Behind the HYPE: How Takashi Murakami’s 'Flowers' Became a Pop Culture Symbol

The smiling floral motif synonymous with the Japanese artist also has its darker origins.

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Takashi Murakami’s multicolored Flowers motif has etched its mark in the contemporary art world, fashion, pop culture and beyond. The joyful character has appeared on Kanye West album covers, Kid Cudi’s chains, Drake’s hoodies, and even an Art-Basel art piece with Pharrell. Since the first Murakami Flowers artworks debuted in 1995, the Flowers have steadily taken over fashion. Ben Baller jewelry, Porter bags, and a Tourbillon watch all sport the now-iconic smiling Flowers, and the his Louis Vuitton collaboration, which drew heavily on the Flowers, lasted almost two decades. More recently, a flowery Supreme x Takashi Murakami box logo raised over one million for COVID-19 relief.

While prints of his flower paintings sell in the thousands and a painting can fetch millions at auction, Murakami’s Flowers have also attracted leading imprints in both the streetwear and luxury fashion realms. The artist helmed a collaboration with Vans featuring the character across limited-edition graphic tees and skate decks for the brand in 2015 as well as a spin on Vans’ classic slip-on. In 2018, Murakami connected with Virgil Abloh to host international exhibitions that coincided with a range of paintings, sculptures, t-shirts, prints and a Murakami leather tote bag screen-printed with the Flowers and Abloh’s signature script. In 2019, his partnership with READYMADE saw the Flowers embellished on shorts and cushions crafted with military wool textile. That same year, Murakami also released a collaboration with MoMA with the pair purveying $150 USD plush pillows.

Murakami’s Flowers also have co-signs from the biggest names in music. Beyond the memorable visuals for Kanye West’s 2007 album Graduation and the upcoming animated television show Kids See Ghosts with West and Kid Cudi, Murakami’s Flowers were also spotlighted in a project with OVO in 2018 which combined the Flowers motif with the OVO owl. Murakami also released a merchandise collaboration with Billie Eilish for Uniqlo, incorporating the Flowers and visuals from the 2019 music video for “You Should See Me in a Crown,” directed by the artist himself.

The inspiration behind Murakami’s Flowers motif came from his early studies of Nihonga, or traditional Japanese-style painting. One of the subjects in Nihonga is “setsugetsuka,” which translates to snow, moon, flowers. Murakami attempted to paint flowers in this tradition, but he instead painted 50 flowers each on a stem with two to three leaves, and thus, the Murakami Flowers motif was born. While his Flowers appear whimsical and innocent, the motivations behind Murakami’s smiling floral figures are much darker. In a 2005 article from the New York Times, the artist explained that the smiling Flowers evoked repressed, contradictory emotions and collective trauma of Japanese locals triggered by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings back in 1945. The violence portrayed in the artist’s aforementioned animated video for Eilish, especially showing the decimation of the Flowers, makes the sinister concept even more apparent.

For our latest Behind the HYPE, HYPEBEAST relays the origins and mass hysteria behind Takashi Murakami’s Flowers motif. Watch the video above to learn more and then check out some more Behind the HYPE videos here.

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