Collecting guide: Takashi Murakami
An introduction to the visually supercharged world of the Japanese artist who is loved by A-listers, endorsed by fashion brands and inspired by everything from manga comics to Edo-period woodcuts. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
Takashi Murakami and his dog, Pom, photographed in Tokyo, 2018. Photo: Tomohiko Tagawa
The output of superstar Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) ranges from paintings, sculpture and prints to fashion collaborations and merchandise. His multimedia oeuvre is dominated by characters and motifs drawn from his own imaginative universe and inspired by traditional and contemporary Japanese art and culture.
Murakami is a pioneer of the ‘superflat’ theory of art, and his Instagram account has 2.5 million followers.
Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), A Panda Family Against the Blue Sky, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 100 cm (39⅜ x 39⅜ in). Sold for HK$5,000,000 on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Murakami’s art is inspired by anime and manga
Optical overload is a signature feature of Murakami’s work. Over the years, he has developed a distinctive aesthetic universe filled with candy colours, indiscriminate detail and eccentric recurring characters — such as Mr DOB and Miss ko2.
Inspired by art forms such as anime and manga, he has put his own psychedelic, Japanese spin on Pop art.
Murakami studied nihonga, a 19th-century Japanese painting technique
Murakami was born and raised in Tokyo, where he still lives today (his studio is in Miyoshi, an hour outside the city). He attended Tokyo University of the Arts, gaining a PhD in nihonga, a late-19th-century style of Japanese painting.
In 1994, he visited New York to take part in the International Studio Program at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1). It proved a major turning point: it was at that moment of his career — on briefly leaving Japan — that his work became distinctly Japanese.
Murakami’s most enduring character is Mr DOB
It was at P.S. 1 that Murakami debuted an inflatable version of Mr DOB, his most enduring character. This fantastical grinning creature is a hybrid of many influences, including Sonic the Hedgehog, the manga character Doraemon and the Yokai monsters of Japanese folklore.
Mr DOB has appeared in numerous incarnations over the years, in paintings, sculptures, even as a plush toy. Instantly recognisable, he has become a brand mascot for Murakami — and almost an alter ego.
In November 2011, DOB in the Strange Forest (Blue DOB), dating from 1999, sold for $2,770,500 at Christie’s in New York.
Murakami’s work embraces kawaii — or cuteness
Murakami’s art has helped familiarise Western audiences with a number of Japanese concepts. One of these, kawaii — translatable as ‘cuteness’ — is famously exemplified by the Hello Kitty franchise. Murakami’s ready supply of smiley-faced flowers and perky mushrooms are in the kawaii spirit, too.
The same can very often be said of Mr DOB — though not always. The character sometimes takes on a darker, slightly menacing appearance, as in the canvas Tan Tan Bo, which fetched more than $5 million at Christie’s in New York in 2018.
Murakami also embraces otaku, particularly through Miss ko2
Another concept at the core of Murakami’s practice is otaku, literally ‘your house’. This pertains to a geeky subculture of young, predominantly male, Japanese obsessives glued to their comics and computer screens. They prefer to stay at home rather than go out, and tend to regard women as objects of fantasy.
Miss ko2 should be seen in the context of otaku. Dating back to 1996, this doe-eyed, blonde waitress dressed in a miniskirt and stiletto heels, has appeared in myriad sculptures and paintings — as well as the movie Jellyfish Eyes.
Two of Murakami’s 10 most expensive works sold at auction are depictions of Miss ko2.
Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), Miss ko2, 1996.. Acrylic on canvas mounted on wood. 48 x 48 in (122 x 122 cm). Sold for HK$5,500,000 on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong
When Christie’s offered one of Murakami’s earliest paintings of Miss ko2, the artist reflected on her creation through an Instagram post: ‘All I can remember feeling was pain and struggle. But at the same time, I was also working on a 3D figure version of this character, which would become a prototype for the anime-style sculptures that would bring me my breakthrough. In that sense, this painting contains the basis on which I subsequently built my career.’
