Art Market

Inside Steve Aoki’s Art-Filled Playhouse in Vegas

Kristy Totten
May 28, 2019 9:09PM

Steve Aoki is reminiscing on his earlier days, when his most valuable possessions were a hodgepodge of hand-me-down records.

“I was living on ramen and my rent was $450 in Hollywood,” he says of his life circa 2003, when he was sharing an apartment with his then-girlfriend and surviving on a budget that brushed up against the poverty level. “I lived very, very frugally.”

When friends would outgrow their music or move away, they’d leave their records with Aoki, who found himself with an extensive secondhand library and an itch to fill in the gaps. He’d covet missing pieces in a set, and it began to change the way he thought about ownership.

A custom mural by L.A.–based artist Neck Face overlooks “Aoki’s Playhouse,” a custom gym with a trampoline, a foam pit, and a rope swing. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.


“Collecting those records and understanding the value, they were like art pieces,” he says. “It made me understand what a collector does, or how it feels to be a collector.”

Sixteen years later, Aoki still collects records, but his interests have grown to include art. His collection of more than 70 works includes pieces by Banksy, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, OSGEMEOS, and Nobuyoshi Araki, as well as enough KAWS vinyl figures to constitute a small museum. And he’s not broke anymore—he’s a producer and Grammy-nominated DJ, and the founder of Dim Mak, a record label–turned–lifestyle company that’s launched acts like the Chainsmokers, Bloc Party, the Gossip and the Kills. He’s been called the world’s hardest-working DJ: He plays as many as 300 gigs per year, sometimes two a day. In 2018, he was the fourth–highest paid DJ in the world, with an annual income of $28 million.

Aoki keeps his Dragon Ball Z toys on his piano in his house overlooking Las Vegas. “This house is a good example of what my brain is,” he says. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

His ambition doesn’t end there. Aoki was raised by his mother, but he takes after his father—Benihana founder Rocky Aoki—in at least one important respect: entrepreneurship. He’s firmly planted in fashion and philanthropy, having designed for Converse and represented Asics and Diesel; he co-owns the brand Vision Street Wear; and in 2017, he debuted his own Dim Mak men’s clothing line at New York Fashion Week. Through his Aoki Foundation, he’s donated more than $500,000 to brain research, disaster relief, and animal rights.

Although Aoki’s finances are more complicated these days, his art-buying philosophy is simple: He has to love it. He approaches art like music, following artists who make him feel something, and shying away from trends. “It’s like that Marie Kondo thing—it’s gotta spark joy in my life,” he says, laughing. He likes street art, some contemporary work, and anything with a Japanese influence or a little edge. And it’s not all high-end: Aoki’s Dragon Ball Z toy collection is displayed prominently atop a piano in his living room, just feet from his prized Banksy sculpture.

Whose house?

Aoki’s house itself is a work of art: a 16,779-square-foot, four-bedroom, 11-bathroom complex overlooking the Las Vegas Strip. Aoki purchased it at auction for $2.6 million in 2013 and has since poured millions into it, transforming it into a sleek, modern mansion that’s unrecognizable from the already luxurious beige-and-stone residence it was.

“When I bought this house it was a shell, and I was like, ‘Wow, look at all these walls,’ and I just kind of envisioned this house to be this kind of art gallery–esque, exhibition-esque funhouse,” he says. “The house is my brain, basically.”

A bathrobe with the title of Aoki’s Neon Future trilogy of albums hangs next to a graffiti-covered shower. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

“This is one of my favorites; it just pops this room off,” Aoki says of this smiley by Icelandic artist Shoplifter, whose work incorporates real and synthetic hair. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.


His home, known as “Aoki’s Playhouse,” has more than 23,000 followers on Instagram (Aoki’s personal account has over 7.8 million followers). It boasts a futuristic recording studio, a brightly lit KAWS showroom, and an over-the-top gym with a trampoline, foam pit, and a 20-foot mural by Neck Face, a Los Angeles–based street artist and longtime friend of Aoki’s.

Aoki’s house may be his brain, but his walls are a mirror, reflecting his image throughout the space. A logo featuring his distinctive silhouette is stamped on the trampoline, lawn furniture, and even at the bottom of his 16-foot-deep pool. He owns several portraits of himself, done by Ron English, Romero Britto, and his fans, among others.

