Takashi Murakami is sometimes called the Warhol of Japan. He’s most notable for his blending of pop culture with traditional fine art in a style he calls superflat. He coined the term in the 90s and it’s gone on to represent a new genre of artists who “flatten” traits from “high art” (museum art) and “low art” (popular figures like Hello Kitty) into one piece. Since then, this genre has gone on to represent other popular artists like artist Yoshimoto Nara and anime director Koji Morimoto. One of Murakami’s aims is to critique the emptiness of consumerist culture, but he also draws a lot of inspiration from his upbringing in U.S.-influenced Post-WWII Japan.
Murakami was born in Tokyo in 1962. He grew up in a household that greatly valued high art, but he absorbed other stylistic influences from anime and comic books. His parents would tell him to write reviews of exhibitions he visited. If he refused, they would punish him by not giving him his dinner for that night. While his mother was a homemaker who knew needlepoint and textiles, his father worked at an American naval base. Due to this connection, Murakami has remarked that he was influenced by American media like Steven Spielberg films.
The young boy knew he wanted to be an artist growing up, but he resented that “low art” wasn’t respected like fine art. This stress drove him deeper into geek or “otaku”-culture, which is characterized by an obsessive interest in anime and manga. However, an injury in the 7th grade set back Murakami academically. After breaking bones in his hand and skull, he couldn’t attend school for a month. This affected his progress so much that he faced trouble getting into an art university later.
He was finally accepted into the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in the 80s. This came at a cost; he had to choose the least competitive subject for entry. He chose to study the traditional 20th-century Japanese painting style of nihonga. He continued painting into the 90s, but found this traditional style of art dull and unsatisfying. He began to search for a style that felt relevant to modern-day Japan. As his love for otaku culture grew stronger, he began to look at kawaii (Japanese for cuteness) depictions of pop culture figures like Hello Kitty. It was there that he found his inspiration for his current style.
In 1996, Murakami opened up the Hiropon factory (now called the Kakai Kiki Co.) as a production workshop. He adopted Japan’s atelier system, one in which assistants and apprentices are hired to create pieces together. Two years later, he created one of the pieces that shot him to fame.
727 (1998) is a contemporary triptych of a character named Mr. DOB. Its features mimic the expressive faces in Japanese anime, with exaggerated features like giant teeth and eyes. The character resembles an eccentric mascot, but a look into what the names mean reveals more of Murakami’s intention. DOB stands for dobozite, which roughly translated into “why?” Meanwhile, 727 is a reference to the Boeing airplanes that Murakami grew up seeing in his dad’s workplace.
This art must be understood as a part of Murakami’s critique of the West. His parents lived to see U.S. bombings in Japan, as well as heavy sanctions and an American military presence. Today, Murakami views Japan’s obsession with violence, cuteness, and fetishization of innocence as a product of the West’s intervention. To him, the West is uncomfortable appreciating low art because it wants to preserve an elite hierarchy.
727 fit into his development of superflat art. The wave carrying Mr. DOB is inspired by Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai (famous for The Great Wave off Kanagawa). Since then, he has sold many more pieces for high values.
His piece, Vapor Trail (2004) was a collection of colorful, psychedelic flowers that sold for $2,100,000 in 2007. This hammer price was 250% of Sotheby’s prediction when they brought it to auction. A year later, he sold Panda (2003), a collaboration with Louis Vuitton that featured one of his characters on an antique LV trunk.
His most expensive piece sold yet was especially scandalous to viewers. My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), is an anime-style sculpture of a boy whipping semen up from his member. In 2008, it was sold for $13.5 million at a Sotheby’s New York auction.
Bringing his connection with pop culture into full circle, Murakami collaborated with major brand Louis Vuitton in 2003. Until 2015, the fashion giant produced handbags, belts, wallets, bracelets, and much more with Murakami’s kitschy designs on them. The collection was widely successful. Stars like Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton, and Sarah Jessica Parker have all been spotted sporting his designs.
As with any high-profile artist, Murakami has also received a sharp share of criticism. In 2010, he showed Miss Ko2, another sexual statue like My Lonesome Cowboy, alongside other sculptures in France’s Palace of Versailles. Many citizens thought the exhibition was degrading to Versailles’ historical splendor. In fact, 11,000 people signed a petition to end the exhibition.
Protestors hosted a mock contemporary art exhibit, bringing in objects like paintings of cat’s penises and urinals to prove their point that the exhibition was just shock value. Murakami’s response was unbothered. He viewed the exhibition as a “face-off between the baroque period and postwar Japan” that he hoped would inspire shock and an ‘aesthetic feeling” in visitors.
It’s also ironic that his art is most popular in the regions that he critiques. Murakami has said that Japanese people reject his style, and that they’re jealous of anyone successful outside his nation. In a 2015 interview with The Japan Times writer Andrew Lee, Murakami stated,
“The Japanese media also only ask really silly questions that don’t get to the core of what I am trying to do.”
However, he has still earned his place in the art history hall of fame. He has been named one of Time’s Magazine’s 100 most influential people. One can argue that he makes the art world more approachable, and less elitist. Some of his pieces may go for millions, but his factory turns characters like Mr. DOB and his psychedelic flowers into trinkets. For example, his happy flowers are the face of fluffy cushions and colorful keychains.
Murakami has stated, “In Japan, after having lost World War II, the hierarchy that used to exist in the society, from the rich to the poor, has been flattened, especially by the winners, by Americans. As a Japanese artist debuting in America, I really had to bring that kind of theme into the work…”
If you like his style of art, you can look for his next exhibition, Murakami vs. Murakami, which will open on September 1, 2019, in Hong Kong’s ai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts. For those who don’t like his art, you can at least take away the knowledge of the history that inspired Murakami’s reflective work.