He's high art. He's low culture. He's a one-man mass-market machine.
Takashi Murakami is often billed as the next Andy Warhol. Like the American pop art icon, he fuses high and low, pulling imagery from consumer culture to produce visually arresting, highly original work. He is vigorously, ingeniously self-promotional. In the past few years, Murakami has swept across the US and Europe, receiving fawning media attention and exhibiting at big-name museums. Just shy of 42, the charismatic artist even lives and works in what he calls a factory. How much more Warhol can you get?
But there's a key difference. Warhol took from the low and gave to the high. With ironic detachment, his work - paintings few could afford, films few could understand - appealed to an audience in on the joke. Murakami, on the other hand, takes from the low and gives to the high, the low, and everything in between. He makes paintings, sculptures, videos, T-shirts, key chains, mousepads, plush dolls, cell phone caddies, and, last but not least, $5,000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags. Murakami's work hits all price points: This fall he plans on selling plastic figurines packaged with bubble gum - a Murakami for $3. Warhol died before a T-shirt company licensed his soup cans and made a bundle. Murakami, who reads Bill Gates for management tips, knows better than to make that mistake.
It may be old hat to draw ideas and imagery from the mass market, but it's something else to hawk your wares in the candy aisle. In this as in other things, Japan may be leading us into the future. Murakami, who grew up in Tokyo, sees his heritage as key to his art: "The Japanese don't really have a difference or hierarchy between high and low." His "art merchandise" is dominated by a cast of creepily cute characters inspired by manga comics and anime cartoons - the twin pillars of Japanese pop culture. Cartoon characters have figured in high art since Roy Lichtenstein first transferred a Sunday comic to canvas in the early '60s. But the art establishment - steeped in old-world prejudices against mass merchandising - took Lichtenstein and Warhol's art as a critique. Murakami's work celebrates commerce, and commerce returns the favor: His Vuitton handbags have become one of the French fashion house's best-selling lines. Speaking through an interpreter, Murakami explains that his art process is "more about creating goods and selling them than about exhibitions." Not that he's shunning the big shows. In September, a 23-foot sculpture of one of his trademark characters - Mr. Pointy, a cross between a blissed-out Buddha and a space alien - went up in New York City's Rockefeller Center.
Murakami began his art career as a traditionalist. During his twenties at Tokyo National University, he worked on a doctorate in Nihonga, an amalgam of Western and Eastern painting styles dating to the late 19th century. But after witnessing the rise of anime and manga in Japanese culture during the '80s, he grew disillusioned with Nihonga, finding it irrelevant to daily Japanese life. He wanted to create something that would leave a lasting impression. "I set out to investigate the secret of market survivability - the universality of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doraemon, Miffy, Hello Kitty, and their knock-offs, produced in Hong Kong," Murakami wrote for a 2001 retrospective of his work. The result, in 1993, was Mr. DOB, Murakami's most ubiquitous and enduring character.
Now, as president of Kaikai Kiki, Murakami presides over an art-making corporation that operates from a campus of buildings known as the Hiropon Factory, outside Tokyo, as well as a studio in Brooklyn. While Warhol's Factory featured such colorful characters as Candy Darling, Lou Reed, and Edie Sedgwick, Hiropon is peopled by accountants, publicists, managers, and a computerized administrative system. "Staff members type up reports of what they work on each day. We then send everyone an email that compiles all the reports," explains Yuko Sakata, Kaikai Kiki's New York exhibition coordinator. Murakami, she says, got the idea for daily logs after reading Gates' Speed of Thought.
Murakami's business acumen suggests healthy margins and careful attention to costs. He won't discuss his corporation's balance sheet, but his New York dealer, Marianne Boesky, says paintings from his most recent show sold for up to $250,000. And in September, the owner of Christie's, Fran�ois Pinault, purchased the Rockefeller sculpture of Mr. Pointy for $1.5 million - a remarkable price for factory-produced art.
Murakami owes much of his success to the highly efficient Hiropon Factory. Hardly a reclusive artist toiling in his garret studio, he employs 25 assistants to perform specialized tasks, and he uses technology in pragmatic, labor-saving ways. Because his work features a number of recurring motifs - eyeballs, mushrooms, flowers - the factory maintains an immense electronic archive of renderings that he can cut and paste into the files he's working on. Murakami may be the first artist to make paintings from his own portfolio of digital clip art.
