Maps. Zelda. Street Art. Pixels. Brooklyn. This is Shinji Murakami’s world, where real-life graffiti and nostalgic 8-bit games whimsically collide. And it’s all happening in Bushwick, a neighborhood of Brooklyn that has been home to graffiti artists who come from all over the world to leave their mark. Walking down the streets covered in graffiti is a little like slipping back into the 80s. What’s not like slipping back into the 80s is passing by groups of tours, each led by a guide who is explaining the symbolism of the colorful murals to groups of tourists.
Mapping Your Adventure
“I grew up in the 80s,” Murakami explained, as he welcomed us into his artist loft – a shared space in an old industrial building on Bogart St. He pulled out a large stack of game strategy guides, known as kouryakubon, and spread them out on a large white table that sat as an island in the middle of the studio. “I’m from a generation that grew up pouring over these. I studied the maps carefully, figuring out where I should go, where I should level up, which boss I should go fight.” Understanding Murakami’s love for games is crucial to understanding his artwork, which began with creating maps much like the ones he had spent endless hours in as a child.
But at age 33, Murakami’s level grinding doesn’t happen in a video game. It happens in his studio and on the street.
From Jurassic Park to Street Art
Shinji’s inspiration to become an artist came from an unlikely place – dinosaurs. When watching Jurassic Park, he became interested in CG effects and decided he wanted to go to school and learn how to create them. But forced to start in 2D using photoshop and illustrator, Shinji discovered that he also had an affinity for street-style lettering that often appeared in clubbing event fliers. He decided to make the jump from Osaka to Tokyo to apply for a position at a graphic design studio. Unfortunately, he wasn’t accepted. So he turned to the street where the only prerequisites were spray cans and a blank canvas.”At the time I also had a coincidental encounter with Kami-san, a graffiti artist that I had admired. This pushed me to begin making my own art.”
left: bokochan in Daikanyama, Tokyo | right: bokochan in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, 2007
Simplicity and Speed
Street art has to be simple and impactful. And the most important element is speed. The shape and form of Shinji’s bokochan character was born from Shinji’s own arm span, but also from his ability to produce it hastily onto a wall. For the most part, the same holds true for many of Shinji’s characters he later went on to create.
Ultimately, Shinji wants to create art that’s accessible to a broad audience. Art that people can appreciate, even without any knowledge or history of gaming. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the game guy.” And it’s something that’s pushed – or you might say pulled – his work since he was on the streets of Tokyo. “A lot of the street artists would just tag their name. To them it meant everything but to others it meant nothing. It was just ugly and I hated it.” This might also explain Murakami’s tendency towards simplicity: stripping down all the unnecessary elements. “I want a grandmother and her young granddaughter to walk by my art and be able to say, ‘it’s so cute!’”
On coming to NY
Shinji was very active in the Tokyo graffiti scene but wasn’t making the connection. There was something missing and, in search of it he decided to take a 2 week trip to NY. He was shocked and and inspired by the large Chelsea galleries and the Thursday evening parties in which gallery revelers poured out into the street.
“I remember being surprised by the use of 3D graphics and typography in movie ads and TV commercials,” Shinji recounts, having only worked in 2D up until then. It was around that time when he made his first foray into the world of 3D, creating an 8-bit version of a McDonalds meal.
Shinji is still evolving and experimenting, in search of his place in the art world. He recalls reading an interview with Takashi Murakami, who had dispensed some very memorable advice: if you want to become big, pick a broad theme that anyone can understand like life and death, or eroticism. “I wanted to create bitmap art but I also wanted to do something erotic,” Shinji recalls. One day those two ideas collided. “This is Janet Jackson, Kim Kardashian, and Paris Hilton. I found them online. I’m in search of Britney spears right now,” he chuckled.
Last year as part of City Drift, curator Eri Takane challenged a group of artists to do something they had never done before based on the theme of scent. Shinji went out and bought vanilla essence and bubble mix, seeing what would happen if he combined the two. “I spent too much money testing it,” Shinji laughs. “I just wanted to make people happy.” And happy they were. Vanilla scented bubbles wafted through Bushwick, converting the streets into candy shops and visitors into participants as they “drifted” through, seeking out the origin of the sweet smell.
Spontaneity and Success
Although Shinji has invested the most time in his maps and considers them the pillar of his portfolio, it’s been his more spontaneous pieces that have received the most response.
When first setting about creating his staged portraits of people walking his 8-bit dog, “Puppy.” He posted an ad on craigslist for a young woman model, thinking he would follow the typical archetype of art history. But Shinji became worried that the composition would look too much like a boring fashion ad. So at the last minute he posted another ad on craigslist, this time for an older woman (he had to turn down the 200 who responded to his first ad).
It was the last day of Bushwick Open Studios. Feeling unsatisfied, Shinji was racking his brains for an idea when it hit him. He dashed out of his studio and over to Office Depot where he bought 56 cardboard boxes and several rounds of packaging tape. At a time when most artists were packing up and closing their doors, Shinji hastily assembled his sculpture. When it was done, “Huge Puppy” stood at over 10 ft high. That evening Shinji kicked off phase II by spray-painting the word “ARIGATO” on the side and leaving the spray paint on the sidewalk. When he returned less than 30 minutes later it had been re-edited and re-mixed by someone. “It’s exactly what I wanted,” said Shinji with a sigh of relief.
Most recently, Puppy was part of the SCOPE Art Fair in Basel, Switzerland, curated by Tinca Art. This marked Shinji’s first appearance in an art fair. Puppy, with it’s cute, short legs, is certainly traveling far!
As usual, my son Huey (6) had a few questions for Shinji:
This post is part of an ongoing series in which we visit NY-based Japanese artists in their studios. The complete collection can be found here.