KAWS is Aoki’s favorite artist, and a whole room in his house is dedicated to the artist. “I’m a toy guy, I started as a toy guy, and KAWS has got limitless toys…and it’s attainable,” Aoki says. “It’s not like each toy is 100 grand.” Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

“I don’t like having pictures of me all over the place, to be honest with you,” Aoki says, “but it’s hard when people make really good stuff.”

Among the good stuff is a life-sized, hyperrealistic sculpture of Aoki, squatting naked in a chair-like pose. It was made by My3DNA, a 3D-printing company that made celebrity sculptures and figurines, and he was adamant about being nude. “I was like, ‘If we’re going to do one, we’re going to make a sitting Aoki, naked. It has to be naked so it has that high-art appeal,’” he recalls. His mother didn’t share that opinion, so he had custom boxers made to partially cover the sculpture.

This sculpture was made by My3DNA, a company that produced photorealistic statues and figurines. “I was like, ‘If we’re going to do one, we’re going to make a sitting Aoki, naked,’” Aoki says. “‘It has to be naked so it has that high-art appeal.’” His mother disagreed, so he had custom boxers made to partially cover the sculpture. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

Toying with collecting

Along with records, Aoki credits toys for furthering his interest in art. One of his first significant purchases was a pair of Daft Punk toys from SillyThing in Hong Kong. He bought two sets—one for himself and one for either English DJ Samantha Ronson or Good Charlotte vocalist Joel Madden (he can’t remember who)—and within two years, he said the value of the $200 sets skyrocketed to upwards of $35,000 apiece. Unfortunately, they were stolen, but it was an introduction into [email protected], Medicom toys, and other limited edition sculptures Aoki still loves. In a hallway off the living room, he has a 4-foot-tall [email protected] toy of himself, complete with his signature locks and a Dim Mak tank top.

“High-end toys [were] actually my first barrier of entry to get into art, because it didn’t feel like it was too steep and it was cool to show off,” Aoki says. “Paintings and stuff like that, they were way too far away for me.”

An artwork by Jen Stark hangs above a selection of sculptures. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

Until they weren’t. With more success came more purchasing power, and in 2013, Aoki bought his first serious artwork: a piece that now hangs in his library by RETNA, the Los Angeles–based street artist known for his graphic, hieroglyphic-like graffiti writing. A friend sold it to him from his own collection, and introduced Aoki to artists and dealers.

“When you get into worlds like this where the barrier of entry is controlled by a very small group of people, you kind of need an invitation to the world,” he says. “That’s how I felt.”

Aoki’s obsession with collecting started with second-hand records and expanded to vinyl toys and art. His library features his first-ever art purchase, a painting by L.A.–based street artist RETNA, as well as works by Takashi Murakami and sculptor Kris Kuksi. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

Once he was in, he never looked back. He acquired his first work by Damien Hirst, a round, paint-splattered painting that spins, titled Beautiful Hot Lava and Sunlight on the Beach Painting (with Snow + Tornados) (2008). The opportunity arose through an art-dealer friend, and Aoki jumped on it. “I love it; I’m hypnotized by it,” he says. He also owns a furry pink smiley sculpture by artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, a.k.a. Shoplifter, who works primarily with synthetic hair. Shoplifter is currently representing Iceland at the Venice Biennale, where she transformed a warehouse on Giudecca into a neon hair cave.

As for Aoki’s wish list, he would love to own a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of his all-time favorite artists, whose work he has tattooed on his arm. Aoki also admires Jeff Koons and is eyeing work by Titus Kaphar, the Connecticut-based artist who paints black people more prominently into U.S. history.

For Aoki, it’s not about buying the most expensive piece or building up the most value—it’s about partaking in creative culture.

“His art is incredible,” Aoki says of Kaphar. “He’ll paint something from the George Washington era, but he’ll paint over the white presidents or white people and focus on the slave. He’s retelling the story from an African-American perspective.”

Aoki is also a fan of Kansas-based artist Kris Kuksi, and so far owns four of his sculptures.

