MADSAKI: Interview with street-meets-fine art Japanese painter ahead of Bangkok show


“I’m not interested in painting nice and beautiful. To me, ugly is beautiful,” said much-hyped Japanese-American painter MADSAKI ahead of the opening of his solo exhibition tonight, “Combination Platter,” at Central Embassy.

The artist at today’s interview.

The artist fuses graffiti sensibilities with Picasso-like lines and skills and has, over the last two years, reached the top tier of global contemporary artists after creating in obscurity for 15 years.

Tonight marks his first show in Thailand and the original curation will conveniently hang on the ground floor of the mall through June 3. It includes two new large-scale works: a giant totem pole of his name and a 30-meter wide graffiti canvas featuring the beloved cartoon characters of his youth. Front and center on the latter is a massive Big Bird holding a placard that says “Fuck Off.”

“I grew up watching all those American and Japanese cartoons. I just wanted to mash up all the things that have a special meaning to me from that time,” he said.

On making Big Bird profane, he said, “To me, he represents English language and would never swear. But I can make them do what they would never do. It’s a weird kind of self-portrait.”

The totem, which is simply a massive, child’s block-like stack of letters spelling his name in primary colors, is something MADSAKI is a bit sheepish about. Takashi Murakami (the Japanese master famous for his colorful flower paintings and cartoonish motifs), asked him to do it — almost as an answer to an unasked “Who the fuck is Madsaki?”

“It’s actually kinda embarrassing to just write your name that big but he thinks it’s art. I don’t know.”

Murakami “discovered” MADSAKI on Instagram about two years ago and acted as the linchpin to his success. He followed the younger painter on the photo app and the next time he uploaded artwork — a re-interpretation of a Matisse from MADSAKI’s “Wannabie’s” series that recreates famous works in spray paint — Murakami simply commented: “I want to buy it.”

That piece went on to hang in the Yokohama Museum, and Murakami hosted an unveiling of it… to which MADSAKI wasn’t invited. He showed up anyway and the older artist said “Who the fuck are you?” and he said, “I’m the Matisse” — and an unlikely partnership was born. MADSAKI calls Murakami his “boss,” though he seems to use the word how others would use mentor.

However, since the older artist owns many, many MADSAKI works, it could be said he’s also the younger artist’s patron, which does give them an unusual relationship.

MADSAKI even went on to reinterpret one of Murakami’s famous flower paintings at his “boss’s” behest. “I always wanted to copy one of his but he’s a great and still alive.” Fearing being offensive, he never pursued a copy until Murakami himself asked for one.

Aside from his “boss,” MADSAKI listed David Hockney, Cy Twombly, and Jean Michel Basquiat as his favorite painters.

A painting at Embassy from MADSAKI’s movie stills series. This one depicts a scene from Goodfellas, the artist’s favorite film, in which protagonist Henry Hill gives a gun to his wife, Karen.

MADSAKI, 44, began drawing when his family relocated from their native Japan to New Jersey and he could not yet speak English. Partly because he couldn’t understand what was going on around him, the third-culture kid lost himself in a world of drawing, a path that took him to New York’s Parsons School of Design, where one of this professors told him that no one makes money in art and that he should quit.

After graduation, he did just that and didn’t pick up a paintbrush for five years, instead losing himself in the tough world of New York City bike messengers. It’s in that rough-and-tumble community that he got his nickname, since he used to go out with the guys and drink “mad sake” after work each night.

He returned to painting by his mid-twenties, working for many years on cartoonish images and then a series that focused on words (that are mostly swears).

When asked how he went from the series of swearing canvases to ripping off the classics, from da Vinci to Modigliani, MADSAKI said “Painting the masters in a funny way is the same thing to me. It’s another way to say ‘fuck you’.”

He mentioned growing up in a melting pot as crucial to his attitude that nothing is off-limits or sacred.

When he feels uninspired, he said “I go to sleep. If I’m not feeling it, it’s a waste of paint and canvas. Fuck it.”

He proselytize further, “Life is long. Or maybe it’s short. But I take it easy. I’m serious about art. But not that serious.” This dichotomy might lie at the base of all his respected, ridiculous works.

The show launches with an opening event at 6:30pm that is free and open to the public, and for which the artist will be on hand.

Header image: Madsaki/Instagram. All Others: Coconuts


MADSAKI: Combination Platter
Central Embassy Mall, G Floor
Daily, 10am-10pm through June 3
BTS Ploenchit

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