Takashi Murakami Takes Part, Then Takes Over
Takashi Murakami Takes Part, Then Takes Over
By Eugene S. Robinson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because preparation is everything.
By Eugene S. Robinson
To call Takashi Murakami just an artist is missing the point because when life starts to imitate art, it’s more than all of that. Murakami’s work gilds the golden spaces between art, commerce, hip-hop, pop and a cultural moment that’s marked most effectively by the huge fees he commands, which is how he found himself with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson on a recent episode of The Carlos Watson Show. Following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.
Where It All Began
Carlos Watson: You applied to art school three times.
Takashi Murakami: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So this is true. It’s … I have no skill. I have no talent until now. I don’t know. I have very good luck.
Watson: Did your parents put a lot of pressure on you when you wanted to become an artist?
Murakami: Yeah, because in my family, my dad is a taxi driver and my family came from out of the countryside. My parents live in Tokyo in a very low level, like a poor level. So my parents said, “Please go to the university because we cannot.” My dad graduated high school and my mom, junior high school. So, you know, we have a big complex. That’s why priests go to the university. This is our goal. This is the pressure.
Watson: Were you the oldest child?
Watson: So special pressure on you.
Murakami: You know, when I was in high school, my parents almost give up. Then I found a training school to make paintings or drawings. I have the choice to do that. But if I want to go to the university, I have to choose another way. And if I have to go to the private university, my parents cannot pay for that. That’s why the public university and that’s why I have to learn in two years.
When I came to the university, one of my classmates, some lady, she said, “Hey, Taka, you have no skill for choosing color … you have no talent.” I was super disappointed, but then I have to laugh. So I learned a color system. So not my talent. A system.
Watson: So what made you become good at art, do you think? Is it because you studied it so long?
Murakami: I got the grant from the Asian Cultural Council and then I came to New York City. That moment I got the chance.
Watson: And you were still studying, yes? You were Ph.D. at one point in art.
Murakami: Yes. But this Ph.D. is kind of tricky because this is a very new kind of department, and I am the first Ph.D. in my department of a Japanese traditional style of painting. That means, like, no rules.
Watson: Oh, nice. That’s smart. That’s the good way to do it. I like that. That’s good. That’s very good. But somebody told me that when you were in New York one day, is this a true story, that you saw several mice fighting over food?
Murakami: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. In the subway. Yeah. Subway had what looks like a huge mouse. So this mouse is kind of very slowly walking and then a small mouse ran away. So this is kind of biblical, because I thought, I have to survive in this city. So I am this mouse and I have to act to survive, because I don’t want to run away from this city because New York City is our capital. If I have to run away from New York City I cannot survive in the art world. That’s why I have to make it.
Watson: When you became a famous artist, was that when you sold an expensive painting or was it when you began to work with Marc Jacobs, or what was your breakthrough opportunity?
Murakami: Maybe like when I was 38, 39. So I have a show in Los Angeles. I made what looks like a Japanese-style figure, like a statue. It’s a sculpture of a guy masturbating. And the lady is kind of using a milk jump rope. That was a very strange sculpture. It got recommended to Artforum magazine. That was when I got the chance to get into the mainstream art world in New York.
Watson: Somebody paid $13 million, $14 million for this painting.
Murakami: Yes. One Ukrainian collector.
Watson: And how did you feel? Because that was the first time that you sold a painting for a lot of money, yes?
Murakami: Yeah. You know, basically, I didn’t get the money. But I was wondering, because that sculpture is very strange — when I sold it the price was like $16,000 or something like that, no, no, no, $32,000 — but why in the art market do the art prices go up? This is a completely big mystery. That’s why after this auction, I buy. I studied buying art pieces because I had to learn these feelings, this experience. Because, I told you I came from being poor, so I have no familiarity with this money condition. That’s why when I got the money, I have to spend the money on art. I have to learn: What is the art buyer?
Yeah. It looks like stocks. Like some painting, I spend the money, like several hundred thousand dollars. And two years later, this painting was under $100,000 in auction. So I lose money a lot, but I was learning step by step.
