(ABOVE) IMAGE BY TEA-SHIN SUZUKI, ©TM/KK
On any given day, Takashi Murakami—the Pop Art juggernaut who has been called, for better or for worse, “The Japanese Andy Warhol”— is likely in his main studio in Tokyo, which never closes. From there, he oversees the creation of new art pieces and exhibitions. He checks Instagram, where he discovers emerging artists, shares works in progress, and, of course, posts selfies. He messages friends and associates on Facebook when he can’t reach them by email. He adjusts his signature round, thin glasses, plays with his dog, Pom, and makes a lot of jokes.
Despite his lighthearted demeanor, the fatigue of running a 24-hour operation rooted in five cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, New York, and Seattle) with around 200 employees total is real. “My company, Kaikai Kiki, is unique, because it’s an art business,” Murakami tells Complex through a translator. “I had to find out how to do this by myself. Sometimes it’s a big headache, but I’m proud to have survived the past 20 years of making and running a company.”
And make no mistake: There are definite perks to being superstar CEO Murakami. He travels the world, collaborating with the likes of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West while promoting a range of exhibitions and projects, including his latest stint as Creative Director of ComplexCon (November 5-6 in Long Beach, California). He can often be found doing so while wearing outlandish costumes or hats that resemble the characters in his art. Murakami’s child-like exuberance belies his age—54 years-old—and the scale of the enterprise he’s been building and managing for the last 25 years from Tokyo, where he was born.
“When you think about yourself as a child, everything is massive and amazing to you—the way you play, the way you see people—because everybody's much bigger than you,” says Tracey Mills, a former member of Kanye West’s creative team, who met Murakami when he created the illustrated album packaging for West’s Graduation album. “Murakami is the inner voice of a child who just wants to be expressive.”
The unique appeal of Murakami’s work can best be understood by considering a term Murakami himself coined in the early ‘90s for his creative output: “SUPERFLAT,” which refers to the merging (or “flattening”) of “high” and “low” culture in postwar Japan. It’s the foundation from which to understand his low-inspired works, some of which sell for tens of millions of dollars on the high art market; it also helps to contextualize, conversely, his high art translated onto keychains and T-shirts.
(Above) Murakami poses with the Next 5 Sake Brewers Collective at the launch of their collaborative brew in Japan. Image by Kenta Aminaka, ©TM/KK
His early work helped to articulate the SUPERFLAT concept by extracting the erotic, NSFW element of low anime culture and injecting it into life-sized sculptures meant for prestigious art institutions. 1997’s Hiropon, for example, is an anime character with enormous, lactating breasts, squirting milk in a wild orbit around her body. 1998’s My Lonesome Cowboy is another anime-inspired sculpture, this time of a naked boy, smiling and masturbating underneath a lasso of ejaculate. Hiropon sold for $427,500 at Christie’s auction house in 2002; Cowboy went for $15 million at Sotheby’s in 2008.
Murakami’s upbringing in the Japanese capital prepared him for his rigorous art career. His father, a taxi driver, and his mother, a housewife, took him to art exhibitions under the condition that he would write critiques about them afterward. Today, Murakami has a wife—whom he mainly communicates with via FaceTime—and a son and daughter, and claims to find fulfillment in total dedication to his work.
Through Kaikai Kiki, there is seemingly no medium that Murakami hasn’t touched, from painting, sculpture, animation, and film, to complex installations and performance art. He hasn’t shied away from external collaboration, either; he’s made Louis Vuitton bags and Vans slip-ons, designed Next 5 sake bottles and Supreme skateboard decks, created paintings with fellow artists KAWS and Damien Hirst, and animated music videos for West and Pharrell.
Beginning in 2002, his multi-year collaboration with Louis Vuitton under its then creative director Marc Jacobs gave Murakami’s SUPERFLAT concept a stage in its biggest arena yet—the fashion industry. The artist worked with Jacobs and the Vuitton team primarily over email, transforming the signature LV monogram with vibrant colors, “jellyfish eye” symbols, and anime-inspired florals across a collection of leather accessories.
