Quirky Japanese artist Madsaki - Hashtag Legend

#culture /art & design

Quirky Japanese artist Madsaki

Jun 04, 2018

A limited-edition ashtray created in collaboration with the Siwilai Store (siwilaibkk.com)

Retail isn’t only about merchandising or service anymore; a keen cultural awareness is also needed to curate special projects that will reach those tickle spots of cool, passionate consumers and encourage them to visit that retail space. Of course, those who place a value on exclusivity may turn their noses up, but I appreciate the fact that somebody who may not have easy access to a Perrotin or a Kaikai Kiki Gallery gets a chance to personally experience Madsaki’s work and buy a little souvenir. (In deference to Banksy, indeed, what would art be if we didn’t exit through the gift shop?) Combination Platter is the polarising Japanese artist’s first solo show in Bangkok, named after his multicultural references and the popular dish from the Chinese takeaway menus of his youth in America.

Madsaki’s Riders on the Storm (2017)

I had a preview session of Madsaki’s first solo show on display at Central Embassy, as well as the special merchandise on sale exclusively at the Siwilai Store. And as a viewer, I didn’t feel the need to be an “art person” to understand his work references: The Simpsons, Hollywood films, SpongeBob SquarePants, “I Have a Dream”. Some say Madsaki is a street artist because of his medium of spray paint, but a deeper inspection of where he draws from indicates otherwise. There’s a sense of humour to his work, but beyond that, a mockery that seems to indicate it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Herein lies the irresistibility of his work.

As we sit down to have a chat, Madsaki is wearing a black cap that says your favourite four-letter F word in white – an apt intro to this mad artist.

The artist in the flesh

Congratulations – it appears that all of your Champion collab T-shirts have now sold out. I was in the first morning session, too, and there wasn’t a single one left to purchase!

[He looks surprised, then smiles sheepishly. And then he laughs.] Thanks?

This may seem a bit random, but I brought this piece of hotel stationery with me. I’m going to leave it here on the table. You can do whatever you want with it and I will publish whatever you create.

[He looks at the paper.]

Whenever you feel inspired. No stress, seriously. Anyway, whereabouts do you live in Japan?


So you speak Japanese?

I do, but sometimes you speak the language and you still can’t communicate.

Have you always lived there?

Nah, I lived in the States for 20 years, from 1980 to 2004.

Do you identify with being Asian-American? Twenty years is a substantial chunk of time. You totally speak like an American – not in the words as much as in the mannerisms.

Well, I was in white, suburban New Jersey, in the middle of nowhere. When we moved there, I was the only non-white person there. There weren’t blacks or Mexicans. I spoke no English. As I got older, it just got confusing. I’m Japanese, but I couldn’t hang out with other Japanese.

Are your parents pretty traditional?

Yes, they made me speak Japanese at home. I had to speak only Japanese.

Do you miss anything about America?

I miss everything, because I grew up there. I was just in New York recently. I hadn’t been back in eight years. It blew my mind. The city I knew was gone. It hurt me so much. All of the mom-and-pop shops were gone. It is such a Disneyland now. It’s Brand New York. I was there in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was so special then. It was a mess, but it was incredible for art and culture. The ’80s and ’90s was the golden era in New York.

The Madsaki exhibition in Bangkok

How many shows have you done?

I don’t even know! I’ve been working constantly since I joined Kaikai Kiki Gallery two years ago. Within two years, there have been three shows. So this would be my fourth show.

That’s a lot in a short time. Do you think your process has changed at all?

I don’t think my process has changed. It’s more about high productivity now. I got tennis elbow from painting so much last year. My elbow just broke and I couldn’t press the nozzle on the can. Takashi Murakami, my boss, asked me, “Can’t you use your left hand?” I told him that I didn’t want to break both arms!

I have to admit that I’m not an art nerd. I didn’t know if you would find that annoying or refreshing.

I’m not an art nerd either. Usually when a name is brought up, I’m like, “Who the f**k is that?”

Who do you think is the greatest painter of all time? You studied art history, right?

I studied it, yes, to the point I was sick of it! I don’t know who the greatest is, but my all- time favourite has always been Cy Twombly. I love his freedom. Looking at his great paintings, they look easy and simple, but that’s the hardest thing to do. It looks like scribbles while he’s working, but it ends up poetry.

I was looking at your work earlier and I was trying to figure out, “Is Madsaki a funny person?”

[laughs] Or is he f**ked up?

What do you think? You do laugh a lot.

I laugh a lot. I don’t take myself too seriously, I don’t think. Or art. I don’t like being in the spotlight. If I am, I have nothing to say. I’m so shy. But if I’m in the crowd, I’m the guy cracking jokes.

Wait! I know what I’m going to write. There was something that I heard in a movie... I changed one word and it became the funniest sh*t ever! [Madsaki looks through his phone and, as he’s writing, he giggles.] When you go too deep into the head, then you’re f**ked.

Is it kind of like food? Why do I have to be told why something is good...

Seriously! About food... can I write one more thing? [He turns the paper over and scribbles something else on it: “I’m a vegan but I smoke crack.”] This is the world we live in today.

There are some really amazing people that came out of Barnstormers: Swoon, Mike Houston, to name a couple... Could you describe the collective and what it meant to you?

I miss them! I had become a bike messenger to get away from art. My dream was to become a New York City bike messenger. I had been working towards this for three years. One day, somebody blew a red light and I got tossed off my bike. My bike was crushed underneath the car. In fact, oddly enough, I came out of this accident without a scratch – literally landing on my feet. This, I think, was the first sign.

So the accident was on Friday. The following Monday was when 9/11 happened and the Twin Towers went down. The crazy thing is that Mondays and Tuesdays at 9.30am, I was always in the Towers to pick up packages. It’s usually slow in the mornings and the rookies have to go, even though it’s a pain because of all of the different elevators and the security. On that particular morning, I wasn’t in the building because I had no bike. This was the second message.

The day after, I got a call from an old friend of mine, Mike Ming, who was part of the Barnstormers. He was trying to get me to come out and paint with them at something at Smack Mellon, under the Dumbo Bridge. I hadn’t painted in 10 years. I was hesitant, but I came out eventually because I had nothing else to do. It blew my mind! There were rollers and spray cans. I had never seen art like this and the untraditional ways of painting. This felt right. This made me realise that I wanted to do art.

The Barnstormers were such an interesting, eclectic group of artists in the age before social media. It wasn’t “street art” as we know it now. And they weren’t organised for commercial purposes.

It was like a family barbecue. But they kicked my ass. There was no sketching before we painted. When we painted, it was like a puzzle – it becomes one thing with a hundred different styles. When you paint something wack, nobody is going to say anything – but when you go to the bathroom, it will get painted over. This happened to me a few times. I learned a lot.

I would imagine that it’s hard to paint at that scale.

It is! We didn’t use projectors.

Le Rêve 2 Champion collaboration T-shirt (exclusive to Siwalai Store, siwilaibkk.com)

What brand of spray paint do you like to use?

Montana 94 from Spain, because it smells so good. I love a whisky and some Montana 94. When you paint as much as I do, it matters.

Regarding the particular painting that’s on all of the posters, invites and product, why did you choose that one?

It was because it was the most expensive painting auctioned to date. It broke records. I don’t remember how much. But I thought it would be funny.

So interesting – I think you have a good instinct and understanding of the formula to be a successful fashion person. Honing into what’s familiar to the consumer audience and putting your twist on it.

[laughs] If I get fired from this job, I certainly will give it some thought.

This feature originally appeared in June print issue of #legend.

In This Story: #culture /art & design

Story Told by

Kim Bui Kollar