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Takashi Murakami

Japanese Painter, Sculptor, Installation artist, Curator, Art Critic, and Cultural Entrepreneur

Movements and Styles: Superflat, Neo Pop Art

Born: February 1, 1962 - Tokyo, Japan

Takashi Murakami Timeline

Quotes

"The desire to understand even a part of the deep cultural forest of anime is to me, perhaps surprisingly, as pure and creative a motivation as the artistic drive to capture the beauty of a landscape or a nude with the rough tools of art."
Takashi Murakami
"Pop culture was born in the U.K. and U.S, it 'popped up', amidst the prosperity of these 'winners' (of WWII). We Japanese are the losers. We were completely flattened, and have never been able to 'pop up' since. The cheerful colors of my works may evoke Pop, but the backdrop of their emergence is completely different from Western Pop."
Takashi Murakami
"'Identity' is something that one has to find for oneself. The 'identity' of a country must be obtained through deep analyses carried out by the people themselves, regarding the culture that is well rooted in its soil. We have to start probe these roots, to dig down to those depths. But Japanese people today do not dare to do this and do not know how to go about it... It is because of this frustration that I invented the notion of 'Superflat'."
Takashi Murakami
"Contemporary art in Japan is like American football in Europe - nobody is interested in it... But they know that Japanese contemporary art is greatly appreciated in the West, particularly in the countries with most culture. Japanese people demonstrate their interest on this point alone. I would really like to show my compatriots that there is profound meaning in today's art, that it is an extremely rich intellectual experience."
Takashi Murakami
"What I am doing is translating for both sides: on one side, I am trying to show my compatriots what 'art' means on a global scale, and on the other, to the foreigners, I am trying to show the essence of our current culture."
Takashi Murakami
"I felt that I had to understand the relationship between Japan and the U.S. The reason being that growing up swimming in images of the Vietnam War and Would War II on television, I felt confronted by the question: 'the contradictions in this world are a reality, but if we flip them around, perhaps they can become functional?'"
Takashi Murakami
"In Japan, the line (between high and low) 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."
Takashi Murakami

"Art and commerce are one."

Takashi Murakami Signature

Synopsis

Known for his brightly colored and maniacally cheerful works, Takashi Murakami's astronomical rise to fame in the contemporary art world has been met with equal parts celebration and criticism. Murakami merges Japanese pop culture referents with the country's rich artistic legacy, effectively obliterating any distinction between commodity and high art. He is compared to Andy Warhol for his art-as-business approach, as well as for his large factories of workers who produce, market, and sell his art. His critics have derided him as a sell-out, and as playing into the art market's increasing demands for easily consumable and exotic art from Japan. But for Murakami, this is a compliment and precisely what he intends. His work draws inspiration from the Japanese subculture of otaku, which is replete with strange perversions of cuteness and innocence, as well as incredible violence. Through this, Murakami crafts a subtle critique of Japan's contemporary culture as well as the West's intruding influence upon it.

Key Ideas

Sculptures of anime-inspired characters with voluptuous breasts shooting out streams of milk like a jet-stream, overly cheerful cartoon characters with razor sharp teeth, and sickeningly cute paintings of smiling daisies are all stylistically and thematically based on Murakami's early engagement with the Japanese subculture of otaku - a large group of fanatical geeks obsessed with the fantasy worlds depicted in anime (animated cartoons) and manga (comic books), and the concept of kawaii (all things "cute"). In his youth, Murakami immersed himself in this world, and as an artist he began to draw stylistic inspiration from it and presents to viewers from a cynical and distanced stance.
Out of defiance for the Western-dominated art world, Murakami created his own movement called Superflat. The name refers both to the flattened compositions that lacked one point perspective of historical Japanese artistic movements such as nihonga, as well as to the flattening (or merging) of art and commerce. Superflat is Murakami's way of bringing together Japan's history with contemporary pop culture. Its bright and easy eye-candy aesthetic immediately lured a wide audience to Murakami's work. However, critics have derided Superflat as a blatant caricature and distortion of modern Japan. Regardless, Superflat has inspired an entire generation of contemporary Japanese art.
Taking cue from Andy Warhol's factory, Murakami developed a new form of Pop art, aptly titled Neo-Pop, in which the line between pop culture and high art was not simply blurred, but rather, completely obliterated. Murakami's Neo-Pop parodies postwar Japanese consumer culture by "sampling" and "remixing" its themes and characters within the realm of high art. Murakami's factories produce fine art that sells for millions of dollars alongside cheap trinkets that sell for just a few dollars. In this respect, Murakami shatters the illusion of elitism and superiority of the art world, while simultaneously benefitting from it economically. His collaboration with Louis Vuitton further destroyed the line between art and commerce, while the wide availability of his trinkets enable anyone to own a Murakami piece.
Murakami's work must be understood as deeply critical to Western intervention. He was raised by parents who experienced the devastating nuclear bombings in a Japan that then faced heavy sanctions and a permanent U.S. military presence. His Japanese writings differ wildly from his essays written in English, and in them, he betrays a deep cynicism towards the West, and towards the global art market. Murakami considers Japan's contemporary obsession with cuteness, youthful innocence, fetish, and violence to be the product of U.S. intervention that began with the bomb. Many believe that Murakami considers his thrusting of this culture onto the U.S. through his elevation of it as high art as a form of revenge.

