Collecting guide: 11 things to know about 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
Murakami’s celebrity fans include Kanye West
The output of superstar Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) ranges from paintings, sculptures and prints to a 2013 feature film, Jellyfish Eyes — plus a host of commercial products.
With the help of 200 staff at his Tokyo studio, he produces merchandise including mouse pads, baby clothes, cushions and skateboards.
Perhaps the biggest of his many celebrity fans is Kanye West, with whom he has worked several times — such as on the video released in 2008 for the rapper’s song Good Morning, which Murakami directed. ‘I love him,’ West says. ‘He is super intense [with] a powerful aura.’
Murakami’s art is inspired by anime and manga
Murakami’s art is one of optical overload. 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, national spin on Pop art.
Murakami studied nihonga, a 19th-century painting technique
Murakami was born and raised in Tokyo, where he still lives today. 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). ‘That was a major turning point,’ says Asia Chiao, Christie’s associate specialist in Modern & Contemporary Art, Asia Pacific. ‘Interestingly, it was at that moment of his career — on briefly leaving Japan — that his work became decidedly 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 fantastic, 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.
Four of the 10 most expensive works by the artist sold at auction are depictions of Mr DOB.
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.
As, very often, is 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 2018.
Murakami also embraces otaku, particularly through Miss ko2
Another concept at the core of Murakami’s practice is otaku. This pertains to a geeky subculture of young(ish), 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 extreme sexual fantasy rather than real people.
Miss ko2 should be seen in the context of otaku. Dating back to 1996, this doe-eyed, blonde waitress with large breasts, dressed in a miniskirt and stiletto heels, has appeared in myriad sculptures and paintings — as well as the movie Jellyfish Eyes.
Three of Murakami’s 10 most expensive works sold at auction are depictions of Miss ko2.
On 2 December, one of Murakami’s earliest paintings of Miss ko2, above, is being offered in the Christie’s joint evening sale, 20th Century: Hong Kong to New York. News of the sale prompted an Instagram post from the artist, in which he said: ‘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-priced Murakami work of all time — the fibreglass sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy — is of a man engaged in a favourit otaku pastime: masturbating. It fetched $15.2 million in 2008: the same year that Murakami was named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people on Earth.
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 ©Murakami at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007 (which later transferred to the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt and the Guggenheim Bilbao). Another was Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017 (which went on to the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth).
In 2010, he became only the third contemporary artist to have a solo exhibition at the Palace of Versailles.
Murakami has teamed up with brands including Louis Vuitton and Uniqlo
His appeal, though, reaches far beyond the art world. He has teamed up with several fashion brands, such as Off-White, Uniqlo and, most famously, Louis Vuitton, for whom he designed handbags for more than a decade.
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 Hong Kong in November 2019.
Murakami’s ‘superflat’ theory is rooted in ukiyo-e
Along with fashion-house and celebrity endorsement, 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,’ says Chiao.
According to the theory, Murakami’s work is a fitting continuation of Japanese imagery that goes as far back as the great ukiyo-e prints of the Edo period. This is for two main reasons. First, because — unlike Westerners — the Japanese have traditionally seen no distinction between fine art and commercial art; and second, because — also unlike Westerners — the Japanese have no tradition of linear perspective.
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 what Chiao calls ‘subtle but significant changes’ in Murakami’s art. ‘He has produced work on a larger scale,’ she says. ‘His works have become increasingly ambitious as he collaborates with different artists, brands and celebrities, and uses a more diverse range of media.’
The most notable change, though, 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 earthquake and tsunami that killed 16,000 people.
‘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 painting In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, part of The Broad museum’s collection in Los Angeles.
Murakami’s market spans paintings, sculptures and prints to ‘affordable merchandise’
According to Chiao, ‘Murakami’s artwork is consistently in demand — in large part because he has cultivated a practice that blends art, superstardom and commerce.’
With the help of his studio, he is able to produce enough work ‘to occupy a huge range of price points — from affordable merchandise, to prints you can buy for as little as $1,000 each, to the masterpieces that sell for millions. The great thing about Murakami is that everyone can own him.’
Paintings and sculptures from the late 1990s and early 2000s (widely considered his peak period) tend to fetch the highest prices. As a rule of thumb, Chiao adds that ‘works of his well-known characters’ generally do best — not just Mr DOB and Miss ko2, but also the twin mascot-warriors Kaikai and Kiki. These have all become much-loved representatives of Murakami’s universe.
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‘A final point,’ says Chiao, ‘is that, at 58 years old, he’s still relatively young. It’ll be fascinating to see how his art and his market evolve.’