On a recent evening in a fashionable event space in New York, Takashi Murakami was launching his latest commercial collaboration with the watchmaker Hublot.
Through his collaborations with fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Vans, and musicians Kanye West and Billie Eilish, few artists have been as assiduous as Murakami in turning art into commerce, or as tireless in being their own best brand manager.
Murakami was wearing a parka and hoodie, and on his head an ostentatious hat modelled on his most famous artistic motif, a multicoloured flower, referencing the look of the pieces he has designed with Hublot.
As one of the new watches was unveiled, in a display case worthy of the Crown Jewels, Murakami, hamming it up for the crowd and a Japanese film crew, beamed a 1,000-watt smile and waved his hands like a conjuror drawing a rabbit out of a hat.
Earlier that afternoon in New York he had appeared at a press conference in a hotel conference room to discuss his collaboration with Hublot, dressed in a voluminous bomber jacket, embroidered with an image of a multi-eyed Jesus, commissioned by the rap artist Travis Scott – ‘He had a very unique idea,’ Murakami said with a laugh. ‘It looks like a monster!’
Scott had commissioned an outsized pendant of ‘Jesus’, which has been made by Elliot Eliantte, whose jewellery is much favoured by rappers – a pendant that does no justice to Murakami’s original design. A picture of the pendant on Murakami’s Instagram page comes with a disclaimer: ‘Please note that I have no affiliation with the jeweller who made the piece, nor was I involved in the production process.’ Murakami protects his brand keenly.
Adjourning to a private suite, Murakami’s public bonhomie fades into a state of gentle exhaustion. With his hair tied in a topknot (no hat), rimless glasses and wispy beard, he has something of the benign appearance of a Zen sage. He speaks a fractured, beguiling English but prefers to answer questions through an interpreter, closing his eyes as the process of translation goes back and forth as if momentarily transporting himself out of the room.
A self-described geek
The son of a Tokyo taxi driver, like many young Japanese, Murakami, who is 61, grew up steeped in the popular culture of manga and anime. There is a Japanese word for teenagers who spend hours in their rooms, obsessed to the detriment of their social skills with video games with their themes of apocalyptic science fiction and monsters. The term is otaku, meaning nerd or geek – and ‘I am geek’ is how Murakami has described himself.
‘I was like a drop-out for nine years, through elementary school and high school – everything is drop-out,’ he tells me. ‘My teacher was saying, “You have nothing – no future.”‘
It was art that saved him. Attending the Tokyo University of the Arts, he majored in nihonga, the classic style of Japanese painting, which incorporates traditional conventions, techniques and subjects. After trying – and failing – to become an animator for anime films, he decided to become an artist instead. ‘My family was poor, and I needed a job, so I chose painting.’
In 1994 he moved to New York for a year on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council, drawing inspiration and ideas from artists including Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer, but at the same time coming to the realisation that, as he puts it, ‘I am a Japanese artist, not an American one,’ and that he should draw on his obsession with Japanese culture.
Returning to Japan he began to develop the distinctive, vividly colourful motifs that came to dominate his work – the cartoon-like character of Mr DOB and, most famously, his smiling 12-petalled flower, inspired by the subject matter in a traditional Japanese style of painting, setsugekka, which translates to snow, moon, flower.
He developed his philosophy of what he calls ‘superflat’, linking the two-dimensional imagery of traditional Japanese painting with the modern cultural phenomena of manga and anime with their flat planes of colour.
At the same time he extended the concept to mean ‘flattening out’, as he has it, the distinction between ‘low’ and ‘high’ art, refuting the Western idea that an artist should have no truck with commerce by lending his designs to luxury goods or merchandising his work in the form of T-shirts and toys.
The ins and outs of the art world
Murakami describes himself as an ‘outsider in the art world’. But this is not strictly true.
He has worked in almost every conceivable art form – painting, film-making, sculpture and most recently NFTs. He is represented by Larry Gagosian, the most powerful broker in the art world. He has exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world – in recent years he’s had major exhibitions in Oslo, Chicago and Moscow, as well as New York.
His sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy (its title a nod to the Andy Warhol film Lonesome Cowboys), inspired by hentai (anime and manga pornography) – a sprite-like figure with exaggerated genitals ejaculating a long strand of semen – sold at auction for $15.1 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2008.
But it is his commercial collaborations that have catapulted him to international prominence. In 2003 he began an association with Louis Vuitton, which the company’s then creative director Marc Jacobs would describe as ‘a monumental marriage of art and commerce. The ultimate crossover – one for both the fashion and art history books’, and which was to last for the next 12 years.
Murakami’s smiling flowers became ubiquitous on Vuitton products, appearing on the heritage brand’s handbags and silk scarves, with signed prints of Murakami flowers interposed with the LV symbol selling for up to £10,000. Sales of the brand’s leather goods in the first two years of the collaboration were reported to be in the vicinity of $300 million.
He went on to collaborate with Vans, the skateboard company Supreme and Uniqlo sneakers, and to work with Kanye West, providing the artwork for the rapper’s album Graduation and for his 2018 collaboration album Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi, as well directing an animated music video for West’s song Good Morning. He has also worked with Billie Eilish, directing her video You Should See Me In A Crown.
Ironically, perhaps, these collaborations have made him a more high-profile figure in the West than in his native Japan.
‘The Japanese people do not like my work,’ he says with a shrug. ‘They think I am painting a caricaturist Japanese self-portrait. But seen from the outside people think, “Oh that’s a different way of looking at it,” and that it’s exotic and that’s why it’s received favourably.’
Very favourably, in fact. Justin Paton, the head curator of international art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, has described Murakami as ‘easily one of the five most successful artists in the world’. He has 2.5 million followers on Instagram – a number that goes far beyond the world of cognoscenti (Jeff Koons has 493,000 followers on his Instagram feed). Murakami’s collaborations with fashion brands and musicians have brought him a younger following – ‘no rich people, no famous people – a good number, but I cannot compare with hip-hop artists. Can’t say the same level’.
At first glance, his cartoon figures and masses of brightly coloured smiling flowers suggest a perpetually sunny outlook in his work. But there is something darker and more complex behind Murakami than a fleeting acquaintance might suggest.
‘It just happens that my most famous artwork is the happy one, and it’s fine to enjoy that,’ he says. ‘But if you only see that, you lose the contrast of light and shadow that exists in my work. Seventy per cent of my work, characters and themes are on the darker side. I think the reason my career has longevity is that most of my work is dark.’
In 2005 Murakami curated an exhibition called Little Boy, featuring work by him and a number of other artists of his generation, and published a book of the same title. The exhibition, which took its name from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, explored how many of the apocalyptic themes in anime and manga had been influenced by that and the bombing of Hiroshima.
The threat of ecological and nuclear disaster has been a recurring theme in his work over the years. One of his trademark motifs is a skull appearing out of a mushroom cloud, which he calls Time Bokan, after a popular TV anime series that aired in the 1970s, when he was a teenager.
Murakami has spoken of how his mother had witnessed the Nagasaki bomb and talked to him as a child about the sky turning ‘a rainbow colour’. When the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011, Murakami says that from his studio, an hour and half’s drive away, it was possible to see the sky turn purple.
He responded to the catastrophe by enlisting 200 students from colleges around Japan to help in the making of a monumental series of paintings, The 500 Arhats, inspired by a work of the same name by the 19th-century painter Kano Kazunobu. Arhats are Buddhist saints, according to Japanese tradition, to whom the sick and dying pray.
‘Thats why, at that time, I thought it was the appropriate motif to paint,’ Murakami says. ‘During wartime there is a common enemy, and people come together, but a natural disaster happens in a moment; people are just negated, the stories that have been built through a lifetime are all just decimated, and after that there’s a strong need to rebuild those stories. So I didn’t paint it because I was religious or had faith, but I understood what faith was and that religion was there to help people reconstruct those stories and narratives.’
NFTs and the dopamine hit of collecting
But sending a message is ‘almost never’ the intention in his work, he says.
