Takashi Murakami: Pushing the Boundaries of Contemporary Art

The Takashi Murakami exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton , Paris, 2018. Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra on Flickr.

Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami is known for “blurring the lines between high and low arts.”

Today, he is widely recognized and celebrated for his works across various media, including painting, sculpture, fashion, animation, and beyond. He’s attracted the interest of many generations of art collectors, and has inspired younger artists with his unique artistic style, dubbed by the artist as “superflat.”

Who exactly is Takashi Murakami, one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Influential People who’s called the “Warhol of Japan,” and what are some of his most impressive works to date? Let’s explore.

Takashi Murakami, Japanese artist

Born in Tokyo in February 1962, Takashi Murakami was interested in art from an early age. He was a big fan of Japanese cartoons and comics, anime and manga, and aspired to work in animation. 

But while initially going to school for animation, he eventually switched his focus, majoring in Nihonga, the traditional Japanese painting style. He later earned a Ph.D. in that subject, and from there was inspired to explore other contemporary styles and experiment with different media. 

Portrait of Takashi Murakami with an early work

Takashi Murakami with early work, “Polyrhythm,” Galerie Mars,
Tokyo, 1992. Credit: Ithaka Darin Pappas

Murakami pushed boundaries from the very start of his career. He believed that contemporary art in Japan too closely followed Western trends, and thus incorporated critiques and satire in his earlier work. Murakami’s most expensive piece to sell at auction to date, My Lonesome Cowboy, is a sculpture of a naked anime character with a trail of semen spiralling around him. It sold for over $15 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2008. But, though they did turn heads, Murakami’s earlier works such as these were not so well-received in Japan. 

Takashi Murakami scupture: My Lonesome Cowboy

My Lonesome Cowboy, Takashi Murakami (1962). Sold for $15,161,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2008).

Murakami came to New York City in 1994, where he was exposed to artists like Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons. While in the city, he launched his own small studio, preceding what is now Kaikai Kiki, Murakami’s current company (the name means “brave, strong and sensitive” in Japanese). 

Following his time in New York, he returned to Japan where he further developed his artistic practice, and started to exhibit in renowned galleries across Europe and America.

Takashi Murakami art: Establishing “superflat”

Murakami coined the term “superflat,” which refers to characteristics of the Japanese art tradition, the nature of postwar Japanese culture and society, and, of course, to the artist’s style (and the style of those he has influenced). 

Superflat is notable for its colors, its Japanese motifs and pop culture elements, its glossy and flat surfaces, and other subjects. Works are overall described as “cute,” “satirical,” and “psychedelic.” 

The artist’s best known, most commonly repeated motifs include flowers, as well as mushrooms, skulls, Buddhist iconography, and “the sexual complexes of otaku culture.” One famous piece, Hiropon, is a great example of Murakami’s appreciation for otaku culture.

A Little Flower Painting - one of Murakami's defining images

A Little Flower Painting- Yellow, White, and Purple Flowers, Takashi Murakami. Sold for HKD1,750,625 via Bonhams (May 2019).

Throughout his career, Takashi Murakami has also produced sculptures, wallpaper, prints, animation, posters, and more. Some of his most famous large paintings hang in world-renowned museums including the MoMA in New York. 

Below are a handful of the most renowned, eye-catching pieces of Takashi Murakami’s art.

Takashi Murakami paintings

Tan Tan Bo (2001) & Tan Tan Bo, Puking (2002)

Two Tan Tan Bo works at exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chicago, Illinois

Tan Tan Bo (2001) & Tan Tan Bo, Puking (2002) by Takashi Murakami. Credit: JPellgen via Flickr

Two of Murakami’s renowned paintings, Tan Tan Bo and Tan Tan Bo, Puking, represent some of the artist’s greatest, most psychedelic works. They feature an iconic character created by Murakami, Mr. DOB, which he came to develop into a form of self-portraiture.

Flowers (2002)

Flowers, for which Takashi Murakami is best known

Vapor Trail, 2004, Takashi Murakami. Sold for $2,393,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2007).

Takashi Murakami first became interested in flowers as an art teacher in the ‘80s, when he had his students draw them to practice. He then developed his own iconic flowers in his psychedelic works, which have become an “international mainstay.” 

And there perhaps is no better representation of these Takashi Murakami flowers than in the painting, Flowers, from 2002. A prime example of Murakami’s pop art and superflat style, it depicts happy, colorful flowers that evoke a sense of joy (for us, anyway).

Takashi Murakami prints

Red flower ball, from Murakami's Flower Ball series

Flowerball (3D) – Red Ball, Takashi Murakami. Sold for KRW2,700,000 via Seoul Auction (June 2020)

Murakami’s Flower Ball series was a huge success back in 2019. While the above is an example of an original work in this series (which can sell for millions), limited edition Takashi Murakami prints of the Flower Ball originally sold for over $1,500 a piece, and today can sell for over $5,000. They make up some of the most recognizable and popular prints by the artist.

Murakami’s And Then Black (2005) and And Then Blue (2013) are just a few of his other top-selling limited edition prints, featuring his popular character Mr. DOB.

Takashi Murakami sculpture

Mister Wink, Cosmos Ball - Murakami sculpture

Mister Wink, Cosmos Ball, Takashi Murakami. Sold for $24,000 via Phillips (September 2007).

Many of Takashi Murakami’s sculptures are also highly recognizable and coveted among collectors. When Murakami began to focus on the “low” culture of Japan, particularly anime and manga, and the subculture of otaku, he started to create anime-like colorful characters – some strange or disturbing, some charming – which can be exemplified by the above sculpture, Cosmos Ball (2000). This piece is now on display in the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Sculptures of Mr. DOB also mark some of Murakami’s most celebrated works, including this one which sold at auction back in 2016.

Takashi Murakami merchandise

Beyond his instantly recognizable paintings, prints, and sculptures, Murakami has a whole realm of other merchandise which feature his iconic characters, drawings, and superflat style. Below are a few examples, including one representing the Takashi Murakami x Louis Vuitton collaboration. The artist has also creatively collaborated with brands like UNIQLO on their Takashi Murakami x Billie Eilish collection. He’s even got some huggable Takashi Murakami pillows for sale, like the one of the smiley flower shown below.

The artist at auction and today

Today, Murakami is the founder and President of Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., through which he incorporated all of his operations in Japan, New York, and LA. Through his company, he focuses on managing younger, up-and-coming artists, as well as international art projects. Murakami is also founder and organizer of Geisai, the biennial art fair dedicated to Japanese pop art.

Popular across art galleries and auction houses around the world, Murakami’s work continues to be in great demand. Some notable sales include the $15.2 million dollar Sotheby’s sale of My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), as well as the sale of Miss ko2 (1996), a 6-foot-tall anime-inspired girl in a red and white maid costume. In 2003, this piece sold for $567,500; in 2010, it was again put up for auction at Sotheby’s, where it sold for 22.9 million HKD (just over 3 million USD). 

Takashi Murakami’s net worth today is an estimated $100 million, and the value of his works – from smiling flowers, to life-size statues of anime-like characters, clothing, merchandise and collaborations – continues to rise in value on the market.

Having exhibited at the Palace of Versailles in 2010 and released his first feature film in 2013, Takashi Murakami is always on to the next. Beyond galleries and auction houses, fans can see his works in museums around the world, and follow his activities on Instagram to stay up-to-date.

Looking for more? Browse Japanese Art and Antiques for sale at auction now on Invaluable.

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