Ben Mori's Kingdom


eightframe sat down with Japanese artist and fashion designer Ben Mori to talk about his life and current exhibition “Kingdom” which is showing at Shibuya Hikarie 8. Grandson of fashion legend Hanae Mori and brother of Izumi Mori – one of Japan’s most famous models and TV celebrities, Ben discusses his childhood, education, trouble with the law and double career as artist and designer.

Paul McInnes (PM): Can you tell me about yourself?

Ben Mori (BM): I was born in Tokyo but my mom is American and my father’s Japanese. So I grew up speaking English to my mom but I went to an all Japanese school here. I lived here until the end of middle school then I went to boarding school in the States. I went there for four years and then to an art school in Rhode Island called Rhode Island School of Design.

I was always into art and good at art as a kid and going to art school on top of that really got me involved in it – design, art and stuff. And I met these great artists there. My friends were doing graffiti so I started doing that with them and that got me more into colors, composition and painting big. I would take my design and drawing classes and after school I would go out and do graffiti. And both of these have been a double influence on my art today.

PM: What was your major at Rhode Island?

BM: The first year you do all of it. 2D, 3D, drawing and you got to take liberal arts classes. But in the second year you decide what major you want so I decided on graphic design so that was my major.

PM: After art school in the States what did you do?

BM: I came back to Tokyo and I wanted to get into fashion. My grandmother is a fashion designer. She was one of the first Asian designers to do the Paris collections and that definitely had an influence on me growing up.

I was into street fashion. Like t-shirt prints – that kind of thing was huge at the time. You know before I came back to Tokyo, you know, the whole Ura-Hara boom had happened – A Bathing Ape, Undercover, Neighborhood, and in the States too. That was what I thought I wanted to do - to start my own streetwear clothing line. So when I came back to Japan after graduating I got into this company called B’s International. They do like X-Large, X-girl, Montage. They have a bunch of street brands they represent and I went in there as a graphic designer.

But at the same time I was painting. I would go to work, do some graphics, design for some of the brands and I would go home and just paint. But I would also do graffiti at the same time. I was doing it like I was doing it in the States. And sure enough it caught on and I was arrested. That shit was all over the news.

PM: I’m guessing your grandmother wasn’t too happy about it.

BM: Actually she was super cool about it. I was in jail for ten days and I got out and she called me and I thought she was going to be super angry but, you know what, she said do you know how much it cost to do this much advertising? It’s probably over 1 million dollars’ worth. Good artists just keep making art. It was super positive and it inspired me to get my act together and move away from illegal graffiti into something more legal and positive.

PM: You also run a fashion brand called White Raven don’t you?

BM: Yeah. I went into B’s International to learn how the (fashion) system works. The fashion business as a whole – not just the design part. The press, sales, design, pattern-making, graphics. There are so many different elements to it. I worked there for three years and really learned how it works. My goal was to start my own clothing line but you need money to start your own clothing line.

PM: You eventually got funding from Itochu didn’t you?

BM: Yeah, it’s a huge company. They can make some great clothes too. They have the production sorted out. Through this guy I met – my kind of mentor (Hiroto Toyoda). He’s been in fashion for like 20 years and is a real pro at fashion design. He kind of took me under his wing and taught me how it’s done. I didn’t study fashion I studied graphics but I wanted to know how to make clothes.

He started his own line called Montage with B’s which was very successful and he was like – if you want to start your own line I can teach you. But we need to get funding for it. So he contacted his friend at Itochu. But we never thought that Itochu would actually fund us. So we asked the guy at Itochu if he knew any apparel companies that might be able to help and he said – you know what – we’ll do it for you. We’ll fund you guys. That was five years ago. We started in 2009.

PM: How are things with White Raven?

BM: It’s step by step. There’s no skipping steps. But we get to show in Italy at Pitti Uomo and Capsule in NYC and in Vegas.

PM: White Raven is actually sold in some pretty cool stores worldwide isn’t it?

BM: Yeah, we have some good stockists like Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and San Francisco. We’ve got Ron Herman in LA and Browns in London. It’s step by step but it’s growing and people are starting to recognize it. We don’t have a huge PR or press budget so we’re just doing it one collection at a time.