Watson: How much have you spent, $10 million, $20 million?
Murakami: Yeah, over $70 million.
On Kanye West
Watson: How did you meet Kanye?
Murakami: When he came to Japan, a Japanese vehicle company contacted me: “Kanye, who is a very famous hip-hop artist, he wants to meet with you tomorrow.” And then he said he wants to see my big breast sculpture. He came with his mom.
Watson: Kanye came with his mom?
Murakami: Yes, Donda. She was very nice. And Kanye was almost silent. Smiling and shooting photos, like over 100 of the big breast statue. It’s silent. And then his mom told me about his background. That was a very magical moment.
Watson: So who do you think helped you more, Kanye or Marc Jacobs?
Murakami: These two guys brought me into the fashion world. Kanye was interested in me because of the collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Kanye came to the window display in Louis Vuitton, Chicago, and then they found my name. But these two guys help me a lot.
Watson: And what is it like to work with Kanye? Because obviously he has been very successful, but sometimes very controversial. What is he like to work with?
Murakami: OK. So, like, two episodes. One episode is the song “Good Morning.” So, he offered me the making of the animation. And then he said, “Hurry up, hurry up.” But the computer graphics animation takes a lot of time. So we did it almost like over one year. I bring him the completed animation. And then I’m waiting for them to release this animation. I’m waiting for over one year.
Why? I don’t know. So, and one more episode is the Kids See Ghosts collaboration with Kid Cudi. He offered it to me about a month ago.
And then one day his manager emailed me, “Hey, Takashi, we need it the day after tomorrow. The images.”
What? Then the manager said, “We need it tonight.” So, I immediately email my Japanese team: “Please wake up.” And then Kanye gave me new images. New idea. He gave me that one more day.
Sex & Fame
Watson: Are you more famous in Japan, in the United States or in China?
Murakami: So, in Japan, my character is hateful. Like, “Oh, this guy bringing for people out of Japan a misunderstanding [of] Japanese culture.” Like, a superbad kind of comment. And, “Looks like he love the money. Fuck him.” This is my character in Japan. Superfamous.
In the U.S. I’m an artist, and in China I’m an artist. It’s a very normal way. But in Japan, just in Japan, it is, “Oh, he’s just a money guy. Fuck him.”
Watson: Oh, interesting. Who are you like in the U.S.? Who is a comparison to you? Who has a similar reputation in the U.S. to what you have in Japan?
Murakami: In history? Andy Warhol was almost the same because when he was alive, he was not in good standing in the U.S. But mostly, out of the U.S., he is famous, in Japan, Germany, England. But in the U.S. art world, he’s, maybe in my memory, he was never making a museum show in the U.S., where he was. Right?
Watson: If you had not become a successful artist, and if your paintings didn’t start to sell for a lot of money, what do you think you would have done?
Murakami: I don’t know. A motel business, or something? I don’t know.
Watson: You said motel business?
Murakami: Yeah. I love the kind where the man, woman go to for two hours, three hours. The motel culture, I love so much.
Watson: Takashi, you’re making me remember that in a lot of your art, there’s a lot of sex. Yes?
Murakami: Yes. Very much. Yes.
Watson: Does anyone criticize you for so much sex, or do they love you because it has so much sex in it?
Murakami: It’s kind of … I’m very geeky. So watching the video? Honestly, I have no excitement for the video. Not like I have for illustration. Illustration sexuality. Exactly geek guy. It’s a kind of sexuality.
The animation director Hayao Miyazaki, he’s very nice at storytelling, but at the same time there’s a very strange sexuality he has. So, that’s why, oh my God, he is one of the grandmasters to me. Storytelling crossed with a kind of sexuality.
Watson: And do you think that sexuality in Japan is more liberal than in the U.S.? Or is it the opposite? Is sexuality in the U.S. more liberal, more open, than in Japan?
Murakami: Japanese people have learned from U.S. culture, from TV and the movies. That’s why it looks like almost same. Almost the same. But us, geek people, is still a very twisted sexuality, I think.