Last week Sunday in Hong Kong, an artwork depicting a super-flat painting of a surly, glaring girl with large green eyes, barefoot and dressed in a red dress sold for $25m at Sotheby’s. The work, titled Knife Behind Back, is arguably the most famous image created by Japanese street artist Yoshimoto Nara and smashed the previous auction record for his work by a staggering $21m.
It has also had unforeseen consequences for the owners of Niagara, a cult punk bar located in New York’s East Village. A decade ago, while in town for a gallery show, Nara decided to unwind after installing his show by having a few drinks at Niagara.
Suitably unwound and filled with sudden inspiration, the artist drunkenly began to doodle some of his signature figures on the walls leading to the bar’s toilets. He signed and dated the works and headed off into the night where, still under the influence of alcohol and artistic inspiration, he decided to scribble some graffiti on the walls of a nearby subway station and was promptly arrested for his efforts.
Nara spent the night in jail and had to be bailed out by friends to make it to his opening at the Marianne Boesky Gallery the next day.
In the 10 years since, Nara has become one of the most recognised and sought-after artists in pop culture, with his work produced in multiple forms across the world and his auction prices skyrocketing accordingly. His Niagara doodles remained where he’d left them and the owners of the bar — perhaps realising that these were more than just the scribblings of an excited, drunken patron, preserved them by placing glass screens over them to protect them.
We’ve all heard the stories of a Picasso drawing a doodle on a restaurant napkin in lieu of payment or Van Gogh offering his services to cover his rent and now Nara’s appreciation of the beverages and atmosphere of Niagara are estimated by some experts to be taken together, worth as much as $5m.
In spite of renewed interest in the doodles after Nara’s record-breaking auction result on Sunday, a bartender at Niagara told CNN that the establishment has no plans to sell them and Nara himself is rumoured to be unhappy at any suggestion that they might — feeling that they’re site-specific reminders of his wild night out in the Big Apple a decade ago.
That hasn’t stopped others from selling site-specific works by million-dollar street artists such as Banksy, who has seen punters cutting out wall works he created in LA, Wales and New Orleans and selling them for a pretty penny in spite of his protests.
For now though, if you go down to Avenue A in the East Village you can find Niagara and its precious Nara doodles and appreciate them while imbibing. Just don’t try to snap any pics of them for Instagram as a writer for the website gothamsite.com recently discovered when, after taking a photo, he found himself swiftly removed from the premises trying to argue with management and security on the sidewalk.
Whether Nara’s work will ensure that Niagara continues to survive without having to sell them remains to be seen.