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i-D Magazine

Japanese Artist Keiichi Tanaami on Art, Adidas and Death

February 25, 2019

Artist, Keiichi Tanaami, at Nanzuka Gallery in Tokyo. i-D Magazine.

Artist, Keiichi Tanaami, at Nanzuka Gallery in Tokyo. i-D Magazine.

By Matthew Whitehouse

Keiichi Tanaami was born in 1936, the son of a Tokyo textile worker, and a child destined to grow up in the aftermath of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. When the American planes arrived for retribution the following year, he moved to his grandfather’s home and the family bomb shelter: a position from which he’d witness the fire, flares and flashes that would reflect off the scales of his grandfather’s deformed goldfish by the window. Lodged into his mind, those images would become the driving creative force behind his work -- a colourful, psychedelic mix of real and imagined, nightmare and fantasy.

A contemporary of Andy Warhol in the 1960s, Tanaami continued to combine those images with that of American popular culture (he was, in his youth, watching over 500 Hollywood movies a year), sharing with the famed pop artist an ability to flit between disciplines, mixing the personal and the commercial in a way that did nothing to limit either expression. It’s a blurring of lines that continues today, with Tanaami’s recently launched exhibition with adidas Originals.

Featuring large scale paintings and sculptures that twist and turn the classic adidas “Trefoil” logo on its head, the work has all the signature scary monsters and super freaks you would want from an 82-year-old artist who shows no signs of slowing down. Held at Tokyo-based gallery NANZUKA until 9 March, we chatted with Tanaami to find out more.

Hello Keiichi Tanaami! What is art?
To me, art is the proof that I am living.

What is good art?
Good art is an honest manifestation of the artist.

Does something have to have aesthetic qualities to be art?
Well, aesthetic qualities don’t necessarily have to exist in art. My expressions are especially rooted in my youth. The things that happened and those memories. It may be war, it may be my mother, or it may be where I played as a child. All these memories that I’ve lived through are incorporated into my work.

Why do you paint?
That’s all I can do.

What does your daily routine look like?
My lifestyle is extremely simple. I eat, I bathe, I sleep. That’s all I do. And apart from that, I’m working on my creations. I have no hobbies, I don’t do sports. The majority of the day is spent in artwork.

What would you call the story of your life?
“This Is All I Can Do”.


Can you give three words to describe this collaboration with Adidas?
One would be “memory”, so that’s the early basis or foundation of the work here. These works are still, they don’t move, but I really like the idea of putting artwork onto apparel because it gives movement to it. So, “movement” would be the second. And the last would be “living”. To live on [we realise that this is more than three words but he was on a roll and it seemed rude to interrupt].

When did you first become interested in mixing the personal and the commercial in your work?
Ever since I was really young, I stepped out of the boundaries of what you might call “fine art”. There were a lot of things I wanted to work on, such as design, but what I was taught at art school was that designers design. They don’t do anything else. That was how they educated. And the more they did that, the more I wanted to fight back. So I ended up doing other things too. In a way, it was good that they tried to educate me in that way.

Your early years were marked by a fascination with American popular culture… What do you make of the state of America today?
America today? We don’t like America today. When I was in junior high school, we didn’t have any entertainment. We didn’t even have TV in Japan. So my only interest back then was movies. We were pretty much ruled by American culture. We couldn’t import what we wanted. So the Americans sent us what they wanted us to see. They wanted to show us how great the United States was. It’s so gorgeous in the States, we’re so wonderful, we have these beautiful women. It was a huge wave of that kind of information being thrown at us. And I was a boy and I watched these movies. So my image or perception of America was that it was huge and grand and spectacular. I came to love it. So it was a type of brainwashing that America used movies for. All boys back then loved it.

And now?
Well, I wouldn’t say that I don’t like it. I know why these things are happening.

What is your personal motto?
To work hard, to put all my energy into whatever I do.

Do you think you’re getting better?
Yes. In our 30s and 40s, we work the hardest. But compared to back then, I create more work actually. I’m creating the most number of works in my life now.

What are you working towards?

What is art for?
It’s something needed for for human beings to live on.

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