In the Studio with Shinji Murakami

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Those of us of a certain age will remember it clearly: sitting in front of a tube television, our young reflections trapped in its thick curved glass, fingers moving furiously over the rudimentary plane of a controller. In the right hand: red buttons, A and B. In the left: plastic arrows moving left to right, forward and behind. The video games we played were coarsely rendered portals into new, uncharted worlds. We forgave their hard lines and imperfections, happy as we were to plunge headlong into the seemingly fantastical.

It’s a feeling New York City-based artist Shinji Murakami captures exquisitely in his work. The intrigue seems natural, if not merely chronological. Murakami was born in Japan, a leader in technological innovators and the notable home of Nintendo. His work faithfully recreates the look and feel of the 1980s video game culture that raised many of us, Murakami included. His Pixel Art, as he calls it, is a catalogue of geometrically perfect figures, sometimes in painted form and often in sculpture. A horse, a heart, an army of dogs: Murakami captures the essence of a familiar form and forces it into a grid, removing all edges and leaving only hard, boxy essentials.

Beyond simply tapping into nostalgia, the goal of Murakami’s work is making art that is accessible to everyone. He is not attracted to obscure references that appeal to a narrow demographic of people; he wishes touch the greatest number of people possible. It is a generously democratic sentiment that Murakami honed while operating as a graffiti artist in the streets of Osaka, his work exposed not just to those who sought culture on gallery walls, but tourists, commuters, and anyone else who cared to look. Today, Murakami has moved his efforts indoors. His work shows at NYC’s Catinca Tabacaru Gallery in addition to many group exhibitions, international shows, and plenty of brand collaborations. Below, we head to Murakami’s studio to talk secret mediums, telling emojis, and Japanese breakfast for brunch.

Former occupation and your most notable memory there:

Right before I moved to New York in 2009, I worked for a company back in Japan that was a center of emoji culture. I created the company’s original emojis, which were super-low pixelations. The experience helped prepare me for my current pixel design works.

Your first experience with art as a child:

My first memory was creating a paper cutting book during my first or second year of primary school. My classmates made the design and I cut it myself, adding original Japanese haikus next to it. It became a small book. After about twenty years, I visited the teacher who planned this project. She had kept my book and had continued to show it as a great example to her students all these years later.

Your first introduction to technology:

In 1994, my second year of junior high school, I visited one of my friends who had a personal computer. It was very rare then for people to have. I played some video games — which were very different from the ones we played with major video game consoles like Nintendo — and really felt that I wanted to have my own personal computer one day.

You started out doing street art in Tokyo in the 2000s. Did that work mirror your work today at all?

Yes. I really disliked the street artists who left tagging that is only recognizable for those who are also in street culture. So I drew cute, childish characters as my tags. That way, everyone — even grandparents and their grandchildren — could enjoy it without having any knowledge of art. The same concept is still living in my works today.

Some of your work is fueled by the philosophy of Nintendo inventor Gunpei Yokoi. What was your relationship like with video games growing up?

I always played them during my childhood. Sometimes — especially when I had just gotten a new one — I would get up one hour before my usual time to play it before going to school.

How do you go about buying the old games that you use for your research?

I have all the ROM files from a couple companies, which allows me to play them on the emulators. I also use eBay to get old games when I need them. And there’s a store for retro video games in Japan; I was there a few weeks ago to buy game strategy books, which are so rare now — the prices are at least more than ten times the original.

Your 3D 8-bit series deals in nostalgia. Is there any time in your life you are most nostalgic for?

Primary school. Every day, our only thing to do was to plan what we were going to play after school, whether that was exploring new towns, creating new games, or playing video games.

How did you find your current workspace and where is it?

It’s in Bushwick in a building right across from the Morgan stop on the L. I found it through my friend when I was looking for a space to make bigger works.

What do you eat for breakfast?

I always have it as brunch. Sometimes American-style but other times I’ll cook ramen by myself— never sushi though.

What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?

I get up around 10 or 11 a.m. I come to the studio after a few hours and work for about eight to ten hours. Recently I’ve had more work to do on my computer so sometimes I’ll work in cafes or libraries, or just work at home.

Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?

I love Spotify. If you’ve never tried their Discover Weekly playlist, you should try it. Their AI suggests 30 new songs every week. Hidden favorites, just for you.

What medium/ tool/ color are you most interested in presently and why?

I am experimenting with a new medium but I can’t tell you what it is yet. You will see it my new works coming out soon.

What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?

Banksy’s shredded artwork at Sotheby’s. I was mind-blown by this brilliant, crazy idea that shows that artists always need to find a way to break the things that exist already.

What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?

I have a few. For me, there can’t just be one best.

Three current emojis that best describe you:

🐶❤️🙂 This is a very interesting and fun question which would not have existed before emoji culture came out. These three describe my popular sculpture works.

Photos courtesy of Atisha Paulson for SIXTY Hotels

Jenny Bahn

Jenny Bahn

Jenny Bahn is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, specializing in music, fashion, the arts, and culture, both high and low. Her work has been featured in Cereal, Lenny Letter, and more.