Amongst the oft too self-serious worlds of skate, street, and contemporary art, the work of Japanese artist Ken Kagami is a breath of fresh air. He’s crafted a world full of cartoon poos and Supreme piss-takes that are brilliantly stupid. Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Garfield, and E.T. are also reenvisioned (alongside the Tokyo Art Book Fair, which becomes the Bukkake Fair through Kagami’s lens), with Kagami’s work sitting somewhere astride contemporaries like FUZI-UVTPK, cartoonist Johnny Ryan, fine art jokester Charles Lutz, and the conceptual art comedy of predecessors in Fluxus–Kagami has made a piece directly referencing Piero Manzoni’s 1961 sculpture of tinned artist’s poop.
The crude simplicity of his work adds to the humor—Kagami says he prefers a strong concept to expert marksmanship. As he explains via email, that’s one reason why he regularly returns to Snoopy, Garfield, and Charlie Brown. “They’re easy to draw. And everyone knows them.” Referencing Supreme is also due partly to that same ubiquity and familiarity. “Everyone knows Supreme,” says Ken. “I don’t dislike [the brand]… it’s like bullying my crush,” he notes with a LOL. “I still don’t understand why people are ok waiting in a long line to buy Supreme!”
Kagami’s selfies and cartoon drawings show he’s adept at aping graffiti poses and street culture archetype. “Skateboarding and graffiti are things I was interested in [growing up] and tried but at which I never had much success”. Kagami says he liked hip-hop and secured regular work as a DJ, yet says he “was a kid trying to be bad but who couldn’t be bad… who was also a little serious.” Though Ken downplays his prowess at skating and graffiti, his capabilities—or sensibility—led to his joining the DFW (Down For Whatever) crew, alongside Barry McGee. “I am friends with Andrew Jeffrey Wright, and he invited me,” explains Ken. “Each DFW member has activities as an artist so sometimes a few members are organizing together a DFW exhibition or making a Zine together.”
It makes sense Ken with Andrew Jeffrey Wright, as they share a comedic approach to art-making. Wright releases an annual ‘Labs with Abs’ calendar, featuring cartoons of cute labradors showing off sexy ab muscles; it’s a concept that sits comfortable alongside Kagami’s hilarious drawings and prankish installations, including his work at the 2015 Frieze Art Fair in London, where Kagami sat at a booth and drew 30 second sketches of attendee’s genitals for free, ringing a bell upon completion to summon the next contender.
Kagami has brought a bit of levity to art galleries and exhibitions worldwide, in Brussels, Sao Paulo, Vienna, the Bahamas, New York, L.A., Miami Detroit, Milwaukee, Raleigh, Paris, London, and his hometown of Tokyo. Beyond drawing and publishing, his work spans painting, object art, installations, and performance, with social media playing a pivotal role. “Instagram functions as my idea notebook,” explains Ken. “If I look back at my Instagram posts, I find them full of my art ideas!” New prospective clients also approach Kagami occasionally via Instagram. To date, Ken has collaborated with Shakatastics, T by Gasbook, Innen, Nieves, The Thing Quarterly, Browns Menswear, and he recently released a collection with Beams T and Goodhood, around the theme ‘Trendy Art Club’. His works are currently in use by Man Woman, who approached him via Instagram. “They offered to use my Charpee series for a campaign. I thought that that this is interesting…. cars printed with Charpee drawings driving around cities like NY, Paris.” The end results are definitely surreal to see. As with almost all Kagami’s drawings, his Sharpee drawings used by Man Woman are frowning. Ken, why are your characters always unhappy? “There are many difficulties in life…” One of Ken’s earliest high profile works was the cover of the 2004 LP Milk Man by Deerhoof, featuring a Pac Man ghost character that is uncharacteristically smiling.
Alongside exhibiting locally and internationally, Ken has a shop in Tokyo called The Strange Store, which celebrated its seventh Anniversary on 9 July. The small cabinet of curiosities sells vintage and found objects, ephemera, art works, zines, and clothing, such as hand drawn ‘Supreme’ shirts and one-off items. “In the beginning there were no visitors, so I struggled” explains Ken. “But over time, I was able to meet many people though the Strange Store”. Ken says that lately, he’s been feeling like the Strange Store is piece of performance art. “It exists as a store but maybe this is the best place where people can glance inside of my mind.” Like his other works, Ken is open to the idea of selling the shop. “If somebody wants to buy the Strange Store, this is the time when I will be finished with it.”
Scrolling through his Instagram, you’ll occasionally see Ken’s daughter pop up alongside the merry prankster. With the childlike style and juvenile jokes of his art, I wondered if Ken’s daughter has made an impact on his aesthetic? “My work has been influenced by my daughter since she was born,” replies Ken. “Sometimes I am jealous at what my daughter has made. Time with my daughter is all about art for me.”
In between running the store, spending time with his daughter, and working on art for clients and collabs, Ken still has several upcoming exhibitions. One is a series of films he’s completing with Tokyo-based artist COBRA, which will be screened at Tokyo fine art bookshop Nadiff. The other is with New York-based artist Trevor Shimizu, at Mendes Wood DM in São Paulo. Ken plans to finish the installation there in Brazil. “I will buy a hammer and write the text ‘can you please destroy boring art’ and buy a trash box and write ‘please throw away in this trash box boring art’.” Hopefully, with more artists of Ken’s caliber, we’ll have less dull art to throw in that bin.
Kagami is represented by MISAKO & ROSEN, Tokyo.