PM: Do you have any plans for your own store?

BM: That’s the goal. I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you but we’re actually working on a store in LA right now.

PM: Is your current art show “Kingdom” going to travel?

BM: I’d love to do a show in New York or Paris. I started doing these kind of contemporary art gallery shows seriously three years ago – in Tokyo obviously. At first I was in group shows – I would have like five or six pieces and with each show I would grow and have more and more pieces. And then finally I have this big solo show. It’s an amazing space and I’m so blessed that I get to do something like this on that scale.

PM: I’m not so sure I can see clearly who you’ve been influenced by. Do you have any artists that you feel influence your work?

BM: I’m not sure about influenced but I really like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. I saw a lot of great art when I was a kid. My mum had a David Hockney painting and I liked the colors in it. But I’m not directly influenced by a specific artist. But I can say that I respect Takashi Murakami because he’s a successful artist from Japan.

PM: Where did the ideas for this show come from?

BM: Well I like crocodiles. They look so cool. They’re like dinosaurs. My Dad took me to a crocodile park when I was a kid and it was almost like scary and huge and as a kid it left a crazy impact on me. So I just started drawing a bunch of crocodiles in my journals and stuff and I would do each style and so on.

My Dad was doing a lot of art when he was younger and I see some of his older works and it kind of influenced my work. He worked a lot with dots and was super detailed.

PM: What does your father do?

BM: He gave up his dream of being an artist and he worked for my grandmother’s company. He used to hang out with Andy Warhol and those guys in New York. He started that magazine called Interview and Studio Voice. It was a newspaper back then. And he brought it over to Japan – yeah Studio Voice, and they also published WWD and Ryuko Tsushin. Yeah, he does publishing now.

PM: I was interested by the animals on one side of the space and the insects on the other. But in the middle are the two pieces showing Mike Tyson and Michael Jackson.

BM: Actually they are older pieces. Everything is connected to my childhood, seriously. They were like my heroes – Tyson and Jackson. Actually it was the three Mikes – I had Michael Jordan too. I love those guys – I grew up in the 80s. Those guys were kings. That’s one reason why the exhibition is called Kingdom – also because of the Animal Kingdom. I have the paintings of the Mike pieces too. But the ones in the show are made out of glass.

PM: The centerpiece is the glass coffin. Can you tell us more about that?

PM: I went to the Berlin. To the Dome. It was really insane. Every little detail was designed. The whole building is an art piece. And I saw these coffins in the basement and the detail was insane – the lion legs, the quality was amazing. To think that when the Kings and Queens died they went into these…That’s where the idea came from.

PM: I liked the way the pharaoh’s face was actually your face and at the bottom you see he is riding a skateboard. That’s a kind of pop art twist.

BM: Yeah, it’s a kind of joke. A bit of humor. Because that’s who I am – I’m not a serious dude. I threw the White Raven in there too and the Memento Mori inscription which is - remember that you’re going to die one day so live your life to the fullest.

PM: And, of course, it’s a play on your name Mori.

BM: Yeah, that’s right.

PM: You made the coffin in conjunction with some very skilled craftsmen.

BM: Yeah, these guys were amazing. My friend is amazing at making glass, he’s also an artist, we collaborated and I picked out the glass and it’s based on a painting. But he did the legwork man. I’m so grateful to have met these great technicians – to materialize my vision.

PM: Some of the other pieces are sculptures adorned with Swarovski crystals.

BM: The first one is the leopard I made. It’s got the little ones all over. It’s kind of like my paintings with the little dots. It makes it look like it shines and glows. I wanted to make my painting 3D because eventually I want to move in that direction. So I had my jeweler help me. He was feeling it, man. So we worked on it and it came true.

PM: What’s next for you, Ben?

BM: I’m going to keep doing what I do. Keep on doing the clothing line and I want to make bigger things. I want to make a ten foot crocodile with each stone the size of my fist. The crocodile in the show is like one meter but I want to make something five times that.

Kingdom runs until September 8th. More information about the exhibition is available here.

Ben Mori's website:

Written by
Paul McInnes
Austin Rea