Shinkichi Tajiri

Shinkichi Tajiri
Los Angeles 1923 – 2009 Baarlo
Sculptor – draughtsman – photographer – film-maker – poet
‘Three themes are important to me: speed, erotica and violence.’

‘Because of the war I ended up in the Netherlands. And thanks to the war I became an artist’, Shinkichi Tajiri said in the documentary Tajiri’s Labyrinth. He explained, ‘It’s insane what you do in wartime. What you’re capable of doing. … That’s precisely why I make art. To banish that idea from my thoughts.’

There are more reasons why the war was so important to him. He told Bibeb, ‘War is erotic. War is in our nature; we are defiled.’

Writer and poet Jan Elburg made a succinct character sketch of Tajiri: ‘He was the quintessential Japanese … descendant from Samurai lineage, a warrior, indeed, whose hackles would rise like an angry tomcat when provoked. But usually he was very modest, extremely calm and an angel of a man to his friends.’

Poet Simon Vinkenoog thought that the following description by Hugh Weiss was the most apt: ‘The realisation that he was an “outsider” was quite probably the beginning of his liberation. When you know you’re free, and not dependent on anybody, it feels like you can play with clouds! It suddenly dawns on you that you have strong wings and fewer roots ... and then “the sky's the limit”. Shinkichi was the first truly liberated artist I personally had the honour of meeting.’

Life history
Shinkichi Tajiri was born in Watts neighbourhood, Los Angeles, on 7 December 1923. He was the fifth of seven children to Japanese immigrant parents, Ryukichi Tajiri and Fuyo Kikuta. The family moved to San Diego in 1936, where Tajiri’s father, Ryukichi, died three years later.

On 7 December 1941, Shinkichi’s eighteenth birthday, the Tajiri family’s world was torn apart. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor that day and the US declared war on Japan. A few months later all Japanese residents, including Japanese Americans, were interned in ‘concentration camps’. Tajiri’s mother and her seven children had to go to a camp in the desert of Arizona. Tajiri said, ‘It wasn’t as terrible as the holocaust. But we were American citizens! We had done nothing wrong, there was no trial or whatever; they didn’t even accuse us of anything.’

In 1943 he seized the opportunity to leave the camp by enlisting in the American army. Tajiri: ‘They were recruiting volunteers for a Japanese American army unit. I’m not a violent man. I didn’t want to kill. I wanted to get out of the camp and that meant that I had to behave like a soldier. That period of time had a tremendous influence on me. On my character, on how I looked at things.’

Tajiri fought in the front lines with his 442nd Combat Team. Many died. Tajiri, who was assigned to the heavy machine gun squad, was wounded in battle in Italy. A bullet ricocheted off a rock he was lying on, and hundreds of fragments of stone pierced his knee and upper leg. Half of the fragments remained lodged in his bones.

After the war Tajiri settled in Chicago, where he worked for an antique dealer and studied at the Chicago Art Institute. He did not, however, feel very welcome. ‘After being interned in a concentration camp and having fought for my country, I returned home, back from the war, and still they called me a ‘Jap’. How could I discover who I was in such an atmosphere?’ He decided to go to Paris.

He saw opportunities there because the Russian artist Ossip Zadkine had started an art academy in Paris with a class for GI students. Those students had, as it happens, the coveted dollars and additional course money required. Tajiri applied for a grant from the US and was accepted. He arrived in Paris on 28 September 1948.

Zadkine taught him, among other things, to create openness in his sculptures.

One of the models at Zadkine’s art academy was the Dutchman Simon Vinkenoog. Tajiri said, ‘Simon had a wonderful body; as white as marble. A Lehmbruck. He was a talker and knew what was going on. I got to know the Cobra people through him. I met everyone from Holland.’

There was immediate rapport between the artists. Tajiri said, ‘What bound me to Cobra was the experiment. Because I was experimenting all the time.’ He was invited to take part in the Cobra exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949. The fact that he was an American was emphasised to stress the international nature of the Cobra movement.

The poet Jan Elburg, who also took part, recollected that, ‘He travelled from Paris, where he initially lived on a grant after being discharged from the army, for the exhibition in Amsterdam, bringing several beautiful gouaches and a large plaster figure of – yes – a ‘Warrior’, that arrived in the Stedelijk Museum badly damaged and which, with eastern patience, as it is called, he repaired perfectly with a small trowel.’

In 1951 he took part in the last Cobra exhibition in Liège. He was even given his own exhibition room.

His American grant stopped in that very same year and he was forced, by lack of money, to work with scrap metal he fished out of the Seine or picked up on rubbish dumps. He continued putting together his fantasy figures using the scraps he found. His work already bore the Tajiri trademarks and themes, depicting warriors, erotica, wondrous landscapes and buildings and mythical half-human, half-animal figures. You can see the latter in Rue d’Odessa, which belongs to the Ambassade Hotel Collection. Is the tomcat Tajiri himself in his studio, situated on Rue d’Odessa? With an image in the background that has come to life? Tajiri said the following about the relationship between himself and his work, ‘You have to enter into a dialogue with the image. At a particular time the image says “wait a second, I’m finished”. This scene seems to be playing that out.  