Most Important Art

Takashi Murakami Famous Art

727 (1996)

In the center of this contemporary triptych is Murakami's avatar named Mr. DOB. His open mouth reveals razor sharp teeth, as his multiple eyes roam maniacally across his environs. Japanese anime is known for cartoon characters with unusually large eyes, which frequently encompass a large portion of their face. The roving eyes in this piece take anime's exaggeration even further.

Mr. DOB, created by Murakami in 1993, is derived from the Japanese slang term "dobozite" which roughly translates as "why?" The maniacal smile of Mr. DOB can be understood as Murkami's laughing stance towards the art world, and also towards the West. The title itself, 727, is a reference to the Boeing American airplanes that flew over his childhood home while heading to U.S. military bases. In this sense, the title is a direct reference to the U.S. presence in post-WWII Japan that Murakami is so keen to both explore and critique in his art.

The stylized wave upon which Mr. DOB sits is an obvious reference to the 19th century Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai, who was incredibly influential for future Japanese artists and manga comics alike due to his bold colors and flattened compositions. The abstract background, created by scrapping away many layers of paint, is reminiscent of a Japanese folding screen done in the nihonga style. The soothing use of paint in the background of this work is in stark contrast to the cartoonish Mr. D.O.B. atop a parodied version of Hokusai's wave. With a Ph.D. degree in nihonga, Murakami masterfully merges the worlds of historical Japanese aesthetics and popular contemporary Japanese cartoons.

Murakami began the Mr. DOB series with the purpose of creating a great icon of the contemporary world, comparable to Mickey Mouse, Miffy, or Hello Kitty. This recurring motif is Murakami's first "artistic DNA" that is spread across different media and cultural levels, from fine-art paintings and gigantic 3D sculptures to mass-produced t-shirts, posters, and key-chains. Mr. DOB is very much a brand mascot. The intention is to make the artist disappear, as he declares, "the audience doesn't need the artist, only the character." Resonating with the anonymous Japanese artisans of the past, Murakami adds, "I despair of the possibility that the world will not purify, and that art is an effective medium to survive cheerfully, even after my death." Mr. DOB's global success gave Murakami the confidence to elevate himself to the status of Cezanne, Duchamp, Warhol, and Picasso who, in his words, "had their characters (in their work and in themselves) to survive many dozens of years beyond their lifetimes." Mr. DOB is simultaneously a celebration as well as critique of contemporary culture, and this paradox is what makes this figure so intriguing.
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Takashi Murakami Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Takashi Murakami was born in 1962. Murakami's father was a taxi driver, and his mother was a homemaker. His mother, who studied needlepoint and designed textiles, had a tremendous influence on Murakami's interest in the arts. His parents often had him write reviews on exhibitions he had seen. If he refused, he was forced to go to bed without dinner. Raised in such a highly competitive environment, Murakami learned how to think and write quickly. These skills partly inform his later fame as an acerbic art critic.

Murakami grew up hearing his mother tell him that had the U.S. dropped another nuclear bomb, he would not have been born. The omnipresence of the devastation and the ensuing U.S. presence in Japan in the decades following WWII had a tremendous influence on Murakami's artistic evolution. During Murakami's childhood, Japan created a national identity that revived traditional Japanese culture and put tremendous pressure on its workforce to produce in order to compete with the West both economically, as well as culturally. This hybrid emphasis on traditional Japanese culture and Western influences was reflected in Murakami's childhood activities, which ranged from attending Buddhist rituals and taking Japanese calligraphy courses to visiting museum exhibitions of masters such as Renoir and Goya.

Though he developed an early appreciation of both traditional Japanese culture and modern European art, Japanese animation had the most significant impact on him during his formative teenage years. This explains why a major part of his works are dedicated to the otaku audience, a subculture obsessed with apocalyptic and fetishistic imagery. These recurring motifs in anime and manga coincides with otaku followers' inability, or perhaps refusal, to interact in the real world or apply social skills. Murakami himself links the otaku subculture directly to post-WWII Japanese society.

