Tokyo-born Takashi Murakami is currently one of the world’s hottest modern artists. His works have been exhibited at fashionable galleries and museums in New York, Paris, London, Tokyo and Los Angeles and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions. He is so in demand and has many projects going on at once he employs teams at his “factories” in New York and Tokyo to keep up. Although his art has been embraced by the high fashion and art worlds he says his aim is to make art for the masses.

Murakami has been called the new Andy Warhol and was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s “100 most influential people.” Carol Vogel wrote in the New York Times, Murakami “has earned a reputation for merging fine art with popular Japanese anime and manga cartoons...intent on exploring how mass-produced entertainment and consumerism are part of art.”

Kyoji Maeda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Murakami helped bring to the fore the relationship between manga and pornography in the context of contemporary art. In 1994, Murakami had already created Mr. DOB, which later became a big hit, but was still one of the poor, unknown artists who loved manga and anime. At that time, Murakami was fond of saying self-mockingly, "I'm a contemporary artist, too, but my works don't sell at all.” Murakami has achieved a high international reputation thanks to the multilayered way his superflat theory and other aspects of traditional and modern art and pop culture suffuse his works. It has been a long time since the main stages for exhibitions of his works shifted overseas. A figurine he created in 1998 was bought in 2008 for $15.16 million dollars. [Source: Kyoji Maeda, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2012]

Murakami wears big, round wire-rimmed glasses and sports a goatee and a quasi samurai ponytail, He often dresses like a skateboarder in baggy short bands and weirdly-printed T-shirts. When he dresses up he likes to wear bow ties.

Murakami's Life

Born into a working class family in 1962, Murakami was brought up with Disney, Spielberg, and Japanese manga and anime and once dreamed of being animator but changed his mind when he realized he had no real talent for drawing. Peter Schjedahl wrote in The New Yorker. Murakami “came of age at a time when young Japanese chafed at their rehabilitated nation’s banality.”

Murakami’s father served in the Japanese military and his mother designed textiles and often reminded him that his existence was due to the fact that he home city of Kokura was cloudy on August 9, 1945 and an atomic bomb was dropped on its secondary target of Nagasaki not Kokura.

Murakami took calligraphy classes as many Japanese children do today and attended Buddhist rituals and was encouraged in his pursuit of the arts by his parents who required him to attend art exhibitions, including ones by Goya and Renoir and write about what he saw. If he didn’t he was denied dinner. As a teenager he loved anime, especially a series about the World War II battleship Yamato which rise from the ocean floor to fight alien invaders.

Murakami was trained in “nihonga”, a Western-influenced style of traditional Japanese painting, and received a doctorate in it at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1991 after 11 years. He left that world behind after seeing an exhibit of erotic art by Jeff Koons in New York and being exposed to theories of art as commodities,

Murakami began showing art around 1990 but it didn't really garner much attention until the late 1990s his erotic pieces were widely circulated and a theory he called Superflat was promoted. His early works included children’s backpacks made from skins of exotic animals that were exhibited after an opening that featured a a ritual performed by Shinto priests for the animals' departed souls. Now he is a very rich man.Maeda wrote: An issue of Geijutsu Shincho magazine featured the artist with the tongue-in-cheek title "Mada Murakami ga, Okirai desuka?" (Do you still hate Murakami?) Murakami became a "winner," attracting as much criticism as acclaim in the process. Otaku call him an "exploiter of otaku culture" while art critics cannot bring themselves to champion his art. Murakami describes himself as "an artist and akindo (merchant)," a description that just angers his critics even more. He sharply criticizes the closed nature of the Japanese art world. As a result, Murakami hardly ever holds major solo exhibitions in Japan. In two books written by Murakami and published by Gentosha Inc.--Geijutsu Kigyoron (the theory of art enterpreneurship) and Geijutsu Tosoron (the theory of art competition)--the artist openly describes his business strategies. [Source: Kyoji Maeda, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2012]

Murakami's Art

Murakami's art is heavily influenced by Japanese manga art, anime, and “kawaii” (“cute”). Images that appear again and again include “Mr. Dob”, a Mickey-Mouse-like character and multicolored mushrooms covered with eyes and sharp teeth. Some works are described as Neo-Pop and Sado-Cute. Maeda wrote: Murakami coined the word "superflat" to describe an aesthetic influenced by manga, animation and otaku culture. It is a reference to the comparatively two-dimensional visual approaches of Japanese artists, and also to the comparative lack of distinctions in Japan between high and low, aesthetic and commercial, original and imitative. The concept was accepted more overseas than within Japan.