Shinkichi Tajiri, Rue d’Odessa, 1951. Ink, watercolour and pencil on paper, 140 x 200 mm, Ambassade Hotel Collection

Tajiri made increasingly more contact with Dutch people. From 1950 onwards, Dutch collectors like Aldo van Eyck, Martin Visser and the museum director Willem Sandberg bought work by him. In 1953 he started a relationship with Dutch artist Ferdi Jansen, although he was married to a French woman at the time.

Elburg said about Ferdi and Tajiri: ‘They often dashed off together, small individuals on a big motorbike, in a one-night drive from their studio in Paris to the Amsterdam club De Kring, only to dash back after tanking up their supply of warm friendship. They finally realised it was easier to take up residence in the Netherlands.’ They lived on Oudezijds Achterburgwal 151, in Amsterdam. Tajiri and Ferdi Jansen got married in 1957, with Simon Vinkenoog and film director Jan Vrijman as witnesses.

Tajiri became accepted surprisingly quickly into the Dutch art scene as a ‘Dutch’ artist and was sent to foreign exhibitions as a ‘Dutchman’. This was how his work was exhibited in his country of birth, the US, alongside Appel and Rooskens, among others, in 1958.

Shinkichi and Ferdi Tajiri and their two daughters moved to Baarlo, to castle Scheres, in the early 1960s, where they spent an incredibly creative time. Tajiri represented the Netherlands, together with other artists, at the Venice Biennale. And Ferdi made a breakthrough with her exotic soft flowers and nature sculptures, also called hortisculptures. It was not to last long. In 1969 Ferdi died in an accident at home. Tajiri paid homage by making a book dedicated to her. He got remarried in 1976, to Suzanne van der Capellen.

When he was asked toward the end of his life where he felt at home he replied, ‘Perhaps I feel increasingly Japanese. I don’t feel American or Dutch. I lived in France for eight years’, but he quickly added, ‘I think I do feel mainly American. But I don’t live there, for political reasons.’

Tajiri spent a total of six weeks in Japan. It turned out to be a great disappointment; he was unable to make contact with the people.

In 2007 he was granted Dutch citizenship. In the same year Queen Beatrix unveiled a sculpture by him in Venlo. In 1991, the Queen, who is also a sculptress, had added a piece by Tajiri to her own collection.

Tajiri died in Baarlo in 2009.


‘As a sculptor, you want to leave traces of your existence on Earth.’ Tajiri, 1974

Besides Rue d’Odessa, there is another piece in the Ambassade Hotel Collection from Tajiri’s Parisian period. It is known by two titles: Hermaphrodite and Manscape. It has a fertile, natural form, in which an entire family seems to have coalesced, and depicts round female or round male elements – the ‘balls’. An androgynous being.

Shinkichi Tajiri, Hermaphrodite (also known under the title Manscape), 1950. Oxidised iron. Height 144.5 cm. Init. D, inscr. 1 ST 50 (base), Ambassade Hotel Collection

What Tajiri had in common with other Cobra artists was the tremendous drive to experiment, in his case mainly with material. He therefore began developing a molar brick technique in 1957; making brick moulds in which he could cast bronze.

Shinkichi Tajiri, Warrior, 1957. Bronze. Height 170 mm, Unique example, Ambassade Hotel Collection. Exhibited: Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum 1960, no. 1
Japanese samurai in full suit of armour, circa 1860 (source: Wikipedia)

The bronze sculpture in the Ambassade Hotel Collection seems to precede the molar brick period. It is a typical Tajiri warrior. In this case – probably – a compact samurai figure. Except that here the helmet has become the head, and the headdress the mouth.

Tajiri: ‘All those demons, the nightmares from the war, had to be banished. So I started a series of images of warriors. That theme became the leitmotif in my work – for my entire life.’

According to Dick Hillenius, ‘Even in his choice of material, you can see that Tajiri is clearly a territorial animal. You can hardly say it’s choice, he uses everything: scrap, shiny polished chrome steel, plastic, film, and, in the past few years, increasingly more printing techniques. But whatever he uses, just as a plant transforms dead matter into living tissue of its own species, so are Tajiri’s products clearly of his own making.’

Tajiri’s work has been on show right across the globe and is included in large museum collections. He took part in the exhibition The Art of Assemblage in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1961. In 1962 he showed work at the Venice Biennale. In 1964 he exhibited work at the Documenta in Kassel.

Shinkichi Tajiri, Fantasy animal, 1954. Litho 22 x 22 cm. Ambassade Hotel Collection

Jan Elburg Geen letterheren. Uit de voorgeschiedenis van de vijftigers [Not literary gentlemen. An historical backdrop to the Fifties’ generation]
Het elektrisch bestaan. Schrijvers en tijdschriften tussen 1949 en 1951 Piet Calis [The electric existence. Writers and journals between 1949 and 1951]
Newspaper archives, National library of the Netherlands (such as the interview 1958)
Willemijn Stokvis, Cobra etc.
Simon Vinkenoog, Herem'ntijd,
9, rue d’Odessa The Tajiri Genealogy
The language of Cobra
Shinkichi Tajiri,
Hestia Bevelaar, Els Barents, SDU publisher Public art 1990