Early Training and Work

Initially interested in studying background art for animations, in 1980 Murakami enrolled in the nihonga (a traditional Japanese painting style that draws on elements of Western art) department of the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he stayed on for master's (completed in 1988) and doctoral degree (completed in 1993). While diligently studying the ancient techniques at university, he also learned animation production outside of school, and continued his knowledge of the contemporary art world through visiting exhibitions and his school's visiting artist program.

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Takashi Murakami Biography Continues

In 1984, an inspiring yet infuriating meeting with Joseph Beuys proved to be a turning point in Murakami's artistic career. During an in-class discussion, Beuys ignored several of the students' questions, saying "the questions have no meaning. I would like a more meaningful question." Beuys's dismissive attitude upset Murakami, while the famous artist was in turn frustrated with what he saw as uninformed Japanese art students. As a result, by his seventh year at school, Murakami's began to reflect his deeply critical attitude towards the Western art market.

Takashi Murakami Biography

Murakami's early works reflect the realities with which he had grown up, exploring the complex post-WWII relationship between Japan and the U.S. For example, Polyrhythm (1991) uses plastic World War II toy soldiers, Sea Breeze (1992) refers to the atomic bomb. These works demonstrate his early development of a playful and seemingly light style that always refer to a more cynical stance.

Mature Period

In 1994, Murakami traveled to New York City to participate in P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center's International Studio Program on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. Isolated and fairly unhappy in New York, Murakami was surrounded by the pressures of the American art market and gallery system. There he realized that in order to succeed in this world, he had to abandon his overly-intellectual Japanese preoccupations, and to present a more simplified brand of himself and his art as quintessentially Japanese. This time therefore represents a radical breaking point for his career. Prior to this, his work focused on a global bent to contemporary art, but it was during this visit that he decided to re-engage with his Japanese identity and strengthen his work's engagement with both the high art form of nihonga as well as the popular culture forms of anime and manga. On the eve of his departure from New York, while playing a late-night word game with friends using non-sense words like "dobozite" (a manga word meaning "why?"), Murakami came up with the figure Mr. DOB, which would go on to become the artist's signature character across his diverse array of artistic media. Mr. DOB-shaped inflatables were shown for the first time in New York at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in 1995, but did not receive any significant critical attention. In 1996, he was included in a group exhibition at the gallery Feature. This exhibition marks the beginning of his international acclaim and fame. Murakami went on to design a series of major sculptures inspired by otaku subculture in the second half of the nineties, including Miss ko2 (1996-1997), Hiropon (1997), and My Lonesome Cowboy (1998). Murakami's liberal borrowings from Japanese popular culture was very comparable to Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol's appropriations of comics.

View of Kaikai Kiki Co., Murakami's large operation creating various, and massive pieces
View of Kaikai Kiki Co., Murakami's large operation creating various, and massive pieces

In order to produce his otaku-inspired sculptures, in 1996 Murakami founded the Hiropon Factory. Like much of Murakami's works, his factory is modeled on both traditional Japanese art workshops, such as the ones that produced the colorful woodblock prints from the Edo period, as well as on Andy Warhol's Factory. At Hiropon assistants trained in various areas of expertise collaborate under the artist's supervision for large-scale, mass-marketed projects. In 2001, the Hiropon Factory evolved into Kaikai Kiki Co., a highly organized corporation employing about fifty people in its Tokyo headquarters, and twenty in its New York office and studio. Besides producing and marketing Murakami's works, the corporation promotes new artists; operates art fairs, organizes collaborative projects with individuals and companies in fashion, music, and entertainment, and develops animated videos and films. Kaikai Kiki represents a shift in the production of modern artwork where fine art and commerce are seamlessly integrated, and where the artist's physical hand in the making of the artwork no longer determines the financial value, but rather the symbolic value is created through the artist's association with the art-commodities produced in his business-oriented factory. Now the corporation employs as many as 60 full time employees in its Tokyo location, and more than 20 in New York.

In 2000, in search of a post-war Japanese identity and out of a frustration of his compatriots' indifference to Japanese contemporary art, Murakami presented the theory of Superflat in a group exhibition of the same name. The exhibition featured his own works as well as the ones by Yoshitomo Nara, Shigeyoshi Ohi, Aya Takano, and others. The Superflat theory soon swept across the contemporary art world, becoming a landmark movement in contemporary Japanese art, the latest major style to reach international acclaim in the art world since the 1950s Japanese Gutai group.

