From Kanye to ComplexCon: A Brief History of Takashi Murakami
From Kanye to ComplexCon: A Brief History of Takashi Murakami
- Words Gunner Park
- Date May 06, 2019
The title of fashion’s favorite artist is competitive. KAWS’ extensive streetwear pedigree and recent Dior collaboration make him a strong contender. As is Basquiat, who still influences both street and runway. But, considering our current cultural paradigm, where we obsessively mix high and low aesthetics, the answer is clear: Takashi Murakami. Despite critics deriding him as a sell-out—claiming that the artist tones down his provocative designs in exchange for commercial success—Murakami effectively eliminates the line between pop culture and high-art. His signature oeuvre, aptly titled Neo-Pop, parodies postwar Japanese consumer culture by restructuring and sampling various themes and characters within the art world. Through the creation of his Superflat theory, Murakami seamlessly and cleverly merges Japan’s history with popular culture. However, while his designs are coveted for their bold eye-candy aesthetic, Murakami’s work is often overlooked as a critique of Japan’s embrace of the Western world.
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Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1962, Murakami grew up in the postwar era, a time when Japan underwent rapid Westernization. Infatuated with anime and manga, Murakami planned to work in the animation industry. While preparing for his university entrance exams, Murakami drafted bold figures and sketches in line with his otaku–Japanese kids obsessed with popular culture to their own detriment—nature, one of which was his now iconic candy-colored smiling flower motif. He attended Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music to learn the drafting skills necessary to become an animator but instead majored in Nihonga, a style of Japanese painting emphasizing traditional Japanese artistic conventions. Despite later entering a Nihonga Ph.D. program, Murakami gradually became disillusioned with the art form’s limitations and began exploring various other forms of art and media.
Over time, Murakami grew frustrated with the state of contemporary Japanese art, deeming it a “deep appropriation of Western trends.” Many of Murakami’s earliest works served as criticism and satire toward commercialism. Performance art such as the Osaka Mixer Project (1992) and parodies of the “message” art popular in Japan in the early ‘90s like Dobozite Oshamanbe (1993)—while garnering attention—weren’t necessarily well received in Japan. He became frustrated with Japan’s lack of a sustainable art market and decided to establish himself in the Western art world before eventually refocusing on Japan. Shortly after receiving his Ph.D. in 1993 and a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council in 1994, Murakami was invited to join the PS1 International Studio Program in New York.
During his stay in New York, Murakami became familiar with contemporary Western artists including Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons. He became fascinated with simulationist art ideas which emphasized the abstraction of existing meanings. Murakami also discovered Andy Warhol’s “factory,” where Warhol mass-produced silk-screen prints of commercial imagery in an attempt to subvert pre-existing meaning. The factory became essential to Murakami’s artistic framework, inspiring him to open a small studio with Hiropon Factory—a precursor to his company Kaikai Kiki. After gaining a substantial understanding of Western art techniques, he returned to Japan to continue honing his repertoire of artistic practices.
Still considering contemporary Japanese art an imitation of popular trends in the West, Murakami sought to explore a subject matter that while uniquely Japanese would still be alluring to the rest of the world. Realizing many considered the esoteric themes present in current fine-art perplexing at best, Murakami focused on “low” culture. Reflecting on his childhood obsessions, Murakami sampled motifs and styles typical of anime characters in various mediums ranging from flat, glossy prints to life-sized sculptures and miniature figurines. Juxtaposing the cute and disturbing—all in his signature bold color palette—Murakami asked the viewer to not only question the actual characters, but their environment and origin.
Mr. DOB (1993)—Murakami’s closest approximation to a self-portrait and one of his first recurring motifs—is a prime example. Featuring an open mouth of razor-sharp teeth and multiple eyes that chaotically dart in every direction, at first glance the otherworldly figure as bizarrely adorable as it is off-putting. Upon closer inspection, however, Mr. DOBs grossly enlarged eyes are a clear anime reference, while his maniacal smile refers to Murakami’s stance towards both the art world and the West. The character’s name, derived from slang expression “dobojite,” (or “why?”) poses Murakami’s fundamental question: Why should Japan imitate the West?
