The decade-old drawings by Yoshitomo Nara at New York City bar Niagara are now kept under Plexiglas.

By Jelisa Castrodale
October 14, 2019

Last week, a painting by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong for a jaw-dropping $24.9 million, more than quintuple the amount another of his works sold for earlier this year. The massive seven-by-six-foot painting, called Knife Behind Back, shows one of Nara's signature characters, a sullen looking girl with a blunt haircut and a Peter Pan-collar dress.

Yoshitomo Nara exhibition at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in Admiralty

South China Morning Post/Getty Images

Nara completed Knife Behind Back in 2000, which was less than a year after he covered a New York City dive bar with some of his own doodles. And now those drawings could be worth a fat stack of cash, too.

In February 2009, Nara was in New York for the opening of his solo exhibition at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea. The night before, he stopped into Niagara, a bar in the East Village, and after a couple of drinks, he started to draw on the walls. Before he called it a night, Nara had added a number of his unmistakable boys and girls to the bar, including five figures on one eight foot section of the wall, and three more beside the bathrooms.

"The imagery itself is quite in keeping with his style," David Schrader, head of private sales at Sotheby's, told CNN. "My guess is it's probably worth hundreds of thousands. For sure, when an artist gets a record-selling price, it elevates them in the market. My gut is there are definitely people who would want to own this or the multiple pieces individually."

That recent eight-figure auction price has made other art world insiders speculate that those late-night drawings could also be sold for an insane amount of money but Nara's longtime representative said that the artist wouldn't be psyched to see that happen. “It was an ephemeral gesture that was something in the spirit of a good time, and so when people try to authenticate with a goal to monetize, he blanches," Tim Blum told Artnet. "He certainly was there and he certainly created it, but he’s hesitant to embrace it if it’s for money.”

Nara was in a creative mood that night: after he left the bar, he was stopped by the NYPD while he was drawing a small face on the wall at the First Avenue subway station. He was ultimately charged with making graffiti, resisting arrest, criminal mischief, and property damage, and spent a night in jail. (The charges were later dropped.)

"This act that I committed light-heartedly has garnered much attention and is causing trouble to many people and I would like to apologize for causing them such inconvenience," Nara later wrote on his blog. According to ArtAsiaPacific, he also promised that he would "not even finger-draw on a surface of a dirty car" in the future. Fortunately, he pledged to stick to sketchbooks after he filled some of Niagara's blank walls.

If this rings any art-world bells for you, it’s because it's reminiscent of the story about the Brooklyn bodega door that Basquiat painted in the ‘80s. The store owner eventually had it removed. If you want to check out Nara's now Plexiglas-covered works for yourself, Niagara is located at 112 Avenue A in New York City. 

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