Each creation begins as a sketch in one of numerous pocket-sized notebooks. Full-size drawings are then scanned into the computer. From there, Murakami "paints" his works in Adobe Illustrator, tweaking the composition and cycling through thousands of colors until at last he hands the finished versions off to his assistants. His staff then prints out the work on paper, silk-screens the outline onto canvas, and commences painting. Without this embrace of technology, Murakami says, "I could have never produced this many works this efficiently, and the work wouldn't be as intense."
The fusion of art and computing led Murakami to a pictorial style that rejects the illusion of depth and perspective. Dubbed superflat, the approach isn't entirely new - Warhol's paintings often read flat - but Murakami has something else in mind. Superflat captures the aesthetics of our technological age: PDAs, digital billboards, flat-screen TVs. An exhibition curated by Murakami, titled simply Superflat, made its way to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2001. "I'm amazed at how that show continues to reverberate," says Michael Darling, an assistant curator at LA MoCA who helped bring the show to the States. "Superflat also refers to the leveling of distinctions between high and low. Murakami likes to flaunt that he can make a million-dollar sculpture and then take the same subject and crank out a bunch of tchotchkes."
The danger is that Murakami's unapologetic hucksterism may obscure just how good his art is. His images are disturbing and beautiful, and, above all, full of ideas. This alone won't secure his place in art history. What should is the way he marries talent to a keen understanding and manipulation of market forces. And unlike Warhol, when college kids plaster Mr. DOB on their dorm walls, he gets paid.
We recap 15 of the most memorable projects by enigmatic Japanese artist and founder of the “Superflat” movement – Takashi Murakami.
Few pop artists have ticked more boxes than Takashi Murakami. His resume includes the likes of fashion titans like Louis Vuitton and Vogue, iconic musicians Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, and some of the most coveted clothing labels from around the world, not limited to Supreme, COMME des GARÇONS and visvim. Aside from pioneering his own style of Japanese anime melded with pop culture artwork, Murakami is a staunch supporter of philanthropic causes, while he also manages the careers of several younger artists and organizes the biannual art fair GEISAI.
Check out 15 of Takashi Murakami’s best collaborative projects below ahead of his upcoming work with Vans.
“Last Night, Good Night (Re:Dialed)” – Pharrell Williams Remix
Naturally, a cartoon Pharrell wearing his signature Vivienne Westwood hat features amongst dancing robots and Sailor Moon-esque anime characters in this Murakami-powered video. Created in conjunction with Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes film, the music video is set to a remix of the movie’s theme song “Last Night, Good Night.” The film highlights the Japanese artist’s signature approach to colors and sheer, unadulterated imagination.
Takashi Murakami x Damien Hirst x Lionel Messi
Widely regarded as the most talented footballer of the modern age, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was overlayed on a circular backdrop of Murakami flowers, for an initiative that was aimed at providing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children in Asia. As a UNICEF ambassador, the Argentinian attacker featured on a wide range of works, which were auctioned at Sotheby’s in London.
Takashi Murakami x Billionaire Boys Club “JELLYFISH EYES” T-Shirt
Another article that was rolled out for Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes film, this co-branded T-shirt alongside Billionaire Boys Club was most likely facilitated by longtime friend and collaborator Pharrell Williams. In place of the well-liked BBC graphics that we have seen season after season, one of Murakami’s anime-inspired caricatures adorns the front of the tee.
Takashi Murakami x Hajime Asaoka “Death Takes No Bribe” Tourbillon Watch
In 2013, Murakami put pen to paper with independent Japanese watchmaker Hajime Asaoka for a custom timepiece. Thematically, the phrase “Death Takes No Bribe” served as the main inspiration for the project, which is characterized by dark flower and skull imagery in Murakami’s trademark style. The covetable watch made its premiere at the Academie Horlogere des Createurs Independants watch fair in Basel, Switzerland.
Takashi Murakami x Kaws for Christie’s
Renowned as visual artists in their own rights, Takashi Murakami teamed up with Brian Donnely aka KAWS and Christie’s auction house to raise funds for victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern part of Japan in 2011. Based around a Spongebob Squarepants motif, the piece was titled Kawsbob Enters the Strange Forest, and fetched a lofty hammer price of $155,000.