“Hiropon” is a mannequin-like sculpture of semi-naked girl with a cheerful, manga-like face and enormous breasts from which emanates a jump rope of acrylic milk. A similar work, “My Lonesome Cowboy” features a spiky yellow-haired male masturbating and producing a fountain acrylic semen in the shape of lasso. “Second Mission Project” is a Transformer-like toy of a naked girl, with a detailed vagina, that becomes an airplane. Murakami says his erotic works "celebrate sexual spirituality." Others have dismissed them as “Disneyesque pornography."

Murakami linked traditional Japanese paintings and otaku culture by coining the word "superflat," In the 1990s Murakami began promoting his superflat theory for his art which explores consumerism and mass produced entertainment, attempts to introduce a modern Japanese aesthetic to contemporary art and seeks to adapt ideas form traditional Japanese painting to the contemporary art scene to generate a mix of high and low art.

Leaving the sexually explicit art behind in the late 1990s, Murakami began churning out works with repeated images such as smiling 60s-stye flowers, multi-eyed mushrooms that sometimes morphed into atomic mushroom clouds; “jellyfish eyes,” with long lashes and spots. Often these images are repeated hundreds of times.

Some people really don’t like Murakami’s work. The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjedahl called him the “most tin-eyed, big-name purveyor of bold color since Peter Max.” and wrote, “His aim, it seems, is to control and standardize aesthetic experience, forcing viewers into a, yes, infantile mold of rote response...Warhol, with his works’ beautiful color and catchy evidence of manual touch, is Rubens by comparison, But Warhol as marketeer, not as artist, is Murakami’s lodestar.”

Murakami's Factory

Murakami operates a large studio a converted garage in a residential neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Operating somewhat like Andy Warhol's factory, it is a large space with many assistants and many projects going on simultaneously. He also operates another large studio, the Hiropon Factory, in Tokyo and one in China. "Chinese people have really nice technique," he said. Hirpon is Japanese slang for the drug crystal methamphetamine.

In 2001, the Tokyo and New York facilities were organized into the Kaikai Kiki Co. “Kaikai” and “kiki” are the Japanese words for “bizarre” and “elegant.” The firm employs about 100 people, churning out works of art and products.

The mannequin-like images that Murakami produces are rendered mostly his assistants who spend hours and hours applying layers of acrylics to create a shining, seamless surface reminiscent of the robots in Steven Spielberg's A.I. Sometimes Murakami does little more than give his assistants pencil drawings or computer images made with Adobe Illustrator to work from. Sometimes they are sent these by E-mail.

Murakami-inspired art has become popular. In 2005, a Murakami-like huge yellow fiberglass mother and child elephant created by Chinatsu Ban, a Murakami associate, were placed at the entrance to Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street.

Murakami and LouisVuitton

Marc Jacobs, the artistic director for Louis Vuitton, wrote in Time, “When I first saw Takashi Murakami’s work, I smiled and wondered, Where did this explosion come from? Who was responsible for this collision of psychedelia, manga and well, art? Then I thought I would love it if the mind that imagined this dizzying world of jellyfish eyes... magic mushrooms and morphing creatures would be willing to have a go at the iconic Louis Vuitton monogram...So I e-mailed Takashi. And he answered. Before long, there he was, standing in my Paris office.”

“He and his crew, with total respect for Vuitton’s heritage, were eager to contribute to the creation of a new chapter,” Jacobs continued. “How we would proceed in our collaborating was set forth by Takashi. We would have a game of “catch-ball,” throwing ideas and images back and forth, usually over e-mail, until we were both satisfied. Our first agreed-upon work was a straightforward interpretation of Vuitton’s traditional monogram. What had once been set in brown with gold symbols was now alive in 33 clashing colors against a jet black or optic white background. With a bit more throwing of the ball, each symbol within the monogram would have its very own identity — even the LV would eventually be entwined in moss and sprout hands.”

“Our collaboration has produced a lot of works and has been an inspiration to many. It has been and continues to be a monumental marriage of art and commerce,” Jacobs said. “The ultimate crossover — and one for both the fashion and art history books...The best part is that it continues, it grows it morphs and still excites, Our efforts have come full circle. And I get to keep playing this game of catch ball with a great artist — and friend.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Murakami -designed Louis Vuitton products have been sold since the collaboration was formed in 2003.

