What is Superflat?: A guide to Takashi Murakami’s art movement

Takashi Murakami is known as one of the most important living contemporary artists today. With original artworks selling for millions of dollars and continuing to rise in value, if you don’t know him for his paintings and sculptures, you’ll almost certainly recognize some of his commercial ventures in fields such as fashion, merchandise, and animation. Reaching fans and collectors all over the globe, he was the only visual artist named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2008.

Murakami couldn’t have gained a reputation like this without producing truly unique artwork. In fact, the Japanese icon created a style all of his own and, in doing so, launched a new postmodern art movement titled “Superflat”. In drawing on Japan’s artistic history and popular culture, Murakami has inspired artists and other creatives to explore a vibrant new approach that’s proven phenomenally popular in the East and West alike.

What does Superflat mean?

Superflat is based on Japan’s long history of ‘flat’ art and is influenced by the 2D images seen in manga and anime, both of which are salient to the country’s culture and entertainment. It’s also inspired by the larger otaku subculture, which in Japan refers to people obsessed with aspects of pop culture, especially manga and anime.

Key characteristics of Superflat art include bold cartoony outlines and flat planes of color, with virtually no elements of natural perspective or depth. Murakami’s Celestial Flowers is a clear example of this. Paintings and sculptures are the most common Superflat artforms, but the movement has also influenced fashion, design and other creative mediums.

How does Superflat reflect its Japanese roots?

Murakami curated and debuted his Superflat exhibition in 2000 that went on to tour West Hollywood, Minneapolis and Seattle. In the exhibition catalogue, he wrote: “Initially, ‘Superflat’ was a keyword I used to explain my work. Once I started using it, though, I found that it was applicable to a number of concepts that I had previously been unable to comprehend, including ‘What is free expression?’ ‘What is Japan?’ and ‘What is the nature of this period I live in?’”

As well as referring to the ‘flatness’ of Japanese artistic traditions like manga, anime and ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints and paintings), Murakami also uses this term to encapsulate what he sees as the shallow Japanese consumer culture post-World War II. “World War II was always my theme,” he said in a 2014 interview with The New York Times. “I was always thinking about how the culture reinvented itself after the war.”

In this sense, Superflat shares certain similarities with the pop art movement made famous by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, as both styles take inspiration from popular culture. Murakami even founded a creative workshop called the Hiropon Factory, paying homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory.

And, like pop art, Superflat blurs the line between high and low culture by transforming commercial elements into art. Murakami believes that Japanese culture, in general, has been defined by the flattening of the divisions between high and low art, meaning there is little distinguishing them from each other.

What are some common themes of Superflat art?

Superflat is most commonly used to draw attention to the media, entertainment and consumption saturating Japanese culture. Many works also emphasize the overriding sexual fetishism seen post-war, such as ‘Lolicon’ media which typically depicts childlike characters with erotic undertones. Superflat artists often feature manga and anime-like subjects with exaggerated sexual features to explore and parody Otaku sexuality.

Another element of Japanese culture seen in Superflat artworks is kawaii — the Japanese culture of cuteness. This concept is usually applied to manga and anime characters, and not just human representations. For instance, Murakami uses kawaii flowers in Gargantua on your Palm to create a vibrant psychedelic world. Kawaii is also used to evoke child-like energy that conveys fear or reluctance to grow up.

In some Superflat art, commercial branding is explored. The most notable example is Murakami’s manic mouse character called Mr. DOB — a satirized version of Mickey Mouse. “I set out to investigate the secret of market survivability — the universality of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doraemon, Miffy, Hello Kitty, and their knock-offs, produced in Hong Kong,” he said in a statement. The character has featured in many of Murakami’s works and has been reproduced in merchandise such as posters and T-shirts. In her book Art in Consumer Culture: Mis-Design, art historian Grace McQuilten wrote: “Murakami’s DOB functions as commercial branding, and in the realms of art and commerce, celebrates the depthless nature of consumerism.”

How has Murakami’s Superflat influenced the art world?

Other Superflat artists

Murakami’s 2001 Superflat exhibition featured work by over a dozen other artists who helped to popularise the movement. Perhaps the most famous of them today are Yoshitomo Nara, known for his subversive cartoonish paintings and sculptures of animals and children, Chiho Aoshima, who depicts cute yet dark surreal landscapes, and Aya Takano, challenging otaku culture through a feminine gaze often involving androgynous characters.

The SoFlo Superflat movement

Superflat was incredibly well-received in the West and inspired a brand new artistic movement called SoFlo Superflat in Southern Florida. The leading artists believed there was a 2D nature to life in the Sunshine State, which therefore warranted 2D representations in their art. This style also uses bright colors, bold outlines and flat imagery to depict a range of subjects and flatten boundaries between different visual mediums.

Superflat and consumerism

Some argue that Superflat goes further than pop art in blurring the lines between high and low culture. Not only does the movement take low culture elements and make them high art, but Superflat turns these artworks into merchandise. As well as artists producing their work (many Superflat sculptures release their pieces as collectible miniature figurines, for example) and repackaging them into things like toys, T-shirts and keyrings that are more affordable, collaborations with other figures in popular culture are common. Murakami famously partnered with Louis Vuitton for over a decade, printing his colorful designs onto handbags and other accessories. He also designed the cover art for Kanye West’s third album Graduation.

“Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art’,” Murakami explained. “In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that’s okay — I’m ready with my hard hat.”

Today, the Superflat movement saturates many aspects of global pop culture as artists continue to push these boundaries.