When Ushio Tokura posts his work he hits the top of the Reddit leaderboards. It's not hard to see why. Fan art pieces are a dime a dozen, and at this point there are probably more pitch-perfect pop culture replicas on Minecraft servers than there are stars in the sky. But take a look at Tokura's sculptures, and you can see that he's working with a different philosophy.
Here is Aquasomnia, an ancient, eldritch sea-witch breaking her head through the crystal sea, with a network of seaweed and bony cathedrals covering her extremities. 157,000 upvotes, four separate gildings.
"It distanced itself from what people would think of Minecraft as a game where you build houses, and instead dove straight into the world of fantasy and abstract sculpting," says Tokura, when I ask him about his inspirations. "In the building community, countless castles, palaces, kingdoms and other structure-related creations had been done before, but no one yet had really focused on sculptures, or what we call it in community, 'organics.' From there I created phantasmagorical creatures, abstract sculptures and dreamscapes."
Tokura lives in Japan, making a living off of Minecraft. He's part of Cyclone Designs—a studio that produces and sells new games, textures, and skins within the Minecraft tableau, thanks to the creative and economic tools offered up by the Minecraft Marketplace platform. (Yes, you really can turn a profit as a full-time modder.)
Tokura mentions that he's been playing Minecraft since 2011, and got his start in middle school, which might make you feel extremely old. Like they did for so many other people, the elementary basics of this strange, homebrew digging module soon gave way to a lifetime's worth of potential.
Very happy to present the 'Perfect Marionette' made for the @BuildersRefuge Invitational Contest. DL & Explanation: https://t.co/DW1Mbhws8O pic.twitter.com/95IK7bIRvjOctober 11, 2017
"I started out in survival mode, mining and crafting but soon after learning of creative mode, I joined a group called Gazamo that focused on creative building and that is where I really learned to understand the 'ins and outs' of creative building," he says. "I come from a background of art, as it has been embedded into my early child education and throughout my life in different forms. The thought of Minecraft also being an outlet for my creativity interested me greatly and I started experimenting with what I could create."
As a total acolyte in this space, I was mostly curious to know more about how Tokura actually makes his art. The vast majority of my Minecraft experience has been spent as a caveman making rudimentary Tetris blocks out of dirt, and when you look at something like Aquasomnia—with its watery globes, and dense foliage, and gleeful excess—it seemed almost impossible that it could be created with a single pickaxe.
Like every creator, Tokura has his tricks of the trade.
"I like to keep a library of ideas and techniques which I can use later on without having having to reinvent a new process for each project. When building in Minecraft, I treat it more as an editor tool than a survival game. I use tools such as Worldedit and Voxel Sniper which give me a helping hand in placing large masses of blocks at a time as well as copying and pasting specific regions," he explains.
The analogy that Tokura reaches for is that creating Minecraft sculptures is like making a cake. You begin with a spongey base, and add all of your layers and flourishes from there. It's the opposite of simply "putting all of the ingredients in a bowl and mixing."
"The great thing about creating things in Minecraft is that you are in a first person editor and it allows the player to move around in unique ways that allow for hyper-detail in the smallest of places," he continues. "I use this to my advantage so I am always flying out and in to make sure everything is in proportion. This not only helps me build quicker and plan more efficiently but most importantly it keeps my mind on the bigger picture so I don't lose track of my goals."
Every time Tokura posts a new sculpture on Reddit, he refers to it as a work of art. That's one of the things that first drew me to his corner. It'd be impossible to refer to anything he's created as anything but art, but Minecraft's for-kids reputation saps a bit from academic gravitas. But you could imagine Aquasomnia painted on the walls of Versailles, so it's heartening to see Tokura stand his ground. Not fan art, not Minecraft art or internet art. Just art.
"I feel with Minecraft having grown so much, we have seen a lot of content go to the extremes to create something amazing, like a working phone in Minecraft, a whole computer made using redstone in Minecraft, educating children with Minecraft through education edition," he finishes. "I also wanted to be part of what makes Minecraft amazing so calling my pieces 'art' is really just a way to help people understand that at the most extremes of building, Minecraft creations are beautiful and can be compared with other digital works in the voxel space and as an extension, art."