Murakami's historic essay, "A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art" (2000) is his ultimate expression of his early scorn for the art world. There, he articulates desire to produce a uniquely Japanese art form that is directly related to the long shadow cast by Japan's trauma after the humiliating defeat of WWII. This essay seeks to extract the very marrow of the post-war Japanese culture in order to utilize it as a foundational philosophy for his artworks. As writer Pico Iyer states, Murakami "is a realistic chronicler of the flight from the real. And much as Andy Warhol decided to give modern America exactly the glut of mass production and mass celebrity it seemed so intent upon, with a vengeance, so Murakami offered Japan precisely the images it loves, in its fondness for the kawaii and those deviant forms loved by the otaku." The Japanese version of this essay demonstrate a vitriolic anti-Americanism, while his English translations focus more on the stylistic evolution of his works. In both versions, however, Murakami explains the concept of, as he describes, "Superflatness is an original concept of the Japanese, which has been completely Westernized."

His epic Superflat thesis aims to seamlessly unite the history of Japanese art from twelfth-and thirteenth-century Genji and Heiji scrolls with contemporary Japanese pop-culture. Despite his art-historical and culturally-rich referents in his art, essays, manifestos, and interviews, people are often immediately drawn to his work for its seeming superficiality and dazzling explosion of characters and colors. This paradox between the profound meaning and the immediate pleasure enjoyed by his audience directly expresses of the fluid nature of his Superflat concept.

Current Practice

Ever since the founding of the Hiropon Factory, Murakami's projects have been more commercially charged and have explored unconventional artistic media including fashion, music, entertainment, public installations, animation, and films. This shift between roles reveals Murakami's ambition of redefining what a postmodern, international artist can be.

In 2002, at the invitation of the designer Marc Jacobs, Murakami began his long-term collaboration with the elite fashion brand Louis Vuitton. Without losing his identity in the LV project, Murakami was able to tweak the brand to incorporate his own unique aesthetic. For example, he combined LV's monogram with his own signature jellyfish eyes or overprinted the monogram with his cartoon cherries. This collaboration made Murakami widely known for further blurring commercial boundaries, elevated his status to celebrity in his home country, and raised economic value of his art to one that is highly prized among (mostly Western) collectors.

Murakami with Kanye West
Murakami with Kanye West

His fame in the fashion world swept across the pop music industry as well. In 2007, Murakami designed the Dropout Bear character for singer Kanye West's album Graduation and directed an animated video for West's song "Good Morning." His collectors in the pop music world include the South Korean superstar musician G-Dragon and Pharrell Williams, who also collaborated with Murakami in 2009 and 2014. Murakami later "re-appropriated" these projects by incorporating the identical imagery into his paintings and sculptures meant for prestigious art institutions or influential collectors.


Legacy

Takashi Murakami Photo

Murakami has inspired and personally mentored the next generation of Japanese artists. He named himself as the guru of the kuriieita (creator) generation, the young adults of Japan's two "lost decades" of the 1990s and 2000s who grew up in a society in decline. To these followers in Japan, he declared he was on a mission to fool the West and smash the Japanese art system. He is also an active mentor to emerging Japanese artists through employing them at his factories, curating exhibitions of their work, and writing essays that contextualizes their work within the legacy of modern Japanese art. Proteges at the Kaikai Kiki Co. include Chiho Aoshima, Chinatsu Ban, Akane Koide, Mahomi Kunikata, Mr., Rei Sato, and Aya Takano, whose strong presence in the Japanese art world defines the landscape of Japanese art in the twenty-first century. Despite the clash of reception between his artwork, alternating between heavy disdain and blatant celebration, Superflat has come to dominate the world's view of Japanese contemporary art.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Takashi Murakami
Interactive chart with Takashi Murakami's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Katsushika Hokusai
Hishida Shunso
Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Roy LichtensteinRoy Lichtenstein
Keith HaringKeith Haring

Friends

Yoshimoto Nara
Masato Nakamura
Min Nishihara
Makoto Aida
Midori Matsui

Movements

Nihonga
Ukiyo-e
Pop ArtPop Art
Takashi Murakami
Takashi Murakami
Years Worked: 1991 - Current

Artists

Aya TakanoAya Takano
Chiho Aoshima
Mahomi Kunikata
Chinatsu Ban
Akane Koide

Friends

Movements

SuperflatSuperflat
Neo Pop ArtNeo Pop Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jiete Li

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Allison Harbin

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jiete Li
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Allison Harbin
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Useful Resources on Takashi Murakami

Videos

Books

Websites

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

exhibitions

Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg Recomended resource

By Michael Darling, Madeleine Grynsztejn, and Michael Dylan Foster

Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats Recomended resource

By Takashi Murakami and Mori Art Museum

Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture Recomended resource

By Takashi Murakami

Murakami Versailles Recomended resource

By Laurent Le Bon, Cederic Delsaux, Philippe Dagen, and Jill Gasparina

More Interesting Books about Takashi Murakami

in pop culture

The Design Evolution of Kanye West's Album Artwork

In Particular, a look at Murakami's design for the music album - Graduation

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