Often referred to as the Andy Warhol of Japan, Takashi Murakami’s works are flooded with his iconic cute, grotesque and erotic invented characters. Working in traditional media such as painting and sculpture as well as in commercial media including fashion and animation, Murakami has successfully blurred the lines between high art and low culture, East and West, past and present.
Murakami initially studied “nihonga,” traditionalist Japanese painting, at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music where he earned his BA, MFA and PhD. Though he originally resented nihonga, it later would join “otaku” as fundamental to his work. A lover of anime and manga from a young age, Murakami’s aesthetic is a combination of otaku, or the obsession with anime and cartoons, and the tenants of contemporary art.
Using characters such as Mr Pointy, smiling flowers and colourful mushrooms in his “superflat” style, Murakami explores the relationship between art and consumerism. His success has led to a myriad of international exhibitions as well as high profile partnerships. Not only has he caught the attention of collectors like Kanye West, Murakami’s resulting success has led to collaborations with Pharrell Williams, Virgil Abloh and Louis Vuitton.
Murakami’s entry into his art career began in 7th grade when he fell into a hole and consequently broke his skull. Unable to leave his bed, he fell behind in school and was unable to apply for universities, leaving him no choice but to apply for art school where grades were not considered. Star Wars was first released in Japan during this period and would become crucial to the development of Murakami’s artistic aesthetic as he would later name George Lucas an important mentor.
In 2000 Murakami curated an art exhibition of Japanese art titled Superflat – originally launched at the Parco Gallery in Tokyo and later travelling to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The exhibition acknowledged a movement toward mass-produced entertainment and its effects on contemporary aesthetics. The success of Superflat transformed the term into a moniker to describe Murakami’s already existing artistic style. “Superflat” attempts to blur the boundaries between popular art and high art while simultaneously describing a larger shift toward the two dimensional.
Murakami considered Japanese art to be aesthetically flat, particularly considering the works produced during the Edo period as well as contemporary animated films. Perhaps more crucially, it is also socioculturally flat. Murakami is critical of contemporary artists who he believes ignored the horrors of World War II and the subsequent state it left the country in, namely the American occupation. Instead, his contemporaries relied on the fantasy world of otaku. His critiques have resonated in sculptures such as Hiropon and My Lonesome Cowboy, a busty, nude woman and man with fluids emerging from their bodies. The works resemble Eve and Adam in commentaries on the post-war Japanese psyche which was subsequently traumatised and infantilised by the war.
Created within this context and aesthetic is Murakami’s most iconic character Mr. DOB, that which is his alter-ego. The shortened translation of the Japanese term for “why?” the character was born when Murakami’s friend bought an Apple computer. Interested in creating a line that could not be produced by hand, Murakami and his friend collaborated to create the now well-known Mr. DOB. Beginning as a form reminiscent of Mickey Mouse but with pronounced teeth, it later evolved into a cuter character closer to the Japanese “kawaii,” the aesthetic responsible for cuddly characters like Hello Kitty.
This interest in eliminating the hand of the artist from the artwork echoes across the production of Murakami’s work. Reminiscent of Andy Warhol, his factory-like studio called “kaikai kiki,” which translates to something that is both elegant and bizarre, is based in Miyoshi, an industrial area outside Tokyo. There, Murakami is accompanied by a team of over 100 technicians and rising, each who underwent extensive training as a prerequisite to join the factory. Followed by a month of training, prospective technicians face a final test of painting the perfect mushroom, a skill crucial in order to collaborate with Murakami. Despite criticism for using a factory of technicians to complete his works, Murakami advocates for a collaborative process in art-making, comparing it to film productions and the works of masters like Michelangelo. Murakami’s technicians are integral to his process and receive the corresponding credit as on the back of each of his works are the names of the technicians that contributed to the work.
Murakami’s trend towards mechanical imagery is particularly realised in his screenprints. As a standard, Murakami’s screenprints are 3mm deep in order to present the appropriate texture and depth to the paint. His screen prints are created as single, one-off works or in editions of 50, however, there is little, if any difference, between the two approaches. All of his prints are completed using the same techniques and technicians who clean up each print with a Q-tip to eliminate any smudges. For Murakami, the goal is absolute perfection.
Of these perfected screen prints are his Louis Vuitton series, inspired off the back of his recent collaboration with the company. Assisting in the design of handbags, Murakami offers his work to a luxury brand and then takes these designs to his prints, transforming his artwork into a luxury item. This commercialisation of his work is supported by the use of neon colours. Reminiscent of 1970s Japanese cartoons and the colour palette used by American Pop artists, the neon pigments direct attention of viewers to the object in a manner similar to the bright advertising billboards. Murakami directly addresses the parallels between commercialisation and his works in his 2019 exhibition in Hong Kong Murakami vs Murakami. Here, he advocates for his name to be used as a brand, along the same lines as Disney, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton.
In effect, Murakami’s work is rooted in Japanese culture while still remaining valid internationally. Therefore, his aesthetic has allowed him to achieve the seemingly unattainable: both popular appeal and critical acclaim.