Ferdinand Von Howitzerhead (2014) by sculptor Kris Kuksi. Aoki was introduced to Kuksi’s work by a nightclub owner in Los Angeles and a friend in Italy. “I get swallowed up by the detail,” he says. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

“I would just stare at the Kris Kuksi [my friend] had, and all the detail, intricacy and just how much work goes into a piece, and how decadent and morbid some of these pieces are,” Aoki says. “I get swallowed up by some of the ancient elements in there, and I like that there’s a crocodile sitting there on top of some weird god.”

Kuksi’s work reminds Aoki of something ancient and Roman, but also a little bit of his childhood Army toys. Plus, it goes well in his dark, Game of Thrones–inspired dining room. Along the same lines, Aoki has a giant custom fish tank filled with a three-headed dragon. It’s simultaneously a nod to Game of Thrones and an homage to Hirst’s The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded) (1999)—a shark suspended in formaldehyde that presides over the Hirst-designed lobby bar at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, where the British artist also designed an elaborate, $200,000-per-weekend suite.

Expanding taste

Aoki says the Hirst and Kuksi works are an expansion of his tastes, not a departure from the bright, colorful street art he tends to favor. Take, for example, the Banksys. Two are stencil-style screenprints featuring the types of ironic imagery for which the secretive English street artist is best known: one depicts grannies knitting “punks not dead” and “thug for life” sweaters; the other shows Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked, crying girl from Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photograph of a U.S. napalm attack, flanked by Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, who are smiling.

Portrait of Steve Aoki by Brian Guido for Artsy.

But Aoki’s favorite Banksy piece—and the crown jewel of his collection—is a sculpture of a python who appears to have swallowed Mickey Mouse whole. The work comes from Dismaland, the dystopian faux–amusement park Banksy created in Somerset in 2015 and filled with his own works and those of more than 50 other artists. Aoki didn’t make it to the show, but he managed to get on a buyers list.

“The guy was like, ‘Look, these things are moving very fast, so you have to make a decision on what you want,’” Aoki says. “He gave me, like, five pages of items to choose from, but most were outside of my price range, to be honest.” Aoki needed to sleep on it, but when he awoke, the list of available works had dwindled to half a page. “Like, literally every piece sold in hours’ time,” Aoki recalls. “It’s crazy.…I was lucky to get this one.” Had his budget been larger, Aoki would’ve liked to buy a refugee boat, or the killer whale leaping from a toilet into a kiddie pool, but he’s happy with his acquisition.

Aoki keeps a Banksy sculpture of a snake that appears to have swallowed Mickey Mouse in his living room, surrounded by toy snake additions of his own. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

The snake sculpture was featured in Banksy’s dystopian amusement park exhibition “Dismaland” in Somerset, England. Most of the works sold overnight. “This was one of the few pieces left, and it was in my price range,” says Aoki. Photo by Brian Guido for Artsy.

“The refugee pool was really, really cool, but I would’ve had to get a lake or a pond for it,” Aoki says. Instead, he made a snake pit, sprinkling plastic toy snakes inside the python sculpture’s clear enclosure. The additions are representative of Aoki’s sensibility in general: He likes to have a good time, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. (After all, he is a DJ known for throwing cake.)

Aoki doesn’t have a set budget for buying art, but he’s very selective. Sometimes, he finds artists through Instagram; other times, through dealers or friends. He’s never sold a piece from his collection, he says, because he thinks of it as a hobby, not a money-making endeavor. And though certain works in his collection have significant value, some of Aoki’s favorite pieces are meaningful only to him. He points to an original, handmade Born Against album cover, or a paint-splattered outfit he made with artist David Choe during his exclusive exhibition “The Choe Show” in Los Angeles in 2017.

Portrait of Steve Aoki by Brian Guido for Artsy.

“We fucked up a whole room with paint and I was using my hair as a brush,” Aoki recalls. “So we would dip my hair and he would roll me in a wheelchair, and I would paint the walls while he was pushing me.”

In other words, for Aoki, it’s not about buying the most expensive piece or building up the most value—it’s about partaking in creative culture. And often, that comes back to collecting, whether it be art or shoes or another entry in the Guiness Book of World Records. Currently, he has two—one for most-well-traveled DJ and another for longest crowd cheer.

“I like all kinds of different things,” he says. “So many different things make up Steve Aoki. I’m not just one different thing, I’m not one-dimensional. That’s the same way I think about buying and collecting art.”

Kristy Totten
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019