Chatting w/ MADSAKI About the Meaning of Pop Culture + Redoing Da Vinci

Above, MADSAKI, Untitled, 2021
Acrylic paint, aerosol on canvas, 135 x 180 cm.
©2020 MADSAKI/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved., Courtesy Perrotin

Part rebel, part satirist, MADSAKI – who has said that “perfect art is boring” – forward’s an irreverent irreverent aesthetic that has both revered and maligned some of the world’s most famous paintings, works that have served as the foundation and inspiration for artists for centuries. Born in Osaka, he immigrated to the United States as a young child, wth his parents settling in Leonia, NJ. An outcast from the get, he was nicknamed “Pearl Harbor,” by his childhood peers. 

Trained at New York’s Parsons Institute, he’s perhaps best known for his Wannabie series, in which he uses spray paint on canvas in what can best be described as reinterpretations of great works by masters like Da Vinci or Chagall – though his versions reflect a paradox between his inner demons and earnest admiration for the originals. He also creates paintings that distinctly fit into the Pop Art genre, with creative takes on familiar pop culture symbols, themes and icons, from professional sports to consumer products, the latter in apparent homage to Andy Warhol.

Discovered on Instagram by Takashi Murakami nearly a decade ago, MADSAKI has since been exhibited in Tokyo, Bangkok, Seoul, Paris and Los Angeles. His intriguingly titled show Hello Darkness, My Old Friend (I’ve come to talk with you again) was most recently at the Perrotin gallery on New York’s Lower East Side, and his work is still available at We caught up with him there for a quick chat about what it all means.

Above, MADSAKI, Untitled, 2020
Acrylic paint, aerosol on canvas, 135 x 180 cm.
©2020 MADSAKI/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved., Courtesy Perrotin

When we view the people in your paintings, even if we recognize them, we are drawn to the eyes, which are always depicted as simple round, black dots. What are you trying to convey with this signature?

They could be anybody, but they are nobody. I think they reflect the personality of those who look at them.

All of the portraiture in your work depicts the subject without any facial features, even where you are interpreting the likes of Matisse or Van Gogh. Can you explain that?

It began when I first painted a rendition of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it was my first Wannabie piece. It was a turning point. Mona Lisa’s eyes are the most important part of the most important painting ever, at least according to what we are taught in school. They are, quite literally, the soul. And there was a part of me that just didn’t care. I wanted to mess it up. Just for the hell of it.   

MADSAKI, Untitled, 2020
Acrylic paint, aerosol on canvas, 135 x 180 cm.
Courtesy MADSAKI/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. Courtesy Perrotin

How has music influenced your work?

I grew up a lonely immigrant kid in the suburbs of New Jersey. What else did I have? I needed an escape. The underground music scene in NYC that was happening in the ’80s and early ’90s, especially the album covers of Sonic Youth, led me to the arts. (Ed. note – the original artwork for Gerhard Richter’s Kerze (Candle), which was the cover for the band’s 1988 classic album Daydream Nation, sold for £2.5m at Sotheby’s in 2008).

How does your work identify with and connect to pop culture?

Pop culture is everything. And it includes the stuff at MoMA and The Met and The Getty, and all those big museums. Pop culture isn’t just what’s new; it’s the Mona Lisa, too. For me, everything has always existed on a straightforward, singular visual plane. It’s all the same. My work isn’t just about pop culture; it’s also about how we see pop culture.

Installation Views of MADSAKI: Hello Darkness, My Old
Friend (I’ve come to talk with you again) at Perrotin New
York, 2021.
Photographer: Guillaume Ziccarelli
Courtesy MADSAKI/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. Courtesy

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