Described by curator Michael Darling as the artist’s “magnum opus”, Tan Tan Bo (2001) is an icon of Takashi Murakami’s oeuvre, demonstrating the new levels of complexity that began to infiltrate his practice at the turn of the millennium. Rendered on a monumental scale across three large gold canvases, the work reincarnates his iconic figure, Mr. DOB, in phantasmagorical, hallucinatory color. A sister painting to Tan Tan Bo Puking – a.k.a. Gero Tan, executed the following year, it has featured in major touring retrospectives including ©Murakami, 2007-2009 and Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, 2017-2018. Seamlessly fusing hand-painted and silkscreened elements with iridescent pearl powder, the work is a virtuosic tour de force, predating the artist’s subsequent transition to silkscreen-only paintings. Amid thrumming energy and swirling forms, Mr. DOB is solarized version of himself, with a large black smile that beams out of the shimmering background. A collage of multicolor starbursts and biomorphic forms vibrate against the white of his face, with early examples of the artist’s signature smiling flower motifs hovering next to his right ear. One of Mr. DOB’s eyes is a hypnotic spiral of pale pink and white, while in the other, a series of concentric circles pulsate. Vivid tentacles radiate from his face which is orbited by smaller cartoon monsters: miniscule DOBs, mushrooms and the newer creations Kaikai and Kiki. Mr. DOB has his own exhilarating gravitational pull, likened by Darling to “a dark planet or Death Star, a raving and chaotic creature”. The work, he explains, shows the artist “at full stride, achieving a painterly spectacle of technical precision and cinematic bombast that has virtually no peer or precedent” (M. Darling, “Doomed to Survive”, Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2017, pp. 27-28).
Mr. DOB is the most represented subject across Murakami’s wide-ranging practice and is understood to be the artist’s alter-ego. Visually, Mr. DOB resembles Mickey Mouse, but his cuteness has mutated over time, and recently, he has cut a more cunning and volatile figure than his Disney counterpart. His origins lie in language, and the name, Mr. DOB, was derived from the nonsensical and dada-like phrase dobozite dobozite, found in Noboru Kawasaki’s manga series Inakappe taisho (1970), in which characters repeatedly mispronounce doshite (why). As both an icon and a visual pun, Mr. DOB is routinely transformed and re-presented, in painting and sculpture as well as stuffed animals, pins and other collectibles, at once transitory and marketable, underscoring his constant embrace of flux and precarity. At the heart of Mr. DOB’s evolving narrative arc is Murakami’s own metaphor for society’s eternal desire to consume. He is the manifestation of what art historian Mika Yoshitake calls, the “ceaseless regeneration of this impulse” (M. Yoshitake, “The Meaning of the Nonsense of Excess”, ©Murakami, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008, p. 111).
Murakami’s art is conceptually unified under the aesthetic of the “Superflat,” which refers, in part, to the hyper-compressed, almost depthless surfaces that he renders. Superflat is a byproduct of traditional Japanese painting aesthetics fused with the flat-screen of digital imagery, apropos the very real and horrifying topographical flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Flattening is conceptually and physically embedded the country’s history, most recently through the invasion of Western culture. Within Murakami’s works, the Superflat is manifested in his production methods, brilliant colors and the defined lines, a fitting blend of American Pop and Japanese decorative arts indebted to Nihonga art. Often compared to Andy Warhol’s fixation on surface, scholars understand Murakami’s Superflat to be a further elaboration into a particularly Japanese reality; it is an aesthetic predicated on the dissolution and disavowing of Western distinctions such as high/low and art/craft which do not exist within “the horizontally organized nature of Japanese culture” (D. Hebdige, “Flat Boy vs. Skinny: Takashi Murakami and the Battle of for ‘Japan’”, ©Murakami, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008, p. 22). Tan Tan Bo brilliantly illustrates Murakami’s ability to reimagine and expand upon traditional Japanese signs within a contemporary commercial landscape, further probing the construction of culture: “After losing World War II, the Pacific War, Japan received an explosion of cultural influence from the United States, the winning country, and the outlines from America and its European allies combined and increased their thickness, providing the rigid external framework for Japanese culture and art… Now new outlines are being drawn with our own hands…Mind you, they are disorganized by they came not out of Western ‘art’, but out of the genres that are called subculture in the West” (T. Murakami interviewed by Hélène Kelmachter, Takashi Murakami: Kaikai Kiki, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2002, p. 105).
Murakami’s understanding of cultural production is steeped in Oataku, which translates to “your house” and is a term for “geeky,” obsessive interests, particularly in regard to anime and manga. Oataku suggests an escapist attitude through material culture, a widespread phenomenon in Japanese society, a reaction, in part, to unemployment and long working hours as well as natural and man-made disasters. Although Otaku is generally scorned and held in disregard, Murakami’s practice reclaims a Japanese vernacular culture through a celebration of kitsch: “When I created Mr. DOB I had already given up this world of otaku. It was when I went to the United States that I really discovered my identity there as an otaku…So I started thinking about why I had given up being an otaku and why I wanted to go back to it” (T. Murakami interviewed by Hélène Kelmachter, Takashi Murakami: Kaikai Kiki, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2002, p. 77). Initially, Murakami coined the term poku, a merge of Otaku and Pop, for his new visual vocabulary, but ultimately decided that Superflat more clearly conjured a fusion of elements.
Mr. DOB, then, is a synthesis of these legacies, created not only to represent Murakami but also to interrogate contemporary Japanese social conditions: “Born from a simulation of language and cartoon imagery, Murakami’s production of DOB comes from an engagement with how an icon emerges as an object of mass consumption and circulates as a distinctive registered trademark to be used, reused, bought and sold” (M. Yoshitake, “The Meaning of the Nonsense of Excess,” ©Murakami, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008, p. 125). As an encapsulation of commodity culture, Mr. DOB is an expression of hedonism, cynicism, meaning and the lack thereof, as well as the ways in which excess can overwhelm. Through his excavations of history, popular culture and market values to explore the superficiality of a globalized consumer culture, Murakami is one of the first artists to take commerce itself as his subject.
Tan Tan Bo is a delirious and lustrous encapsulation of the Superflat aesthetic in dazzling color. Presenting Mr. DOB as a fantastical and unearthly creature, Murakami combines the long-established planar forms of Japanese art and more contemporary anime- and manga-inspired imagery—his chimeras in paint. As Murakami has said, “Through him [Mr. DOB], one of the aims was to show Japanese artists and critics that we had to find another means of expression” (T. Murakami interviewed by Hélène Kelmachter, Takashi Murakami: Kaikai Kiki, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2002, p. 79). Accordingly, Tan Tan Bo takes Mr. DOB to new heights. In commemoration of Japanese artistic possibility, Mr. DOB is electric, forceful and energetic, a supernova of exuberant color.