by Jesse Phelps

Renowned, prolific visual artist discovered love in and for Ojai. 

Dennis Mukai’s distinctive style has won him varied commissions over the past four decades, including many memorable movie and music festival posters.

Visual artist Dennis Mukai’s early life took him from Japan to California. Later he saw many points in between, but in the end, love brought him to Ojai.

Several years back, Mukai was living in the greater Los Angeles area, as he’d done for most his life after emigrating from his birthplace of Hiroshima at three years of age. An exhibition of his work at Eladio’s Italian Restaurant in Santa Barbara brought him into contact with a beautiful woman by the name of Lorin Krauskopf, who lived in Ojai. They started dating, and the rest is history. Today, they live in a gorgeous home downtown with their Chihuahua, Emily; their Basenji, Jackson; and Eddie the cat. Mukai has his studio out back and Lorin has easy commutes to her jobs as a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker and at the Ojai Valley Inn.

Entering the Mukai home lets you know immediately that this couple exudes taste and aesthetic panache. The décor in their house is stylish, but comfortable, with many original works on display. The backyard is lush and expansive, with a lap pool (formerly a bocce ball court), trees sporting fall colors in spring, and, off to the left, the studio space Mukai erected after moving in. He’s dressed comfortably in a black tee covered by a transparent, cream-colored, brocade-patterned shirt. His immaculately curated bar includes the Don Julio 1942 and the Casa Noble añejo, two connoisseur favorite tequilas.

We haven’t even discussed his art, and I’m already impressed. That feeling only grows as we discuss the arc of his life’s work.

Side note: I first thought I’d discovered Dennis Mukai when I walked into The Vine many months ago and saw a menagerie of impressive celebrity photos gracing the walls. All in black-and-white, they covered a range of familiar faces, always showing some unexpected aspect of character. The one that really jumped out, for me, was Kid Rock making sort of a duck bill in his mouth with what seemed to be Ruffles potato chips.

Later, in preparation for our interview, I reviewed Mukai’s press pack and realized there was an incredible and varied history here — several phases of amazing — and that his name held familiarity because I’d been admiring his illustrations for more than 25 years.

Full disclosure, in the late 1980s, I was the kid at boarding school with a contraband Playboy subscription. During that time, Mukai was a contracted illustrator for that venerable publication, having succeeded Patrick Nagel, his former teacher at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design and good friend, as a go-to artist after Nagel passed away.

His work from that period is instantly recognizable. Beautiful women whose burgundy lips pop off the page, hair flowing and colorful and, in his word, “gestural.”

Indeed, by that time Mukai, who has recently turned 60 but looks decades younger, had already made a name for himself with a beautiful series of airbrush pieces for Paper Moon Graphics greeting cards. “That was such a great vehicle for those of us just out of school because it was free advertising and making royalties, too, which was great,” he says.

Mukai recalls that back then, he was driven to up his game by illustrators who favored imitation. “I would push the envelope and try to change my style to the next level. I always tried to stay one step ahead of my peers,” he says. “That’s part of what kept me evolving.”

Evolve he did, eventually accepting a contract position doing commercial work for Mirage Editions — also Nagel’s publisher. It was an era of much travel and excitement. In his late 20s, as an artist, Mukai was flying first class to shows around the country, and enjoying limousines on the company dime. “It was wild time,” he says. “The ‘80s and ‘90s were really decadent.”

His subjects then included Pamela Anderson, Mimi Rogers, Tia Carrere, Janet Jones Gretzky, Paula Barbieri and Kimberley Hefner. At one-man shows all over the country, he sold out original paintings, posters and limited edition prints.

Then came the recession of the early 1990s, and a lawsuit between the Nagel estate and Mirage. The company went into Chapter 11. Mukai’s work was on hold, and he decided to explore a new art form. He took photography classes and segued full-time into work for guitar and local LA lifestyle magazines.

Using the connections of those publications and those he’d made himself, he shot a host of new celebrities, including Macy Grey, Luther Vandross, T-Bone Burnett, Robbie Robertson, John Fogerty and Police guitarist Andy Summers — a particular thrill for the musically inclined Mukai. 

“All through the ‘80s,” he says, “I was one of the biggest Police fans. I bought a Roland synthesized guitar because that’s what Andy Summers had. And I started writing songs that were really Police-inspired.”

He would shoot Summers twice — the latter session at his home studio. As anyone would, he leveraged his position, asking Summers to play one of his favorite tracks. Summers did. “Now I have Andy Summers in my living room playing “Message in a Bottle” for me,” Mukai recalls with grin.

To top it off — and there’s more to the story but it’s likely probably more fit to print in Mukai’s former publication of Playboy than in the OQ — Summers would later make an appearance at his 50th birthday party.

In recent times, Mukai has come full-circle, back to graphics, with an emphasis on technology and painting techniques. His most recent show, Abrasive Affirmations, took place in February at Bergamot Station’s Robert Berman Gallery. It featured a series of paintings created using a detailed process of sketching from one of his own photographs, sanding a smooth panel of Masonite to bring out texture and ultimately varnishing to obtain a final look akin to an old sepia-toned photo.

In some ways, Mukai’s work has come full circle, even as his portfolio and techniques have evolved. Today, he says, he’s back to doing graphic art as his “bread and butter,” and examples of his commercial work can be found around town. Two notable examples are the signs for the Porch Gallery and the newly minted Lisa’s Cantina.

He’s a man who has worked hard, lived well, and found contentment in this artistic Mecca. He’s still creating the stunning visual art he’s known for, but finds time for domestic bliss, jamming music with friends and mixing his own signature cocktails from that impressive bar.

It’s the Ojai lifestyle, embodied and well-earned through a lifetime of commitment to the expression of beauty.