Tadanori Yokoo

Tadanori Yokoo is arguably one of Japan’s most prominent and influential graphic artists. Born on June 27, 1936 in the Hyogo prefecture of Nishiwaki, Japan, Yokoo grew up in his country during the prewar period as well as throughout the turmoil of World War II, living to see its impact on Japan. As a child, Yokoo was adopted and raised by two older relatives who ran a kimono fabric-making company.

Growing up, Yokoo had modest ambitions: to work in a post office and do paintings on the side. As it turned out, painting provided much more for Yokoo than a pastime on his days off. Yokoo’s first job–which he took on directly out of school to support his older adoptive parents, and which would truly influence what he would do in his later career–was with the Chamber of Commerce in Nishiwaki, where he worked to replicate paintings, as well as to design wrapping paper and create posters for stores. Soon after, in 1960, he picked up a different job working as a stage designer for an avant garde theatre in Tokyo. In the early 60s, Yokoo’s employments all involved design but were all instances in which he was able to “learn on the job,” in his own words. In 1964, after realizing that he wished to move forward with his career in the world of art and design, Yokoo founded the joint “Studio Ilfil” with his friends and fellow creatives Tadahito Nadamoto, Akira Uno, and Makoto Wada, a place for the four to work and collaborate together. A year later, in 1965, Yokoo would submit a poster to the Matsuya Ginza department store’s art exhibition, “Persona,” which would turn graphic design as Japan knew it on its head. The poster, which Yokoo had titled “Made in Japan, Tadanori Yokoo, Having Reached a Climax at the Age of 29, I Was Dead,” was arguably his earliest defining moment in graphic design, and what led him to such rapid popularity in Japan in the 1960s and 70s. This poster helped gain traction for the rest of Yokoo’s work, namely due to its striking style and unusual, risque themes.

Yokoo’s graphic art style is intriguing in the way that it becomes a hybrid of seemingly opposite concepts–a hybrid which would lead one to assume the results of which must be cacophonous, but which, in reality, proves a carefully articulated and beautiful synthesis of contrasting forces. Yokoo’s style is one which weaves together elements of art as well as design, of collage as well as illustration, of Eastern as well as Western art influences, of traditional pre-war life as well as modernist tendencies emerging in the 1960s. In the vast majority of Yokoo’s graphic artworks, he utilizes vivid, contrasting colors in adjacent placements which create the illusion of color vibrations in viewers’ eyes. These flat colors are a trademark of the Pop Art movement associated with this time period, a likely influence on this element of Yokoo’s signature style. Yokoo also took an interest in combining elements of traditional illustration with aspects of collage, wherein he reappropriated found photographs, juxtaposing the two mediums to create hallmark unique and eclectic posters of his own.

Yokoo’s posters are laden with the repetition of certain motifs, namely the rising sun and waterfalls–two aspects which can be found in almost any of his works, especially from the 1960s and 70s. Because of the sheer amount of times the rising sun–which, it should be noted, was considered a dated symbol at the time of the beginning of his appropriation of it–appears in Yokoo’s work, it became emblematic of his style, a trademark of his which saw a resurgence in popularity tied to the exponential rise in popularity of Yokoo himself. Today, the rising sun is known as an international symbol of Japanese pop art due to Yokoo.

The content and meaning for much of Yokoo’s work was driven by his own personal nature, reflecting his own interests. As The Design Observer put it, “Yokoo is immersed in subjectivity. His style is about his own desires, visions, fears and spirituality. He works for himself; the client is only secondary.” Much of the commentary prevalent in his work serves as a critique of traditional hierarchies of Japanese society and fine art, and he would come to use some of his works as vessels for challenging the hierarchical nature of Japan after World War II.

Yokoo’s graphic artworks gained traction in the public eye due to how starkly opposed they were to the usual conventions and themes of art prevalent in the 1960s–a time when it was rare to see graphic designers making posters with any sort of direct social or political commentary. Yokoo sometimes portrayed scenes with sexual or violent content in his posters, making poignant statements which the public could not ignore. His style and content also posed an opposition to the Modernist movement which swept the world in the 1960s. Modernism was all about simplicity, emphasizing function over form, while Yokoo expressed the precise opposite in his work, drawing from elements of tradition as well as from other art movements to create stupefying posters which overstimulated viewers’ eyes and minds.

Yokoo drew the inspiration which generated his profoundly unique style from a myriad of sources, and, though extracted from greatly deviating areas, all of Yokoo’s inspirations are distinctly similar in that they all come from personal, lived experiences of the artist. Drawing upon elements of his childhood, snapshot memories of fabric labels from his adoptive parents’ kimono fabric business inspired much of the text in Yokoo’s works, while children’s card games he played in the prewar era of his youth influenced the style of many of his graphics. After having taken a trip to India and being awed by the beauty of the country’s culture, Indian mysticism played a large role in guiding the psychedelia prevalent in many of Yokoo’s works from the 1970s. Close relationships also meant a lot to Yokoo in creating the foundation of inspiration for his body of work, and Yokoo cites two friends, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and writer Yukio Mishima, as two of his most formative influences. Yokoo also took an interest in many of the artistic movements occurring during the time he was most active in the graphic design industry, but, as well as drawing from modern artistic trends, he was greatly intrigued by historical art styles and techniques. In addition to the influence Yokoo gained from surrealist art, American pop art, and contemporary Japanese art, he also looked to traditional Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period, called ukiyo-e, and early Japanese packaging, drawing from motifs in print and package designs, Chinese ornamentation, and even material from the Victorian era.

Having declared his retirement from the field of professional graphic design in favor of becoming a full-time painter in 1981, Yokoo, 82 years old today, still lives and works in Tokyo, continuing to produce new and innovative graphic art and paintings, and cultivating exhibits in multiple art museums across the world every year.


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