Other works such as Hiropon (1997) similarly use traits associated with anime to make poignant social commentary. The hyper-sexualized figure showcases a tiny waist, pink pig-tails and breasts so comically large they release a jet stream of milk encircling the entire figure. While each trait is fairly typical of how women are depicted in manga, the sculpture itself as an abrasive critique of post-war Japanese culture. In various interviews, Murakami stated his belief that Japan became infantilized due to the United States occupation following World War II. He believed the castrating effects of the war left Japan’s culture obsessed with youth and cuteness, leading to hyper-sexualization in manga. With Hiropon, Murakami subverted erotic imagery from low-brow culture to make a fine art work addressing the nature of sexuality in modern Japan.
>>>I don't think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I've been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the post-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of
“high art.” In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that's okay—I'm ready with my hard hat.
In 2000, Murakami published his pivotal Superflat theory. Presented in the U.S. at Superflat—an exhibition he curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) in 2001—the show featured artists whose work emphasizes various aspects of Japan’s visual culture. From ukiyo-e (woodblock prints of the Edo Period) to anime and kawaii (kitschy cuteness often seen in cartoons and other products), Murakami aimed to highlight the “flatness” of Japanese art in contrast to the country’s bleak reality following World War II. The theory itself argues that these flat images rose to prominence in Japan as the distinction between social class and mainstream interests has “flattened,” producing a culture with little distinction between “high” and “low.” Murakami is just as interested in producing massive installation pieces to small plush dolls, as, according to Superflat, they are equally important in the Japanese art canon.
Following Superflat and the establishment of his company, Murakami became a massive commercial success, admired by many of the world's top creatives. One noted fan was Marc Jacobs, then creative director of Louis Vuitton. In the midst of his shake-up of the storied French house, Jacobs tapped Murakami in 2002 to redesign the Louis Vuitton monogram in 33 vibrant colors. A noted fashion fanatic, Murakami was quick to accept and over the course of 13 years introduced a number of celebrated prints including “Monogramouflage,” an all-black version of the monogram over the camouflage background, and “Cherry Blossom,” which featured bright pink flowers juxtaposed over a brown monogram. Shortly after the collaboration released, Murakami began to directly incorporate the LV monogram into his own oeuvre, including a short film and a scannable QR code. The “LV” series received rave reviews, solidifying Murakami’s position in the fashion industry. Though he previously collaborated with Issey Miyake Men by Naoki Takizawa in 2000, Murakami’s work with Louis Vuitton introduced him to to the international fashion scene.
The inaugural collaboration with Louis Vuitton introduced Murakami to an entirely new market. In 2003 he unveiled Reversed Double Helix in Rockefeller Center, his largest public sculpture to date. That year ArtNews reported a surging demand for Murakami’s work. Hiropon reportedly sold for $427,500 at Christie’s auction house in 2002 and the following year Miss Ko2, a six-foot-tall model satirizing the archetypal female anime character, sold for $567,500—a record for work by a contemporary Japanese artist. Murakami’s rapid success reached its apex in 2007 when Kanye West visited one of his galleries in Tokyo and appointed the artist as art director for his new album, Graduation. West asked the Japanese artist to design the cover art and to direct an animated music video for the track “Good Morning.” The artwork saw West’s universe reimagined through Murakami’s whimsical, adorable and somewhat unsettling lens. The following year Murakami designed merchandise for West’s “Glow in the Dark” tour featuring West’s trademark bear donning his signature shutter shades. Murakami later repurposed his original artwork for the song and album by incorporating the imagery into his paintings and sculpture, further blurring the lines between fine art and other forms of media.