"When Takashi first came into the Vuitton office in Paris he told me: ‘Warhol used popular icons that everyone knew, but I want to create the icon myself,’” Jacobs recalled in a 2010 interview with The Independent. “‘By creating a character and painting it and repeating it and repeating it and repeating it, it will end up becoming iconic."
He was right; the handbags in particular were some of the most sought-after pieces of that time. At the height of the LV collaboration in 2003, Murakami’s art was also among the most coveted at auction houses globally.
Despite the demands of his rapid success and his ever-bustling studios, Murakami has made a concerted effort to continually curate exhibitions and mentor young Japanese artists. “Every day I have new ideas,” he says. “It makes my brain tired, so I spend time taking care of company quality, finding new artists, and taking care of the young artists.” Artists like Aya Takano and MR. initially began working for him at Kaikai Kiki before becoming stars in their own right.
“I don’t always enjoy curating, but I do believe it’s part of my job,” says Murakami, who handpicks the artists that exhibit at his four galleries in Tokyo. “It’s a good exercise for my brain, like warming up. Just focusing on my work would be so depressing! For me, curating is necessary—it’s like physical training.”
(Above) Murakami's work with Vans (left) and Louis Vuitton (right) is a testament to his widespread appeal among vastly different demographics. ©TM/KK
Murakami mainly finds young artists in books and on Instagram, where he is often discovered by a younger generation, too. His account, @takashipom, has over 200,000 followers. His biggest entree toward ubiquity in youth culture predated that social network, though; in 2007, Murakami loaned the SUPERFLAT aesthetic to Kanye West by animating his “dropout bear” and designing a fictional school, Universe City, for the Graduation album sleeve. The collaboration brought him name recognition among hip-hop fans.
When asked about working with celebrities like West and Kirsten Dunst (with whom he made a short film in 2009), Murakami is humble; he doesn’t “get” why someone like Pharrell Williams would want to collaborate with him, he says. Murakami doesn’t hesitate to say that the admiration is mutual, admitting that he cried watching West’s 2010 Runaway film. “He’s genius at making gossip almost every day,” says Murakami, impressed by West’s headline-grabbing behavior. “He has a crazy powerful mentality. I love to see it onstage when he performs. He’s like our James Brown.”
“Kanye was an artist as a kid,” notes Mills, remembering the bond that West and Murakami formed when they met. “Kanye's number one passion is art and to create. That's where he and Murakami have a connection, through that childlike voice of just creating and giving you their perspective through their art.”
Murakami reveals that he’s actually gotten into music himself through his filmmaking, particularly his trilogy of youth-focused action films called Jellyfish Eyes (part one was released in early 2014; part two has been announced, but a release date is not yet confirmed). “Right now, I’m making music and singing,” he says. “It’s super bad, but I enjoy it. When we were editing the second Jellyfish Eyes film, I realized I lacked the vocabulary for music. I had to train myself, which is why I’m making songs.”
“Maybe now the next film will have better music,” he adds with a big laugh.
Murakami has recently focused his curation talents on the histories and contemporary dilemmas of two mediums: graffiti and ceramics. He exhibits the work of artists with roots in graffiti, such as James Jean, and even used graffiti on top of his own paintings in a 2014 exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York. For that, he sprayed words like “Hollow” and “Death” onto bright canvases he covered in flowers and skulls.
“In the beginning of graffiti, artists were painting walls to find their freedom, like social hacking,” says Murakami. “A lot of new graffiti artists are more interested in making money, not creating a bridge with their work. For this reason, I’ve started curating the work of Japanese ceramic artists, too. They don’t have the same commercial interests. For them, making ceramics is like breathing. Whenever these artists make something, I find that it’s very pure.”
And therein lies the brilliance of Murakami—the ability to connect art as seemingly disparate as graffiti and ceramics, or hip-hop and anime, or erotica and large-scale, fine-art sculpture. Perhaps it’s because he can see himself encapsulating both sides of the same coin, the “high” and the “low,” as the head of a multi-faceted business with a simple, pure desire: to create, connect, and inspire a new generation, as only a 54-year-old with a childlike sense of wonder can do.