It’s worth adding that the highest price for a Murakami work at auction — the fibreglass sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy (1998) — is of a man engaged in a favourite otaku pastime: masturbating. It fetched $15.2 million in 2008, the same year that Murakami was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Murakami has been the subject of retrospectives across the globe
Murakami’s imagery is sometimes described as hallucinogenic. He insists, however, that ‘I don’t actually take drugs… I’ve no experience of them.’ He quips that, where ‘Western people need drugs to release dopamine [the hormone associated with pleasure], in Japan we just play video games’.
The artist has been the subject of many international retrospectives, including last year’s Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow at The Broad in Los Angeles, and Murakami vs Murakami at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, in 2019, alongside major shows at Vancouver Art Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery).
Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), Killer Pink, 2003. Number 17 from the edition of 50 and 10 artist’s proofs. Screenprint in colours. Image: 21⅝ x 21⅝ in (55 x 55 cm). Sold for $11,250 on 11 December 2020 at Christie’s Online
In 2010, he became only the third contemporary artist to have a solo exhibition at the Palace of Versailles.
Murakami has collaborated with Supreme, Uniqlo — and Christie’s
A quick scroll down his Instagram page also reveals how many celebrity admirers he has. His collectors include Justin Bieber, Naomi Campbell and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Murakami even collaborated on a sculpture with the musician Pharrell Williams: The Simple Things features Mr DOB with seven dazzling objects visible inside his open mouth. These include a bag of Doritos and a can of Pepsi; all are made of gold and set with a total of 26,000 diamonds. The unique work sold for HK$21,725,000 at Christie’s in Hong Kong in 2019.
In 2011 Christie’s in New York held a special event, New Day: Artists for Japan, part of an initiative set up in memory of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The auction offered works by artists including KAWS, Aya Takano, Yoshimoto Nara and Jeff Koons. Murakami contributed four works, including New day: Face of the Artist.
Murakami’s ‘superflat’ theory is rooted in ukiyo-e
Alongside his fashion-house and celebrity endorsements, Murakami gained a level of critical appreciation in 2000 when he first espoused his now-famous ‘superflat’ theory. This amounts to a manifesto of his whole practice.
According to the theory, Murakami’s work is a fitting continuation of Japanese imagery that goes as far back as the great ukiyo-e (‘fleeting world’) prints of the Edo period. This is for two main reasons. First, because — unlike Westerners — the Japanese have traditionally seen no distinction between fine and commercial art; and second, because linear perspective is not part of the Japanese tradition.
As such, the country’s art can be considered ‘flat’ in more ways than one — and, therefore, superflat.
Murakami’s work has evolved in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami
In recent years, there have been subtle but significant changes in Murakami’s art. He has produced work on a larger scale and in an increasingly diverse range of media, and has become increasingly ambitious in collaborations with other artists.
The most notable change, however, is that in the past decade Murakami has admitted to letting a more spiritual element enter his work, thanks to an engagement with Japan’s religious (especially Buddhist) past. This happened following the 2011 disaster.
‘After that, my philosophy completely changed,’ he says. ‘I'm now respectful of how beliefs [have been] a way for people to deal with challenges from nature or elsewhere.’
One typical recent work is the 82-foot-long In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, part of The Broad’s collection.
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Murakami’s market ranges from paintings, sculptures and prints to ‘affordable merchandise’
Murakami’s artwork is consistently in demand — in large part because he has cultivated a practice that blends art and commerce.
With the help of his studio, he is able to produce work that occupies a huge range of price points — from affordable merchandise to prints and multiples, to the masterpieces that sell for millions. The great thing about Murakami is accessibility.
Paintings and sculptures from the late 1990s and early 2000s (widely considered his peak period) tend to fetch the highest prices. Of the top 10 prices achieved for Murakami’s work at auction, seven span the period 1997-2005. As a rule of thumb, works featuring his well-known characters generally do best — not just Mr DOB and Miss ko2, but also the twin mascot-warriors Kaikai and Kiki, after whom Murakami’s company is named. These have all become much-loved representatives of the artist’s universe.