Even Blue Dogs Have Their Day

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2005

Tokyo has the only gallery selling George Rodrigue’s works outside the US -- evidence the Japanese remain the Blue Dog’s best friend abroad.

by Jessie Wilson

Located on the edge of Kotto Dori in Tokyo's bustling Omotesando district lies a gallery with a difference. Just meters away from some of the most exclusive boutiques in town, the Blue Dog Gallery is home to a quirky collection of some fifty or so paintings of, yes, a blue dog. But this ain't just any blue dog; it is the Blue Dog, the same blue dog that has made appearances on the set of the US hit comedy show "Friends," and also in advertising campaigns for products such as Absolut Vodka and Xerox Inkjet printers, to name but a few.

The brainchild of the Louisiana-based artist George Rodrigue (b. 1944), this canine creation has captured the heart of many a dog-lover over the years. Bill and Hillary Clinton are fans. So, too, is Whoopi Goldberg. Yet despite the dog having received much publicity of late, this small, one-room gallery in western Tokyo remains the only commercial gallery outside of the United States to display Rodrigue's work.

"The paintings have always sold well in Japan," said artist Rodrigue, during a recent telephone interview. "Everyone there seems to love my paintings, especially the young." But why Japan? "I used to have a gallery in Germany," explains the artist. "But then after all the buyers started telling me that they had seen my work first off in New Orleans, the gallery there seemed kind of redundant, so I closed it."

Like many artists before him, Rodrigue knows that the best way to sell his paintings is to meet personally with his buyers, befriend them, and sell not only his work, but also himself. In fact, Rodrigue still contends to this day that some of his greatest successes in his artistic career have come from getting in front of potential buyers and letting them get to know the Blue Dog Man, as he has affectionately come to be known. And how does he do this? Well, in true Cajun style, he tells them a story.

The story begins with Tiffany, a spaniel-terrier mix who was the Rodrigue family pet and loyal companion. For years, Tiffany would sit patiently at her master's side, watching him while he painted. And then in 1980, at the age of twelve, Tiffany died, leaving a void in Rodrigue's life. Understandably, Rodrigue was devastated, and immediately began searching for ways to connect with Tiffany spiritually. Thus when asked to illustrate the French-Cajun tale of the werewolf, or loup-garou, in 1984, the artist decided to use Tiffany as a model. Bathed in the light of a Cajun moon, the creature took on a blue hue. Blue Dog was born.

In Japan, few know the story of loup-garou, preferring instead to think of Blue Dog as the spiritual reincarnation of Tiffany. "Suddenly, the soul of Tiffany fluttered down to us," writes one couple on the gallery website, the proud owners of several silkscreen prints. "It's as if she chooses her own place to be. And she chose to be with us." Testament, indeed, to the power of the story behind Blue Dog.

With its electric blue coat and piercing yellow eyes, Blue Dog paintings certainly leave a lasting impression. "Everybody who looks at them sees something different," muses Rodrigue. "Very few forget the first time they see Blue Dog. In the beginning, she evolved from a legend, but now she has become an icon in her own right. It's not even about Tiffany anymore," he added. But try telling that to the Japanese. Certainly, in the case of Japan, at least, the narrative that Rodrigue tells is crucial to selling his works; the parallels to the native Japanese story of Hachiko, the faithful dog who waited patiently, night after night, outside Shibuya Station for his master, long after his death, uncanny.

"I think the Japanese like hearing the story of Tiffany," remarked one gallery staff member. "Somehow they feel that they are helping to keep the memory of Tiffany alive. Others just see her as cute or kawaii."

Whatever the reason, worldwide, the Blue Dog has grown into a multi-million dollar a year business. Original paintings, which once sold for as little as $150, now go for no less than $20,000, some drawing close to $500,000. Silkscreens are frequently auctioned on Ebay, fetching no less than $3,000 a piece, while even postcards have been known to sell for as much as $250 each.

However, despite the popularity of Blue Dog, Rodrigue takes great pains to limit the commercial use of this image. He does not produce posters of his work, except for specific events such as the New Orleans Jazz Festival; nor does he sell Blue Dog T-shirts, despite almost daily requests. However, with his books alone having sparked widespread interest in his art, Rodrigue's Blue Dog paintings are forever riding the thin line between fine art and commercial production. The challenge faced by artists such as Rodrigue, then, is how to retain their status as fine artists in the absence of validation by critics.

Neither does Rodrigue have plans to open any additional galleries. "We're in a transitional time now, because we're selling too many," he says. "I've been raising prices, to stop the flow of paintings. But that's not helping either." Preferring to concentrate on his books (he is currently in the process of adding an additional ten to his existing collection of eight, most of which he wrote himself), Rodrigue now tries to limit himself to 40 paintings a year, each one of which takes him between one and five days to create.

But if he is slowing down, he is far from stopping painting altogether. "I'rll continue to paint Blue Dog for as long as my health permits," Rodrigue says adamantly. And with 2006 marking the Year of the Dog, the future certainly looks bright for this lovable blue creature. @

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