Interview: Keiichi Tanaami

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


First thought that comes to mind when you meet Keiichi Tanaami is—I want to age that well. 76, and still boiling with energy, the artist talks Pop Art, perverted sci-fi, Crumb, Playboy, Sokurov and his lifelong fascination with shadows.

Artist Keiichi Tanaami in his studio

Artist Keiichi Tanaami in his studio

  • ABYou cite the Great Tokyo Air Raid and American B Movies as major influences, what about artistic ones?
  • KTAs a child I was mostly interested in manga like “Norakuro,” “Boken Dankichi” and “Tank Tankuro.” Once I grew up I got into “emonogatari” (subgenre of manga), very popular at the time, such as “Shonen Oujya” by Yamakawa Shoji. Only later I learned about big-name artists listed in history textbooks, but I didn’t have access to them during my childhood. You know, I grew up rather under extreme circumstances—Japan went to war with the US when I was about seven. During those years no one had the time, the luxury, or the interest in cultural activities. So I don’t remember being taken to museums and there weren’t many books being published. It was a time of crisis, war time, not the time to enjoy culture. In that sense, my core influence is the comic books I enjoyed as a kid, because there was nothing else.
  • ABEven though you admire American culture you chose to stay in Japan, unlike, say, your friend Ushio Shinohara. Why?
  • KTI hate to travel! Not only traveling abroad, but going anywhere I’m not accustomed to. I'd go to Kyoto to teach, but otherwise I tend to stick around Tokyo. When I was younger I had more gusto, so I went to San Francisco, but now, even when I hold exhibitions abroad, I rarely go there myself.
  • ABYou developed your visual language very early on.When did you first feel “that's it?”
  • KTI've never really felt that one style was “it.” I went through various styles, depending on what I was interested at the moment, my past styles simply mark my changing interests. I came to embrace the pop-induced style later in my career. Earlier, I played with more abstract, simplified forms of expression. I remember being shocked by my visit to the US in the 60s, not only by Warhol and American Pop Art, but also by Robert Crumb, the comics, the whole sub-cultural scene. I found the latter much more interesting than the so-called Fine Art and was deeply affected by it. In the end I decided to follow my original affection towards sub-culture and Pop.
Keiichi Tanaami's paintings

Keiichi Tanaami's paintings

  • ABWas cultural life in Japan more exciting in 60s and 70s?
  • KTI think people tend to romanticize the past—Japanese culture is just as fun now in its own way. The 60s were the age of physicality, as it is characterized in Shuji Terayama’s plays and Tatsumi Hijikata’s Butoh. Even in Europe, performances were very physical. However, as we entered the 70s, art moved away from the physical and on to the conceptual. This affected the taste of the younger generation. People began to favor minimal white rooms with everything stashed away. This taste for sterility did not appeal to me, so I found less and less inspiration in art that was in vogue at the time. As you can see from my studio, I like to live in the clutter!
  • ABHow was it like working for Playboy?
  • KTI worked for Japanese Playboy as an Art Director for ten years (1975—85). It was quite fun back then, we focused on three subjects of male interest—women, adventure and cars. In a sense, the audience was simpler, a magazine addressing all three subjects could easily gain readers and popularity. Now, magazines tend to specialize in particular interests like shogi or bonsai to attract support. Compared to American Playboy, Japanese Playboy was pure entertainment, but it did employ writers like Takashi Kaiko and Yukio Mishima to make the magazine a little more intellectual.
  • ABI think your work is getting better with age, unlike many artists of your generation who stopped evolving long time ago.
  • KTI can't speak for the others, but in my case, I change along with what interests me at the moment. I’m always curious and this hasn't changed since I was younger. I guess I was just born this way. I find inspiration in everything: I'd find excitement in my routine walks, a side-dish of my lunch, you know, anything! Aside from these daily stimuli, I find a continuing inspiration in shadows. There aren’t any good shadows in Tokyo anymore. There is so much light even at midnight that you could read a book outside! Shadows in Tokyo are shallow and not beautiful, but you can still find the kind of shadows I’m talking about in rural areas of Kyoto. There, it actually becomes dark at night, so dark that you can’t see a meter away from you. You'd think that in such complete darkness there would be any shadow, but there they are! Deeper and blacker than the night. It relates to the beauty of darkness Tanizaki Jyunichiro mentions in his “Inei Raisan.” Although he uses the blackness of yokan (a Japanese sweet) in his book, it is the same heavy, thick darkness that I find so inspiring.
Keiichi Tanaami's draft

