studio Tokyo. To commemorate the 15th anniversary of Knee High, Hitozuki artists Kami and Sasu were commissioned to paint a mural leading from the garden wall up onto the side of the house, juxtaposing clean flowing lines with the weathered exterior of the ageing concrete. The work feels like a natural extension of the house, as if it’s always been there.
Settled into their new home and back in the publishing world, Lucas was aware that the problem with creating something that’s ‘now’ is that ‘now’ is always changing, and approaching 2002 and his final issue of Tokion, Lucas already had a sense of where they were heading. “When you get older, it’s not right to make a youth culture magazine—that’s not where you’re at. Whenever you’re doing something creative, you’ve always got to be real and honest with yourself. If you’re not, your work will have no soul, which means your fans will cease to be inspired.” One of the last issues of the magazine under Badtke-Berkow’s watch, the Florida issue, was an early experiment in how the magazine and Knee High could progress, “We went to Florida and interviewed pro wrestlers, went to Key West, ate a ton of key lime pie, hung out with art dealers, talked about Hemingway, explored the insects living in the swamps. It was a very stimulating process and I could feel with my heart that this was the right direction.”
After producing thirty magazines over a period of six years, in 2002 Tokion ended in Japan, the rights sold to a New York publisher.
At the same time one thing was coming to an end another was just beginning. Knee High were approached by a big publishing company to create what would become Japan’s first major free paper. The result was Metro Min, another direction to explore and another title to add to Knee High’s expanding list of publications. The team came up with the concept, name and design of the magazine as well as editing the first four issues. The idea behind the name of this subway magazine was that most people will be on a train for around 15 minutes, so the content was designed to be read in that amount of time—a simple idea still going strong after eight years.