Aesthetic Shock: Designer Tadanori Yokoo

Exploring a Body of Work that Created a New Movement in Japanese Graphic Design

  • Text: Olivia Whittick

Tadanori Yokoo’s work was a revolution that criss-crossed the line between conceptual art and pure design. If his colorful, psychedelic pop art aesthetic seems familiar to you, it is probably because his work is the definitive visual counterpart to the 1960's counter-culture movement. The clash of motif, the apparently nonsensical collage of images, reveals a poetry that moves beyond pure aestheticism into social commentary.

Beginning his career designing flyers for theatre productions, Yokoo scandalized the graphic design world when his self-titled poster appeared at the 1965 Persona group exhibit in the Matsuya Ginza department store in Tokyo. Yokoo’s contribution featured a dead man hanging from a noose with the phrase “Having reached a climax at the age of 29, I was dead.” The poster perverted the traditional Japanese rising sun ensign, demonstrating unbridled creative expression. With this controversial gesture, Yokoo began to make a name for himself as a subversive talent and established many allegorical images that he would return to throughout his prolific career.

Although culled from the most unlikely of inspirational wells, Yokoo’s bricolage was characteristically a fusion of the traditional with the futuristic. It mocked the nobility of the old with the violence and corruption of the modern-day. His work challenged certain benumbed commitments to composition—it was narrative, it was poetic, it was political. Because truly, how can one continue to make apolitical work after living the horror of a world war?


Seen as representative of Imperialism and a nationalistic nostalgia for a traditional Japan, the 16-ray Japanese sun flag was banned by the American Allies during the war. Yokoo’s work scandalized the symbol, paying homage to his heritage while using it as a background for his multi-layered ruminations on death, sex, violence, and greed. By creating in the style of ancient wood-blocking technique ukiyo-e, Yokoo located his aesthetic deep within a Japanese tradition, yet used culturally significant symbols in a way that was satirical, critical, and anti-establishment. From his earliest poster designs to his contemporary work, Yokoo has never retired the motif.


Yokoo’s rebellious approach to composition made him the ideal candidate to illustrate the 1960's zeitgeist. Eventually, he would turn his eye for design away from the page, casting his gaze upon textiles and the fashion world. Since the mid-1970s Yokoo has designed all of Issey Miyake’s show invitations, and collaborated on numerous prints for the designer’s runway collections. The two no doubt bond on their shared ability to fuse the traditional with the all-together contemporary, contrasting icons of the past and present to comment on the current state of the world. Today, Yokoo and Miyake have been low-key collaborators for over four decades.


In Japanese folklore there is a popular fable about a lonely elderly couple who one day find a large peach floating down the river. Upon opening it, they discover a healthy baby boy inside. This boy, Momotaro, would grow to become a strong warrior, and eventually leave his family to fight demons on a distant island. During World War II, the Japanese government adopted Momotaro as their icon, hoping to fight the Americans as Momotaro did the oni of Okayama. Yokoo’s “peach” references an idealized past—a symbol steeped in tragedy and defeat in its post-war context.


Yubitsume is a ritual carried out by the yakuza, in which a member atones for their own fuck-ups by removing portions of their pinky finger. In The Ballad to a Severed Little Finger, Yokoo refers to his visual work as poetry, while making light of the customs of the Japanese mafia. Blood is splattered across the poster, adding formally to the design, but in a way that is imbued with sinister meaning. For the cover of political satire magazine Hanashi no Tokushu, the back of a yakuza member becomes a canvas, his tattoos indicative of the perceived relationship between progress and destruction. Mt. Fuji erupts, a bullet train speeds off of the page, a plane passes overhead. The classical tiger tattoo is parallel to one of Astro-Boy, the innocence of a children’s cartoon corrupted by its positioning as a gangster's tattoo.


You will rarely find a poster penned by Yokoo that does not have the Shinkansen bullet train hiding somewhere in the chaos. Clearly Yokoo was suspicious of rapid technological advancements. They propelled Japan into a machinated, technologically-mediated future. Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train would prompt a wave of urbanization that would revolutionize the movement of bodies in the country.

  • Text: Olivia Whittick