With his boyish cropped hairstyle and a youthful sparkle in his eyes, it’s hard to guess that 60-year-old Yoshitomo Nara is the most expensive artist in Japan. Late last year, his painting, Knife Behind Back, was sold for HK$195.7 million (US$25million) at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, surpassing previous record holder Yayoi Kusama’s Interminable Net #4 (1959), which was priced at HK$62.43 million (US$8.1 million) earlier in April 2019.
Often sporting a hoodie over a band T-shirt paired with jeans, the soft-spoken Nara prefers to remain out of the spotlight, allowing his art to speak for itself. His paintings often showcase characters that can be identified as girls, but according to Nara in an interview with Ocula, he sees them as gender-neutral. “For me, there is no distinct sex (for the figures in my paintings) because people become men or women when they grow up. That is just the way I see them.”
What makes Nara’s work so relatable is the sense of loneliness and uncertainty that brims from the larger-than-normal eyes of these “angry children”. Combined with a stance of defiance, they represent his feelings, which can be traced back to his childhood. Take Knife Behind Back, for example – the title itself suggests that there is a weapon being wielded by the subject. From the viewer’s perspective, it remains hidden, like a threat that is able to manifest itself anytime it ever so pleases.
Nara was born in Hirosaki City, a small rural city in Western Aomori with a population of fewer than 200,000 people. The youngest of three boys, Nara grew up in a family where his parents were often occupied with work. With an age gap of over 10 years between himself and his elder siblings, he turned to Japanese comic books as a daily companion, becoming increasingly introverted over the years.
According to Nara, he felt most at ease when surrounded by music and animals. “I found that I would communicate better with animals, without words, than communicating verbally with humans,” he said. His only form of after-school entertainment was talking to cats and listening to the radio, eventually falling in love with rock, punk and folk songs.
“At that time, I didn’t even know that some of the album covers I owned were created by Andy Warhol. I remember holding the album cover in my hands while listening to the songs while I lost myself in my imagination, trying to conjure up an ideal world based on the record I was listening to.”
A Rebel With A Cause
The music Nara loved would go on to shape his artistic style; there were no museums where he grew up, so his main exposure to art came from the album covers he painstakingly collected. Despite his shy demeanour, he harboured a secret fantasy of becoming a rock musician.
In junior high, he would often use the money given to him by his parents to buy records, instead of reference books for school. To make sure his lies remained undiscovered, he worked harder than everyone else to maintain excellent grades at school. Such was Nara’s passion for music; he often spent his wages earned from part-time jobs on mail-order records sent all the way from the United States to Japan.
From his early record-buying experience, Nara immersed himself in as much contemporary music as he possibly could, listening to The Clash, Ramones, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, The Beatles and Johnny Cash, to name a few. He dedicated a great deal of his time to browsing music catalogues, making drawings of album covers, and doodling to his favourite tunes.
In 1980, he rebelled once again, using all his tuition fees meant for his sophomore year of university on a three-month solo trip to Europe. There, he met and struck up friendships with hippies, discovering their idyllic lifestyle while finding inspiration from the music, novels and movies they shared together. Through this unique kinship, he found that mutual experience transcended the need for a common language.
Nara eventually left Japan for Germany in 1988, going on to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Twelve years later, he returned to his homeland to pursue a career as a painter, where he began incorporating elements from traditional Japanese theatrical masks with poses and postures from the manga comics he used to read as a child. Since then, this has become Nara’s signature style.
Sharing The Music That Changed His Life
Over the years, Nara has published many books, mostly comprising his artwork, but in his autobiography, The Little Star Dweller (2004), he talks about his many travels to different parts of the world during his adolescent and artist years. His ideal playlist is a mishmash of punk, rock, psychedelic and folk – a marked contrast from his style of painting, which is often regarded as heavily punk-inspired.
In the 1970s, Nara’s favourite musicians: Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young, Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bob Marley, Kraftwerk. In the 1980s, Nara’s favourite musicians: Nick Cave, Nirvana. In the 1990s, Nara’s favourite musicians: Blur, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Radiohead.
Through his personal selections of songs below, discover a different side of Yoshitomo Nara, the music lover:
“Starman” by David Bowie
Nara’s first exposure to David Bowie’s extravagant, glam-rock style was during his middle-school years. Since then, he has become interested in British and American rock music.
“Blitzkrieg Bop” by Ramones
American punk-rock band Ramones became one of Nara’s top favourites after dabbling in the hippie scene in the United States.
“The Universal Soldier” by Donovan
While travelling alone in Europe during his college days, Nara listened most frequently to this anti-war country folk song. To this day, it remains a passionate discussion topic between himself and other fans of the song.
“Voyage of the Moon” by Mary Hopkin
Nara found himself enchanted by the melody after listening to it for the first time in fifth grade. He hopes that in future, when he takes his last breath, it is night time (like in the song) and he is accompanied by the melody he loves.
“Lemon Haired Ladies” by Janet Jones
Janet Jones, a British folk singer from the early 1970s, is also one of Nara’s favourites. Whenever he feels unhappy, her songs would always provide well-needed comfort.
Even now, Nara continues to share his love of music through his social media platforms. Though succinct, you are able to feel his passion for the source of his inspiration, which has not changed since he bought his first-ever record at the tender age of eight. For Nara, wherever there is art to be created; first, there was music.