Takashi Murakami, the “Warhol of Japan”
By Anna Niederlander
Takashi Murakami has brought together themes and cultures that are often considered in opposition; traditional Japanese painting with Western inspirations, Fine Art with contemporary concepts such as otaku lifestyle (juvenile culture obsessed with toys, anime, and video games), and also luxury auction artworks and commercial retail mass produced pieces. Murakami has also come up with his own art genre called “Superflat”.
His work DOB in the Strange Forest (Blue DOB) is one of the best examples that shows his extensive use of diverging influences. He often uses mushrooms to imply drug contemporary culture, but in this case, it also has a historical context. Curator Paul Schimmel says that this work is about Murakami’s childhood, specifically when his city has been “passed over” by the Atomic Bomb in 1945 as there were too many clouds for any effect to take place. The scene is inspired by the moment in “Alice in Wonderland” when Alice runs into a caterpillar lying on a mushroom. The character in the centre of this bizarre forest is Dob, Murakami’s alter ego. He created Mr. DOB in 1993 with the goal of creating an icon that had a universal appeal, however was authentically Japanese. Mr. DOB has the letter D inscribed on his left ear and B on the right ear, and with his face in the shape of an O, they spell out his name. DOB himself is a blend of influences such as Mickey Mouse, a character called Doraemon, a cat-like robot from Manga and Anime (Japanese comic books), and Sonic the Hedgehog. Here DOB’s outstretched hand shows resistance and his open mouth shows an expression of stupefaction. This work is a real blend of influences from movies, images from childhood, cultures and the artist Murakami himself, which is all possible because Murakami chooses to embrace these differences instead of repressing them.
In one of his most iconic works “727” (1996) the maniacal smile of Mr. DOB with his razor-sharp teeth can be seen to represent Murkami's laughing stance towards the art world and certain Western beliefs. The title 727 refers to the Boeing American airplanes that flew over his childhood home while heading to U.S. military bases. Again, this childish figure becomes associated with a political critique. Mr. DOB sits on a wave which references the Japanese artist Hokusai woodcut print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The background which he created by scraping away layers of paint is similar to Japanese folding screen done in the nihonga style. With a Ph.D. degree in nihonga, a classical Japanese art craft, he shows how he is able to merge different styles and periods, in this case historical Japanese aesthetics and the Japanese popular contemporary scene. Mr. DOB has become in many ways Murakami's "artistic DNA" that has expanded beyond canvases and sculptures and into mass produces like t-shirts, posters and key-chains. Murakami hopes that Mr. DOB will live on well after he passes away and continue to have the resonance it has today.
In an interview Murakami said, “Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art.’ In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that’s okay — I’m ready with my hard hat.” Murakami has promoted his art as a brand and loves to play with the exclusiveness of the contemporary art world. In 2002, Murakami started his 13-yearlong collaboration with the fashion brand Louis with Marc Jacobs as creative director. It was a collaboration which resulted in over 300 million dollars in revenue for Louis Vuitton. Critics and collectors complained about his blatant commercialisation, however this collaboration is the beginning to his goal as an artist in bringing high art to the streets as well as revealing contemporary Japanese society to a global audience. Murakami believes one way to do this is through fashion, arguing that “subcultures and specific incidents in various countries mix together to create the atmosphere of an era and that, in turn, begets fashion." He also designed the cover for Kanye West’s 2011 album Graduation, cementing his widespread level of fame beyond the art world. Most recently, he has collaborated with Off-White creative director Virgil Abloh, whose upcoming exhibition “AMERICA TOO” is their first collaboration to be shown in the U.S. Their collaboration can be encompassed by their work, which shows their interpretation of the American flag. Abloh’s intersecting arrows logo for OFF-WHITE is juxtaposed against Murakami distinct take on the stars and stripes of the flag, including his signature cartoon eye graphics. Can a handbag be a work of art? Should an album cover hang in a gallery? Murakami has not only caused us to question the “forms” art can take, but also has allowed everyone to be a part of this discussion by blurring the boundaries of fine art and the commercial world. As he said, “I am not thinking about that this is a risk, because this is my advantage. That is why I can make many collaborations.”
In 2007 and 2008 he enjoyed a lot of success and in many ways started to forget where he came from as an artist. Murakami said, “It looked like I completely forgot I came from Japan. I woke up when I saw the Japanese earthquake reality.” The aftermath of the earthquake created one of Murakami’s most significant figures, called arhats. They are Buddhist monk figures, which would have walked around the countryside to bring healing and other support to the affected people. Originally, they started as 16 figures, as that was supposedly the number of students of Buddha. Murakami however did not stop there and created works with hundred plus arhats, including his legendary work The Five Hundred Arhats (2012). “The Five Hundred Arhats is a story about healing 500 different varieties of human suffering. The balance between life and death was called into question after great natural disasters and the motif of the Five Hundred Arhats suddenly started to seem relevant,” said the artist. His arhat works are partially meant to inspire hope and elevate the pain of the affected people. The work is comprised of four sections, each of which represents one of the fourpoints of the compass that is reigned overby one of the four Taoist gods. There are sixteen central arhats that balance the work, and are surrounded by the hundred other arhats and various sacred animals and birds against a background of raging flames and roaring winds. It is a 320 feet long and 10 feet high painting where Murakami employed over 100 people. He describes the process of creating this work and his other unique large scale works as a movie production. Very few artists have the same means of creating such large artworks with so much detail in such a short time span. He has redefined the idea of being a single contemporary artist working in his studio, but instead defined it as a process composed of many hands involved. Murakami states, "I consider the hundred-meter painting an equivalent to those historical works. It's a consolatory painting and a way for me to understand my place in nature and in history."
Takashi Murakami once said that the greatest commentator of Japanese Culture is the comic writer. You could argue that he has become that in Art. As “The Warhol of Japan,” Takashi Murakami has blurred every boundary possible and questioned what it really means to be an artist in the 21st century.
Ofiaza, Renz. “Virgil Abloh & Takashi Murakami Debut ‘America Too’ Exhibition.” Highsnobiety. https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/virgil-abloh-takashi-murakami-america-too-exhibition-gagosian/ (November 1, 2018).
“Finding Mr Dob – the essence of Takashi Murakami” I Spyer. https://nicholasspyer.com/2010/04/17/finding-mr-dob-the-essence-of-takashi-murakami/ (November 1, 2018).
“Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats” Works of Murakami #1: The 500 Arhats - “Blue Dragon” and “White Tiger”Mori Art Museum.
http://www.mori.art.museum/blog/2016/02/blog-takashi-murakami-the-500-arhats-works-of-murakami-1-the-500-arhats---blue-dragon-and-white-tige.php (November 1, 2018).
“Takashi Murakami” The Art Story. https://www.theartstory.org/artist-murakami-takashi-artworks.htm (November 1, 2018).
The Broad. “Takashi Murakami - DOB in the Strange Forest (Blue DOB), 1999.” YouTube Video, 1:49, November 18, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvCMPq-whts.
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. “Takashi Murakami.”YouTube Video,7:40, June 9, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YPOWBQAd1M