Murakami Exhibitions

An exhibition of Murakami’s work at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007 featured a fully-operational Louis Vuitton boutique inside the exhibit that sold his $2,210 candy-colored bags, $220 cell phone straps and $10,000 limited-edition wall hangings. The same exhibit and the same boutique were featured at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008 and made a big splash in New York art circles. Some of the works were quite huge. It took 11 trucks to move all the stuff from Los Angeles to New York and an army of installers to get all the pieces in place.

The exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, entitled “© Murakami” featured 90 works, including colorful sculpture, drawings, wallpaper and a 20-minute animation film. Some of the works such as the 23-foot-tall Mr. Ponty required talking out half the glass in the front of the museum to install. The 18½-foot-tall “Oval Buddha” wa too big to get into the exhibition area and was placed in a sculpture garden in Manhattan. The entire event had tie ins with rapper Kanye West and the Internet company e-bay.

Murakami often sells his works with a contract that prevent resale of the work. In July 2008, he sued one Tokyo company who sold one of his works for ¥5.5 million and demanded that the work — “Flower Ball Blood (3d) V” — be returned.

In May 2002, a Murakami work called “Hiripon” was sold at Christie’s auction in New York for $380,000. A life-size figure of called “Miss Ko²” sold for nearly $600,000.

Murakami’s “Sophe Monogram” sold for $386,500 at a Christies auction in New York in November 2009.

Murakami has released short anime “ Superflat Monogram” (2003) to tie in with his Louis Vuitton products and “ Superflat First Love” (2009) and collaborated with hip hop star Kanye West on the video for the West’s song “ Good Morning”, which features a teddy bear and other cute characters juxtaposed against West’s edgy lyrics.

In September 2010. Murakami drew some media attention when an exhibition of his work was displayed at Versailles Palace outside of Paris and right wing groups protested the exhibition, saying the it was an insult to Versailles to have an exhibition of pop art there. A descendant of Louis XIV — the man who had Versailles built’sued Murakami for disrespecting the chateau and its ancestors and “people” represented by seven visitors sued to defend the “the right to access to heritage.”

Murakami’s Ego Exhibition

Describing the Murakami--Ego exhibition in Doha, Qatar, Kyoji Maeda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Visitors to the Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall in Doha are greeted by a six-meter-tall inflatable of the artist in a seated-Buddha pose, extending his right hand in a gesture of welcome. The work is titled Welcome to Murakami Ego. In the 4,250-square-meter main hall, 62 of his works from 1997 to the present, mainly paintings and sculptures created in the 2000s, are on display. In addition, his image products are being screened in a temporary tent. [Source: Kyoji Maeda, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2012]

The largest attraction is his new work titled Arhat Painting, which depicts Buddhist monks who have reached enlightenment. Created in response to the March 2011 Tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the three-meter-high, 100-meter-long painting is comprised of four parts. In one, countless grotesque-looking Buddhist monks stand prayerfully in a firestorm. In another, a multitude of monks scattered across an endless plain sit in meditation while some of their brethren fly overhead across a cosmic range of time like science-fiction animation heroes.

In Arhat Painting, Murakami used traditional artistic techniques but also added modern elements such as shiny lame fabric to give the painting a lively look. But the dynamic spectacle has a deeper meaning, as it shows the monks trying to save all life through meditation. Murakami said he got the idea of Arhat Painting from Gohyaku Rakan-zu (arhat painting) by Buddhist painter Kano Kazunobu (1816-1863), which was shown to the public in Tokyo after the 2011 quake disaster.

Murakami used a total of 200 university art students nationwide to complete Arhat Painting. It looks like pop art. But I think his passion to complete the massive work in such a short period may be deeply related to his longstanding interest in social affairs, such as the negative aspects of Japanese society after the end of World War II.

His 2002 work Tan Tan Bo Puking--a.k.a. Gero Tan, displayed in the first room of the venue, features Mr. DOB, an iconic Murakami character who appears frequently in his art. In Gero Tan, DOB's body explodes as it vomits. DOB lends itself to being deformed in a variety of wildly manga-ish ways. The character flexibly metamorphoses into monstrous forms, such as one with thousands of eyes.

Asked about feedback from the local audience, Jean-Paul Engelen, director of QMA public art programs, said Murakami's exhibition is enough of a pop event to appeal to casual visitors. He added, "It's relevant, though, that they see an exhibition that is radically different from what the general audience here has seen before.

Image Sources: Murakami website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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