Keiichi Tanaami's draft

  • ABIt is my impression that Japanese culture and Japanese art tend to focus on a lighter, more entertaining side.
  • KTI think you have a point there. Japanese people look at paintings differently from Westerners. Let’s say there is a painting of flowers. For a Westerner, the roses and lilies symbolize something beyond flowers and convey certain ideas. Understanding the painting requires the viewer's foreknowledge. Japanese, on the other hand, looking at the same painting would only see pretty flowers. In essence, Westerners READ paintings whereas the Japanese LOOK at paintings. That’s why many earlier Japanese paintings included texts to help viewers to “read” the works. My paintings also often include messages that might not easily come across, but I don't force certain readings onto my viewers. A painting should speak for itself and it's fine if people see different things.
  • ABDo you feel a lack of character and individuality in younger generation? Does it have anything to do with family and society pressures? Commercial affluence, was it always a measure of success in Japan?
  • KTPersonally, I don’t care about other people’s opinions. I just do what I want to do. Watching my students at Kyoto University, I can't help but think how difficult it must be to stay oblivious to all the information they receive through the media nowadays. In that sense, younger artists now not only need a strong individuality, but also the ability to filter unnecessary information. I think success shouldn’t be judged by the level of income, but when I first asked my mother about going to an Art School, she, along with the rest of the family, was fiercely against it. She begged me to go to a “normal” university like Waseda or Keio to become a “normal” person. I'd be studying in my room and my mother would pop in and ask me to come over. There would be an artist on TV, portrayed every time either as a drunk, a womanizer, or with tuberculosis, she'd point and say “See? You become an artist and that’s how you'll end up!” She'd repeat this over and over again. My mother’s generation thought all artists were like that which possibly fostered a common notion of judging an artist by his or her economic success.
  • ABUnlike many established artists who employ an army of assistants, you, as far as I know, hardly use any help. What is your daily routine like?
  • KTHmm... I get to my studio around noon and work till 19:00, then work again at home until midnight. As I told you, I hate traveling and I don’t play golf, so I don’t really have anything to do besides work. I let off steam by alternating between different projects. I'd work on animation, then, move on to painting once I get tired, and when I get tired of that switch to writing. I don’t really get stressed working because I don’t see it as work. Also, I’m the type of artist who enjoys the process of making. I think there are two types of artists—those who like the process and those who like the result. I am the former. I’m really into making whatever I'm into at the moment until I finish it, but once I do, I don’t really care about it anymore and go on to the next project. My student Tabaimo, for example, says she finds the working process torturous. She forces herself to work until the piece is complete and only then she finds satisfaction.
Keiichi Tanaami's works

Keiichi Tanaami's works

  • ABDo you use computers? How do you manage these dimensional twists?
  • KTPersonally, I don’t use computers, but sometimes I utilize them for my paintings. I like copy machines, they're capable of producing amazing twists!
  • ABIf you weren't an artist, who would you be?
  • KTA movie director. I like movies, my favorite directors are Alexander Sokurov, especially his “Mother and Son,” and Andrei Tarkovsky. Speaking of movies, I'll be art-directing a film adaptation of “Kachikujin Yapoo.” Do you know this novel? There is a comic book based on it translated worldwide. The book is famous for being extremely perverted and decadent. It is a sci-fi story about the future where Westerners, especially women, dominate and physically alter the Japanese race (Yapoo) and make them into chairs, toilets, or sex-slaves. It's quite nasty and I've been having nightmares reading the book, but I do think it'll make a fun movie to watch.
  • ABWho, among Japanese artists, you admire the most?
  • KTI'm very fond of Tabaimo. I also like Jakuchu Ito, an Edo period painter.
  • ABYour motto?
  • KTI don’t have any. I just follow my instincts.

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Translation: Chisako Izuhara