Pop Artist Keiichi Tanaami on the Inspirations Behind His Life's Work

By Bryan Grogan, July 4, 2018

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Never one to shy away from powerful collaborations, Keiichi Tanaami arrived in Guangzhou last month to present a retrospective of his life’s work at chi K11 art space – one of the hippest and most transformative organizations for art in China.

Starting with his most recent work on large diptychs and triptychs, we took a trip through his art, focusing on some of the most impactful periods in his life. Those include early Warhol-influenced, psychedelic work from the '60s, nuanced minimalist imagery from the '80s and the masterful and phantasmagorical works of the recent past.


Curated by Venus Lau, the collection sheds light on moments in time that gave rise to changes in his style throughout the years.

Having previously designed album artwork for bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Monkees, and held a role as Playboy Japan's first art director, Tanaami has built a reputation on offbeat projects. 

Just last year, Nina Kraviz DJ’d at an exhibition opening for Tanaami in Moscow's Gary Tatintsian Gallery, where she also announced that his work will appear on upcoming records released by her label, Galaxid. He was also given a shout-out by American artist and designer KAWS on Instagram in the lead-up to his K11 launch.


Beneath the vitality of his varied work, however, are deep and scarring memories from his childhood in Japan.

Raised during the Second World War, Tanaami remains both inspired and horrified by the sight and sounds of fighter planes flying overhead.

“At that time, when I saw the pilots, it looked as if they were teasing people, their faces were smiling, or it could be said to be a kind of ridicule,” said Tanaami. “When these planes fly at a very low altitude, they will hurt some pedestrians on the ground and cause death on the spot.

“These horrible impressions and memories had a profound and lasting effect on me. Rather than what is happening with the outside world, I will dig my memory to the core when I am looking for creation and inspiration.”


In person, he presented these memories to us with the same befuddled humor that populates Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strip paintings. In the works of his lesser-known The House in Ascension series, though, dark colors and minimalist style tell a different story.

The paintings are Tanaami's attempt to describe the hallucinations he experienced while hospitalized after suffering a pulmonary edema in 1981. Lying in a hospital bed not far from Tokyo's famous Roppongi pine trees, he experienced visions influenced by the work of Salvador Dali.

“Before I was admitted to the hospital, I did not have much interest in Dali's paintings. However, when I was admitted to the hospital, a friend brought me a picture album of Dali. Then after I read it, if I took medicine, I would go into a high fever and see Dali's pictures become vivid, like real hallucinations. These hallucinations formed an artistic conviction for these works.”


In the series, the unpredictability of his early psychedelic prints combines with the symmetry and symbolism of later work.

If there's anything we learned from talking to Tanaami, however, it's that his inspirations range widely across space, time and culture. In addition to Salvador Dali, Marilyn Monroe, Chinese symmetry and American cinema were also cited as influencing his art.

Of his early exposure to American culture, he said, “At that time, the movies played were B-level movies, not A-level movies. The movie content was very simple. The storyline: blondes, beautiful women, rich Western lives, beautiful women are in danger and someone goes to save her and so on. My personal understanding is that many times Asia has developed its own subculture in the process of absorbing the culture originating from Europe and the United States.”


But despite its multitude of influences Tanaami's work remains fresh and fluid, the artist's avid fascination with life shining through even the darkest periods of his past.

Exhibition open through Sep 2, 10am-9.30pm; RMB80. chi K11 Art SpaceSee event listing

[Photos by Bryan Grogan, installations by Keiichi Tanaami]

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