Examining contemporary culture through an ukiyo-e
lens with artist Masami Teraoka.
AT FIRST GLANCE, THE ARTWORK OF MASAMI TERAOKA RESEMBLES MANY OTHER PIECES BY PREVIOUS MASTERS OF UKIYO-E, A WOOD- BLOCK PRINT ART STYLE THAT FIRST EMERGED DURING JAPAN’S 17TH CENTURY EDO PERIOD. The most famous of which include large portraits of regal women by Kitagawa Utamaro; the three-panel triptychs of Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicting Japanese folklore; and natural scenes, such as Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa. But a closer look at Teraoka’s colorful scenes reveals modern iconography and pop culture images embedded in his images, from kabuki performers pelted by cheeseburgers to geisha tearing open condom wrappers to seductive women slurping ice cream cones and big bowls of ramen.
“I am a contemporary artist but when I first started painting, I thought, why not explore my Japanese back- ground?” Teraoka says. “I chose uyiko-e woodblock style, because that’s the format that I love. But they’re paintings, not prints.”
For over half a century, the 83-year- old artist’s paintings have tackled
controversial subjects through surreal, absurdist images that combine traditional Japanese fine art aesthetics and modern subject matters. With his artwork in dozens of public collections worldwide, including the Metropoli- tan Museum of Art, the Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian in D.C., Teraoka’s influence is as widespread as it is topical. He’s come a long way from his earliest sketches—as a child, doodling with chalk on the cement floor of his parents’ kimono store in Onomichi City in Hiroshima.
“I was drawings cows and Mount Fuji using a Hokusai drawing book for reference and customers were coming in and saying I was able to draw well,” says Teraoka. “My father didn’t want me to inherit a kimono store; he encouraged me to become an artist. Because his dream was to become a musician in America, but he was the firstborn son so my grandfather asked him to stay in Japan. My father wanted me to have the freedom of doing whatever I wanted to do.”
After graduating from Kwansei Gakuin University in Kobe in 1959, Teraoka worked for the next two years until he earned enough for a $350 one-way ticket to the United States on a cargo boat and around $600 cash to cover his living expenses (a little over $8,250 today). He later graduated from what is now the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, earning a MFA in 1968 and an honorary Doctorate in the Fine Arts in 2016.
His first two major series after arriving to the U.S. in 1961, McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan and 31 Flavors Invading Japan, were inspired by his first encounters with fast food.
“I met a girl in college who asked if I heard of hamburgers. I said no, so she cooked some for me, and it was really delicious. When I went to McDonald’s, I was so disappointed because, after a good burger, these were tasteless, like paper,” Teraoka says. “Later, I went to Vancouver and saw [Golden] Arches there too and I knew McDonald’s would soon invade the globe but I didn’t want this lousy hamburger worldwide.” (Although the artist admits going easier on Baskin-Robbins in his 31 Flavors series, with characters enjoying the treat instead of stomping over them, because he admittedly “really likes” ice cream.)
Teraoka’s subsequent works would continue to challenge American culture and values. In his Hanauma Bay series, a Japanese tourist couple goes snorkel- ing amidst Hokusai’s waves. In New Views of Mount Fuji Series/La Brea Tar Pits, he imagines what a savvy businessman might bring from America to attempt to sell in Japan: La Brea Tar Pit as a kind of Disneyland.
Teraoka tackled the subject of AIDS during the 1980s with images of Japanese bathhouses, samurai, and demons exchanging condoms, literally blue in the face. Recently, he’s broached the subject of abuse in the Catholic Church with Renaissance-style triptychs featuring nude figures in violent scenes. In another series, the former World Trade Center becomes twin Towers of Babel, under attack while a battle rages all around.
“The attitude I have is, I’m not interested in making something just to be pleasing to look at. I’m interested in what’s going on and how I can express human rights,” says Teraoka. “If individual liberties are suppressed by authoritative institutions or governments, like in Russia, I don’t think it’s fair. Creative expression, sexual preference and lifestyles should be left to individuals. That’s what my vision is focused on.”
In March 2017, Teraoka partnered with Viktoria Naraxsa, a Russian artist, activist, and coordinator for the feminist protest punk group Pussy Riot, to mount an interpretative production
reimagining Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Honolulu Museum of Art School, imbued with Teraoka’s sense of surrealism and modern political undercurrents, with references to Hawaiian history. Later that year, the former Koa Gallery at Kapi‘olani Community College presented a retrospective exhibition of his work. Teraoka continues to paint daily; he’s currently working on his latest series, Hideous Ugliest Orange Toad’s Last Bolero/Viagra Falls, a graphic triptych critical of the Catholic Church and President Trump; and the artist was selected to showcase works as part of the inaugural iBiennale art and culture summit held earlier this May.
“When I was doing watercolor painting, I had to make many hundreds of sketches for each composition. When I switched to oil painting, I didn’t have any sketches, I just go in and draw and paint. It’s overwhelming but it’s the way it works,” says Teraoka. “So for the last ten years, my work—these triptychs—are all directly painted from my brain to the panel. The idea is pure, and how I see them in my mind is how they come across.”