Interview: MADSAKI

The Japanese street artist, best known for reinterpreting classic artworks in daring and provocative ways talks Murakami, Big Bird and how he got his name

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

The Mona Lisa with a smiley face; Renoir’s Dance at le Moulin de la Galette, but with the characters painted in squiggly lines; Takashi Murakami’s floral motif but in monochrome, and with paint dripping from the eyes of the anthropomorphic flowers—welcome to the world of street painter MADSAKI. Born in Japan, the artist, who’s only known by his working name, moved to the US when he was six, where he would eventually spend years before returning to Tokyo just recently. Though he studied art history in a prestigious school in New York, he would eventually find success by taking to the streets and defying the conventions of traditional art. His first solo exhibition in Thailand Combination Platter is now showcased at Central Embassy until 3 June.

 

MADSAKI

He wasn’t born MADSAKI. The artist got his artist name when he was living and working in New York City. “I used to be a bicycle messenger when I lived in New York, from 1999 to mid 2004. One day after work, my friends said, ‘Let’s go drink mad sake,’ then they
turned to me and said, ‘Mad saki, that’s you!’ They started calling me Madsaki since.”

 

MADSAKI

Central Embassy

 

Traumatized at Parsons
MADSAKI went to renowned design school Parsons, but didn’t like it too much. The artist admits that studying art history for four years actually made him sick of art. “It was art, art, art everyday, so when I graduated, I didn’t do art for maybe five or six years. I wanted to get away from that.”

“In my first week at Parsons, a professor told me, ‘No one is gonna make it in the art world. If you don’t wanna waste money, just quit now.’ But the funny thing is I’m doing what they told me not to do, and look where I am now.”

 

Dripping smiles
Streaky canvases and drips of color have become MADSAKI’s most recognizable signatures, a result of the process by which he creates his paintings. “When you spray paint a face [color] always drips. And that’s it. It just drips. It does have a meaning but I let people think what it is. I’m not gonna say too much about it.” The faces on his artwork all have Smiley faces that have round black dripping dots for eyes. It may look simple, but it’s actually the most difficult part in every painting and the part that he always saves for last. “Because it’s the most simple thing and you have to put emotions in it,” MADSAKI explains. “It is smiling. I don’t know how to describe it in words, but when [I’m] not feeling it, I can’t [paint it]. I leave it for like a week or two days, or a month. When I feel good then I do that face. So it all depends on my mood. But when I’m sad, it actually comes out good.”

MADSAKI

MADSAKI

 

He’s probably his own inspiration

“It’s a history of myself,” answers the artist to the question of what inspires him. “Everything from where I’ve traveled, the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen. Still, I don’t have the answer, and I’m always looking for it. ‘Who am I? Why am I doing this?’ That’s why I’m creating. Something just motivates me, I guess, and I still don’t know what it is.” MADSAKI, however is a very emotional painter. “If you are not feeling it, it’s a waste of canvas and paint. Sometimes it can be six months or a year. I became a messenger because I got sick of painting. I wanted to totally forget about art. I was riding a bicycle every day for three years until I was like, ‘F_ck I can’t do this no more.’ And then, I started painting. Experiences—maybe they are not related to art—could somehow become motivation or inspiration. So if I don’t work for three years, those three years will probably help me sometime in the future.”

 

Cartoons and the Big Bird
MADSAKI grew up watching Japanese and American cartoons and TV shows, and the characters he related to as a child would later show up in his artwork. A massive masterpiece (now showing at the exhibition) depicts all the TV characters of his youth, from the robot Arale to Sesame Street’s Big Bird. “All the characters I selected hold a meaning for me. The Big Bird symbolizes the English language. That’s how I learned English—by watching Sesame Street. It’s like a self-portrait, but in a bizarre way.”

MADSAKI

Central Embassy

 

The influence of Takashi Murakami

MADSAKI considers pop-art star Takashi Murakami his mentor. You can say that it was Murakami who discovered MADSAKI. “He’s a master,” says MADSKI. “And he is my boss. He found me on Instagram. Of course, I knew him from way before. But one day, he started following me. He has a blue tick behind his name [connotes a “verified account”—ed.] and I was like ‘Oh, this is the real guy.’” After buying a few of MADSAKI’s pieces, which ended up in his collection in the Yokohama Museum of Art, the esteemed Japanese artist asked if the street painter wanted to do a show for a gallery in Nakano. “The show happened a month later. It went well and we became very close after that. He’s a funny guy. I love talking to him. We get along, I think. He’s a boss but when we are not talking about art, we’re
just fooling around, talking stupid shit.”

 

A tough life as an artist
“In the States, if you throw a rock, you are going to hit an artist,” MADSAKI laughs, before pointing out that life as an artist in Japan is not all rosy either. “It’s hard. Period. In both countries. I’m 44 years old, and I’ve been painting since I graduated from Parsons, but my life now only started after I met Murakami maybe two years ago. Before that I was a starving artist.”

 

Combination Platter
For his solo exhibition at Central Embassy, MADSAKI puts into canvas random thoughts and a range of emotions. “I did a lot of different styles at once, everything from words to cartoons. I [wish] people see it and enjoy it from different perspectives.” Highlights include his first tries at doing sculpture, and the class picture of the cartoon characters of his childhood, which is making its Asian debut. “Even the Japanese have never seen it. Bangkok got it first.”

 

MADSAKI, Combination Platter

Central Embassy

 

MADSAKI, Combination Platter

Central Embassy

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