Takashi Murakami x Google “Solstice”
To coincide with the summer solstice of 2011, Google’s homepage was decorated with two different doodled courtesy of Takashi Murakami. Stylistically, the images reflected Murakami’s concept of “Superflat,” which refers to an art movement that attempts to introduce the international art scene to Japanese artists, animators, cartoonists and more.
Takashi Murakami for Macy’s
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2010 was the venue for several of Murakami’s cartoon characters to come to life, when 30-foot-tall inflatable versions of Kaikai and Kiki – two of the most recognizable figures from Murakami’s catalog – made their way down West 81st Street in Manhattan. What’s more – Murakami himself joined in the parade, but not before throwing on a flower costume of his own design.
Takashi Murakami x Britney Spears for POP Magazine
A 2010 issue of British fashion imprint POP Magazine featured this mashup of Britney Spears and Takashi Murakami visuals. Although the publication is headquartered in the UK, the cover features a quintessentially Japanese style of imagery. Perhaps an unexpected choice for the “Oops, I Did It Again” songstress, yet the result was oddly memorable.
Takashi Murakami x Casio G-SHOCK Frogman Watch
For art collectors that may be used to paying tens of thousands of dollars for a Murakami original, the price tag of this collaboration alongside G-SHOCK must have been a breath of fresh air. Limited to 300 pieces and originally retailing for around $4,000 when it dropped in 2010, the Frogman iteration came in a custom display case and featured the subtle use of Murakami graphics throughout.
Takashi Murakami x Kirsten Dunst x McG “Akihabara Majokko Princess”
2009’s exhibition at London’s Tate Modern museum, “Pop Life: Art in a Material World,” included a somewhat unexpected partnership between Takashi and Kirsten Dunst, who provided the vocals for a cover of “Turning Japanese” by the English new wave rock band The Vapors. The cover was included in a four-minute film directed by one of Hollywood’s biggest commercial directors McG, while the video itself showed Dunst donning a blue wig and bright pink skirt.
Takashi Murakami x Louis Vuitton
Certainly one of the most prolific collaborations in Murakami’s career, this project with Louis Vuitton saw Murakami graphics used on a range of Louis bags, while the highlight of the collaboration was arguably the range of custom Monogramouflage patterned pieces. With Marc Jacobs at the helm of the initiative, the collaboration was by-and-large a huge success for Louis Vuitton, as well as for Murakami, who was propelled further into the public eye.
Takashi Murakami x Pharrell Williams “The Simple Things”
For Art Basel Miami, Murakami linked up once again with Pharrell, while the duo brought Jacob the Jeweller on board to produce a rather schizophrenic sculpture titled Simple Things. Crafted from glass fiber, steel, acrylic, wood, LED lights and various objects (a bottle of Heinz ketchup, a Billionaire Boys Club sneaker, a bag of Doritos and a cupcake) made of gold, set with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds, the illustrious sculpture never actually went on sale.
Takashi Murakami x VISVIM KEIFER Hi-Suede “Multi Flower”
Although it wasn’t the only occasion that Murakami was tapped by visvim for a sneaker, this “Multi Flower” iteration of the VISVIM KEIFER Hi-Suede silhouette was produced circa 2008. As per Murakami’s modus operandi, a floral pattern dominates the upper of the hi-top sneaker, which also spills over onto the tongue.
Takashi Murakami x Supreme Skate Decks
Supreme has a penchant like none other for picking the best and brightest collaborative partners. In 2007, Takashi Murakami joined the ranks of Todd James, Peter Saville, Larry Clark, Roy Lichtenstein and other artists who have collaborated with the legendary New York-based brand. A total of three decks were released, once again utilizing the anime-inspired characters from Murakami’s past archive of works.
Takashi Murakami x Vogue x COMME des GARÇONS
In 2009, Takashi Murakami linked up with Vogue Nippon and COMME des GARÇONS to produce materials for a Tokyo-based pop-up shop. One of Murakami’s signature characters was worked into a limited T-shirt, which was cooked up to celebrate the opening of the so-called “Magazine Alive” store, which at the time purveyed goods from UNDERCOVER and Maison Margiela, as well as goods bearing manga likenesses of Hedi Slimane, Marc Jacobs, and Donatella Versace.
Check out the Vans x Murakami collaboration.
Vancouver-born, Berlin-based writer with a steady hand on the keyboard.