NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 42


The Influence of Tadanori Yokoo in Europe

Mirko Ilic

Zagreb, Croatia, was the city where I grew up, and at that time, was part of communist Yugoslavia. The city had around one million citizens and only one foreign bookshop. That bookshop had a section devoted to art and design. Before I was old enough to travel (hitchhike) around Europe, that was my window into the art world. I spent hours in the bookshop flipping through books, partly because the foreign books were very expensive—five to ten times more than domesticly published books.
That was where, at my tender age, I came in contact with Japanese graphic design. Not speaking any English, being dyslexic, and not very good at remembering names, I resorted to looking at the images. I was especially drawn to the beautiful posters with these amazing colors and patterns. It was the total opposite of what Swiss posters looked like, which was the more common style during that time period and in that part of the world. Considering this was around 1973, Western Europe was largely influenced by psychedelic imagery, pop art, and rock and roll, which interested me greatly. I was not into sterile, black and white, Helvetica-driven Swiss posters, but for me, the Japanese posters were a perfect bridge between these cultural images and good design. They were very complex and full of details, frames, small pictures, and vibrant colors. They also, to me, fell somewhere in between Japanese woodcuts and western visual culture. I think about the poster depicting a collage of Krishna, Jesus, a naked lady, and a landscape of New York in the background, or the poster with the Beatles standing under a cherry blossom tree—what more could one want?

I was surprised by the diverse imagery and by the amount of freedom that this particular group of Japanese designers took upon themselves. From pink and blue gradient colors, traditional patterns, collages, solarized photography, traditional photography, religious iconography, to old engravings, and soft porn images, they implemented visuals from practically every cultural Japanese platform and brought in influences of Arabic calligraphy and western alphabetic forms.
Then one day, I came across Graphis magazine issue 171, adorned with an amazing cover design. It was an altered photograph of Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) created in pink and blue hues, almost fluorescent colors, with an illustrative tracing of the image on top. I looked immediately inside to see the story about the artist and, to my astonishment, I found out that the group of designers that I admired was actually just one single man: Tadanori Yokoo. By that time, I also discovered the work of Milton Glaser. They both proved to me that to be a designer you don’t need to work within one style or one technique, you have the right to do whatever you think is appropriate to get your idea across. From then on, I started to pay close attention to Tadanori’s work. Soon, I discovered that I am not the only one doing so. 
Close to that time, a group of French designers called, Bazooka, led by Kiki Picasso, started to emerge. Their work made a big impact on the design and illustration community. Tadanori’s influence on their work was more than obvious to me. I think they saw the same cover of Graphis because it was reflected in their art a lot. 
While all this was happening, Italian clothing company, Fiorucci, started to make a big impact on youth fashion. Part of their success was not only their clothing, but also their printed graphics, posters, and advertising. Their promotional material was full of fluorescent colors and collages that mixed black and white, color photographs, drawings, and graphical elements (dingbats). They too, showed characteristics relating Tadanori’s work. Over time, their designs became so popular that the elements spread to the fabrics of their clothing. Maybe that was the reason that I started to like them and wear them. 
Tadanori’s posters are very intricate and time consuming to create. They involved the juxtaposition of very detailed images in color and multiple layers that are put together manually in preparation for printing. But then came the computer, and consequently, all these manual steps were now at one’s fingertips. 
Suddenly, some of Tadanori’s aesthetic started to trickle in early works of April Greiman (Design Quarterly), Cranbrook School of Design, Wolfgang Weingart, and many others. Tadanori embraced the computer too. It’s amazing how he’s open to embrace new technology and new trends. In his work, one can find influences of early religious paintings, Arabic manuscripts, Russian Constructivism, Dada, Pop Art, old packaging design (like matchbox covers, etc.), and even postcards of waterfalls. But what’s even more amazing is how he manages to turn them in his own process. By using a computer, he produced completely different results than in anybody else at the same time, especially his work from the late 1990s. At the same time, when everybody else was deeply submerged in digital design, he reverted back to analog techniques and would hand paint and draw his posters. I’m not referring to his actual paintings, which are a separate beast; I’m talking about his designs. For example, the hand painted postage stamps (Soseki Natsume: A Man of Culture Stamp Series) or something much more simple, but not less effective, his poster Join Us for JAGDA. Of course, the latter mimics Rodchenko’s original poster, but at the same time, he’s also citing his early work, specifically, Tarzan from the Graphis cover. 
This playful approach didn’t stay unnoticed. Many artists poured through the openings of the wall that Tadanori created. To me, the best example of that is the work of Boris Bucan or Peter Bankov. Both have that playfulness and the goal to create every poster differently. It’s like they were starting from the beginning each time, without any memory of past creations, but with a vast knowledge of art history, design, and humanity. Humanity is a very important word here. Very often when people talk about Tadanori’s work, they talk about his spirituality. I’m not sure what that means exactly—maybe they’re describing the energy one feels radiating from Tadanori’s work. Regardless, his work emulates him.
I had the privilege to first meet Tadanori in 1998 and spend some time with him. He was complex, yet simple, funny, yet serious, but always very humble and gentle, just like his work. That’s why Tadanori’s work is a valuable influence on other designers. It’s seemingly beautiful when somebody creates a path through a new territory and allows us to follow and reach new horizons. It’s very important to always have an alternative to the mainstream. It seems to me that’s what art is all about. Of course, very often, that type of value promotes a monetary value. Did you know that Tadanori’s poster Tadanori Yokoo, Having Reached a Climax at the Age of 29, I Was Dead, created in 1965, sold at the Swann Gallery in New York City for $52,800 in 2013?

This article was first published in IDEA magazine, no. 380, 2018.

Mirko Ilic

Mirko Ilic was born in Bosnia. In Europe, he drew comics, illustrations, and art-directed posters, books, and record covers. In the US, he was art director of Time Magazine International Edition in 1991 and the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times in 1992. In 1995 he founded graphic design studio, Mirko Ilic Corp, specializing in editorial, identities, and hospitality design. His work is in collections of many institutions and museums, MoMA and the Smithsonsian museum among others. Mirko is the co-author of several books with Steve Heller, including Genius Moves: 100 Icons of Graphic Design, Handwritten, Stop Think Go Do, Lettering Large and Presenting Shakespeare. With Milton Glaser he co-wrote The Design of Dissent. He teaches MFA Illustration at the School of Visual Arts.

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