Despite collaborating with a number of Western artists, Murakami was a driving force in the distribution and promotion of Japanese art. In 2001, he founded Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., an art production company with offices in both Japan and New York. Through Kaikai Kiki, Murakami acted as patron for a number of young Japanese artists, granting them international exposure through hosting exhibitions, providing capital and organizing Geisai—a biannual art festival in Tokyo. Even Hiroshi Fujiwara acknowledged Murakami’s massive creative influence when he teamed up with Murakami to release a Fragment Design capsule collection commemorating the opening of the Hi & Lo exhibition in 2008. Held at Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Tokyo and was the first time Fujiwara’s personal collection of streetwear relics was available to the public. Collaborations between Fujiwara, Murakami and several other Japanese labels such as visvim, Head Porter, and Levi’s Fenom were also available for purchase, each donning Fujiwara’s signature lightning bolt and Murakami’s classic “flower” motif.
Murakami continued to dabble in streetwear—collaborating with some of the biggest names in the industry. In 2007, the artist designed a set of skate decks for Supreme, each donning an illustration of a dog, multicolored Mr. DOB eyes, and the Japanese kanji for “dog.” In 2015, Murakami released a capsule collection with Vault by Vans, which included an array of products ranging from footwear to apparel and skate decks with Murakami’s iconic flower and skulls motifs present throughout. More recently, Murakami collaborated with Pharrell Williams and Billionaire Boys Club on its second installment of affordable plush figures which released last fall. While unique in their own right, each collaboration serves as a commentary on the intersection of American and Japanese pop culture. Using classic Western products such as skate decks and sneakers as canvases, Murakami effectively introduced his designs to a younger Western audience.
Murakami’s interest in fashion has only become more prominent, with a rumored Nike collaboration dropping sometime this year. The sneaker, an Air Force 1 Mid made alongside Japanese luggage brand Porter, fuses Murakami’s figurines with MA-1 details and military nylon for a literal Parka for your feet—the type of design only Murakami could imagine.
Further aligning himself with the fashion elite, last year Murakami began a series of exhibitions alongside Virgil Abloh. First presented at the Gagosian Gallery in London, the future history exhibit combined Murakami’s trademark style with the Off-White arrows to add a whole new dimension to both creatives work. Follow up presentations “Technicolor 2” and “AMERICA TOO”—in Paris and Beverly Hills, respectively—further solidified a relationship that cemented Murakami’s status to an entirely new generation of streetwear fanatics, with collaborative merch commemorating each exhibit still lusted after.
The artist’s most direct interaction with streetwear is no doubt ComplexCon, the annual convention highlighting every aspect of youth and street culture. Serving as a recurring member of the host committee, Murakami shapes the very aesthetic of the convention, with a Kaikai Kiki zone within the Art Space as well as various other pop-ups and ventures throughout the space. Again crossing the boundary between contemporary and commercial artist, each year Murakami drops limited edition items throughout the convention including various collabs, prints and toys.
While Murakami is commonly associated with his involvement in the streetwear community, his artistic, commercial and cultural impact often goes unnoticed by the fashion community. Largely responsible for introducing contemporary Japanese art to the Western world, Murakami’s Superflat thesis become pivotal in the dissemination of high and low culture. Today, Murakami is at the height of his success. Between life-sized sculptures, plush anime characters, mass-produced prints, immersive installations, music videos, luxury handbags, sneakers, and even a full-length film, Murakami’s work transcends the boundaries of popular media and fine art. Whether it be his Nihonga-inspired artwork for Kanye West’s Kids See Ghosts, In the Land of The Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow—an installation exploring the impact of historical natural disasters on Japanese art and culture, or a Google homepage featuring Murakami’s ubiquitous motifs and characters, Murakami seamlessly merges different time periods, styles and media. By exploring the intersection between these disparate themes, Murakami successfully crafts compelling visuals that encompass the vast landscape of popular culture.