Masterpiece In A Mug: Japanese Latte Art Will Perk You Up

| April 25, 2013 | 0 Comments
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The Cat. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

The Cat. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

Post by Maria Godoy, The Salt at NPR Food (4/25/13)

Clovers? Hearts? That’s small fries, guys. It’s time you met The Cat:

That 3-D creation is the work of Japanese latte artist Kazuki Yamamoto. The 26-year-old resident of Osaka creates ephemeral works of art in espresso and foam.

Anime Character. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

Anime Character. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

From whimsical monsters crafted from milk froth …

Foam monster. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

Foam monster. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

… to adorable homages to favorite childhood cartoon characters …

The Peanuts cast. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

The Peanuts cast. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

Yamamoto’s art makes you regret the need to consume the canvas.

Yamamoto has made a name for himself on Twitter, where more than 82,000 followers receive daily tweets with images of his latest creations. But he’s hardly the only latte artist to emerge from Japan.

Einstein. Photo: Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

Einstein. Photo: Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

That caffeinated Einstein, for instance, is the work of Yamamoto’s friend Kohei Matsuno, a 23-year-old originally from Osaka who now works at a café in Tokyo. (He’s on Twitter, too.) Matsuno’s subject matter varies widely — from anime characters to Lady Gaga. He also takes customer requests.

I like to surprise people, Matsuno, who also goes by the name Mattsun, tells The Salt. (NPR’s Yuki Noguchi kindly translated for us.) He says he’s always looking for new images.

Monkey. Photo: Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

Monkey. Photo: Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

Lately, Matsuno has started recreating famous works of art — like this take on Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Edvard Munch's "The Scream." Photo: Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Photo: Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

A toothpick and spoon are Matsuno’s primary tools in creating such fine details. The milk and foam parts go on first, then he uses toothpicks to add “shading” with espresso. The whole process, he says, takes about three to five minutes. Yes, that means the beverage isn’t always piping hot when it reaches drinkers’ lips, but hey, they say you’ve got to suffer for your art.

Sure, we have latte artists in the U.S., too, but from what Matsuno tells us, it seems to be more common in Japan. So why bother to craft a masterpiece in a mug when it’s just going to disappear down someone’s gullet?

I put the question to noted design philosopher Leonard Koren, who has written about Japanese aesthetics. He pointed me to two Japanese concepts — wabi-sabi and mono-no-aware — both of which hold, in part, that “many things are beautiful precisely because they are short-lived and fragile,” Koren told me via email.

“For example, the Japanese love the cherry blossom metaphor,” he writes. “Because cherry trees blossom for only a week or two every year, when they do blossom, there is the emotional poignancy of knowing that it is only a temporary state of affairs.”

“If you can memorialize cherry blossoms in poetry—which the Japanese do,” says Koren, “why not do the same for latte foam?”

Harry Potter. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

Harry Potter. Photo: Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

It’s not a bad approach to life when you think about it — always seeing the potential for magic in the mundane.


Big hat tip to Rebecca Subbiah, who blogs at Chow and Chatter, for introducing us to these two artists.

Copyright 2013 NPR.

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Food and Health-related stories from NPR including NPR Radio; NPR's food blog, "The Salt"; NPR's Health News blog, "Shots"; NPR's Breaking News blog "The Two-Way"; NPR's economy explainer "Planet Money"; food-related technology news from NPR's "All Tech Considered"; and food series "Kitchen Window."