Japanese Art in Modern Day Society

This summer, the modern Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, “Japan’s Andy Warhol,” exhibited his works at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago. The exhibit, The Octopus Eats its Own Leg, ran between June 6th and September 24th. When I visited Chicago, it was a must-see. But… Why?


Murakami with his plush Octopus crown at NeueHouse in New York after the announcement of his exhibition at the MCA.


Many of Murakami’s pieces are sexualized and vulgar, anime characters brought to life in new forms, like his famous bear sculpture named Hiropon that landed on the cover of Kanye West’s album Graduation.  A life-sized rendering of the character with breasts lactating streams of milk that form a jump rope, the sculpture sold for $427,5000 at a Christie’s auction house in May 2002… $427,500 for a sculpture of a lactating bear?


Kanye West’s album cover


Though I do regard Murakami as an incredibly influential artist due to his impeccable attention to detail and meticulous carry-though of the steps taken to create his masterpieces, it is his impact on popular culture that I find most interesting. It is the fact that his pieces are sold in auctions at Christie’s for half a million dollars, yet are mass-produced for Kanye West’s albums, the mystical work of one of the most famous rap artists of this generation.

Murakami has, as the MCA said, “combined spectacle with sophistication,” and his work with Kanye West is the perfect example of this. I have been familiar with Murakami’s famous album covers since Kanye’s third studio album Graduation dropped in 2007. I see it when I’m working out and the song “Stronger” comes on when my music is shuffled, and I click to turn it up and see a bear being catapulted by a circular light beam into “Universe-City” from a rocket ship with eyes. The scene takes place against a deep purple sky, the same shade of purple as Justinian’s robe in the Byzantine piece, Justinian and His Attendants, from the Church of San Vitale in Vienna, from 547 CE.



Byzantine art is classical and mosaic, subjects pieced together against a flat gold background with bodies existing in flattened space. Though Murakami has his bear flying through a three-dimensional realm, there is still an unfamiliar quality to “Universe-City” that makes the space seem incomprehensible.

The first sentence of the MCA advertisement for the collection was that the masterpieces were products of an artist “[k]nown for his collaborations with pop icon Kanye West and fashion house Louis Vuitton,” later mentioning that his art is “rooted in traditions of Japanese painting and folklore,” with a highlight on merging cultures: East and West, old and new. Are his popular culture connections and commissions more important to recognize, then, than his other, less crazy/more classical pieces?


Murakami with Kanye West,


Japanese culture is often popularized, modernized and changed to fit what can be consumed. Murakami’s multidisciplinary works are a representation of the “ubiquitous and desirable pop-culture aesthetic,” a genre many artists’ works have fallen prey to.

I saw this shirt when I was shopping at Urban Outfitters. It is a white tee with, to people who aren’t familiar with famous Japanese prints, just a stunning wave print on the front. It is perfectly worn when tucked into the right pair of high-waisted jeans, or with a fancy skirt, tights, and heels for a high-low trendy look.

Yet, while the style is versatile, the print is one of the most famous Japanese polychrome woodblock prints of ink and color on paper, The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai, from the Edo period in Japan. His work is revolutionary for the diminished perspective; Japan’s grandest mountain appears as just a speck behind the crashing wave.

Why is it that we can modernize one of the most famous works in Japanese culture enough to mass-produce it in line on a t-shirt at Urban Outfitters? Why is that Kanye West can command control over the Japanese anime culture in his self-created American pop-culture context? Long ago and still today, Japanese artists are executing their skill in beautiful ways. There is no better way to experience the culture than by tracing it to the roots, to visit Japan and feel it all!!


Urban Outfitters “Future State Wave Tee”


Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave, ca. 1830-32



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Written by Mitzi Harris