After completing his art training, Yoshitomo Nara resisted taking his portfolio around to galleries or entering contests because he still felt tentative about the vocation. "All through university I was never sure that I wanted to be an artist by profession," Yoshitomo Nara remarked in an article printed in the Japanese Art Scene Monitor. "I went to art school because I could draw. It was when I was teaching art … and I was telling all the students that ' this is how artists should be,' and so on, it occurred to me that one could draw as a way of finding oneself." Following this realization, Nara made a long-term commitment to the profession.
Yoshitomo Nara 's first big break came in the late 1990's when he joined Japanese cult novelist Banana Yoshimoto on a book project. Around this time, he also created the CD jacket artwork for The Star Club, a Japanese punk band, as well as for Japanese girl band Shonen Knife. These projects exposed Yoshitomo Nara's work to a broader audience. He continued teaching and in 1998 worked as a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
In 2000, Yoshitomo Nara packed up his studio in Köln and returned to Japan, setting up shop in a two-story Tokyo warehouse. Though the place was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, the high ceilings and open floor plan made it an ideal workplace. In the early 2000s, photographer Mie Morimoto spent six months with Yoshitomo Nara and produced a documentary book titled, Birth and Present: A Studio Portrait of Yoshitomo Nara. In the book, Morimoto made notations about his lifestyle. Morimoto also described Yoshitomo Nara's unflinching ability to press on with work. "He plays deafeningly loud punk rock as he works through the night and sleeps whenever he chooses to. In his daily routine, life and work have become one." She also noted that when Yoshitomo Nara is preparing for an exhibition, he works without ceasing. As soon as he finishes one piece, he is on to the next and seems irritated at the time lost priming a canvas.
Over the years, Yoshitomo Nara has developed his own distinctive style. Paintings, drawings and sculptures of seemingly innocent, wide-eyed children and dogs have become his trademark. His paintings and drawings have a childlike simplicity that is reminiscent of traditional book illustration, but the works also have a restlessness and tension that is influenced, in part, by Naras love of punk rock.
In addition to painting and sculpture, Yoshitomo Nara has created many drawings, usually hastily scribbled on the backs of postcards, used envelopes and other scraps of paper and often incorporate text in English, German, or Japanese. Unlike the composed surface of his paintings, his drawings are raw and immediate.
In the fall of 2010, the Asia Society presented Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, the first major New York exhibition of his work, featuring more than one hundred works spanning from his early career in the 1980s to his most recent paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, and large-scale installations. He joined Pace in 2011.
He has had solo exhibitions at Blum & Poe in Santa Monica, CA; Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, IL; Pace Prints in New York, NY; the Asia Society Museum in New York, NY; and many other institutions.
Yoshitomo Nara and the Tokyo Pop art movement reflect the experiences of a generation of artists who grew up during the post-World War II economic boom in Japan that was characterized by, among other things, an influx of popular culture from the West, including the animation of Warner Bros and Walt Disney.