Today, the chances are you don’t even own a box of matches, let alone appreciate the lost artform that used to adorn them. But in the early to mid-20th century, Japanese advertisers created tiny wonders of graphic art on these pocket-sized canvases.
As urban centres began to proliferate and the population was drawn away from rural living, businesses spotted an opportunity. A reliable constant in an increasingly unpredictable commercial environment was the trend for smoking, and the inch-wide cardboard cases of matchbooks could be easily woodblock-printed with simple marketing slogans. Everywhere a cigarette was lit, there was an advert; all around the hotels, sushi bars and Western-style cafés of this new and electrified Japan.
Texan artist Chet Phillips revisits the unique aesthetic in his series of 3.5 x 5.5” prints. Whereas the miniature boxes and sleeves of the 1920s were adorned with colourful depictions of contemporary brands and celebrity endorsements, Phillips instead draws inspiration from fantasy and science-fiction, both classic and modern.
In appearance are familiar figures from Japan’s own cinema history – in particular the tokusatsu kaiju of Mothra and Godzilla, and Studio Ghibli’s iconic Totoro – as well as more Western influences, from Alien’s xenomorph to HP Lovecraft’s nighmarish Cthulhu. Fans of Netflix series Stranger Things will also recognise a “Superior Upside Down Brand” matchbox depicting the show’s faceless horror.
The trend for matchbox advertising wasn’t contained to Japan. Around the world, these tiny printed works would mirror the commercial graphism of the time and place in which they were published. If the form hadn’t been relegated into cultural obscurity, it seems likely that pop-culture icons from Hollywood movies and Netflix shows would be adorning them today.