‘And in a sense I don’t make work for myself; I don’t want it to be all in my head and just be a self-satisfied artist. All the works that I create, from inception, to actual sketching, to construction, each work takes a few months and sometimes the complicated work can take more than a dozen years. So when the work is completed it must sell – it’s not an option to not sell the work.
‘The reason I’ve survived for over 30 years in the art world is because my work has continued to sell, and it’s continued to sell because I’m focused on that. And making people want to buy is to make them want to collect – I think it’s the same.
‘When you’re collecting there are a lot of chemicals that are released in your brain, the dopamine, which makes you excited – it’s sort of like the drug. So I’m always thinking about what kind of experience I can create that would make that kind of chemical release in collectors.’
It is precisely that chemical release, he says, that he felt when he first started investigating and making NFTs. ‘When I started my own NFT project, I also started collecting NFTs, and such chemicals were released in abundance – too much.’ He laughs. ‘I almost went crazy with the desire to collect!’
The £45,000 watch
NFTs have constituted an integral part of his collaborations with Hublot. It all began five years ago when Murakami was approached by the Swiss watchmaker to see if they could work together. ‘I immediately refused, because I didn’t want to make some kind of ordinary collaboration where just the case is changed with a flower design – that’s boring for me.’
But when Hublot gave him carte blanche to design the watch, he agreed. Eschewing his trademark psychedelic colours in favour of something ‘more mysterious’, he designed a black watch, the face comprising 12 of his trademark flower petals made up of 456 black diamonds, which launched in January 2021.
He has done two more collaborations since then, but the most recent is the most radical, targeted at wealthy collectors who also relish a challenge.
It comprises 13 different timepieces and 13 accompanying NFTs. Twelve of these watches, which are priced at £45,000, will be available only online on a platform that can be accessed only by owners of at least one of the 324 NFTs issued last year as part of the third collaboration between Murakami and Hublot.
Each buyer of one of the 12 new watches will also receive one of the new NFTs. In a second step, collectors will then have a period of one year in which they have the opportunity to trade their NFTs on the OpenSea platform. At the end of this period, in April 2024, the collector who has managed to collect all 12 of the new NFTs will be eligible to purchase the 13th new watch – the Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami Black Ceramic Rainbow. In the event that nobody has managed to collect all 12 NFTs, the watch will be auctioned for charity.
‘For me, watches are not necessarily equipment to measure time, because we have so many other ways to do that,’ Murakami says. ‘But something like conceptual art to present the concept of time.’
Hublot has collaborated with artists before, notably the French sculptor Richard Orlinsky and the tattoo artist Maxime Plescia-Büchi. But Murakami is of a different order of fame – and collectability.
‘He is one of the most successful contemporary artists of the moment,’ says Ricardo Guadalupe, the CEO of Hublot. ‘It brings us to another level in art partnerships and he brings us a new audience.
‘Hublot is a young brand [the company was founded in 1980]. We cannot compete with a traditional watch brand that has a 100-, 200-year history, so we must be different. And there is no brand that creates a watch like this. We have already seen Murakami collectors coming to our brand who have never bought a Hublot watch before.’
Murakami works out of a factory-sized studio in an industrial suburb of Tokyo, employing a team of more than 200 artists working in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His company Kaikai Kiki, also manages several younger artists, as well as various other projects and merchandise.
Murakami himself often sleeps and eats in the studio for days at a time – presumably to the exasperation of his wife and two children. Following the advice of a Taiwanese feng shui master, who he has consulted for some years, there are no clocks in the studio other than a small alarm clock on his desk: ‘I am very like a homeless person. I have to do this every day. Also it’s like a psychological programme. If I stop it’s crazy for my brain. If I take a rest, maybe one or two months, it’s very difficult to come back. It’s like an athlete; they have to train every day. So this is my thinking.
‘A very talented manga artist is like painting for five years and then they take a rest. Huge amount of money, and then a big hit, merchandise and making money again and then taking a rest for 20 years, I am very jealous of this lifestyle – but I can’t do this.’
He pauses, thinking about this. ‘Actually, you can say that all artists are crazy – Van Gogh, Goya. But I’m getting old. I don’t want to waste time. I want to keep things fresh.’