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Picture a classic Byzantine icon of the crucified Christ. The savior’s body, having been taken down from the cross, is surrounded by his grieving loved ones. Now imagine that scene in the 21st century. Replace the body of Jesus with that of slain gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, laid out on a car hood, with friends such as Dr. Dre and Suge Knight standing round mourning.

Or why not replace the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus with producer-rapper Dr. Dre clutching superstar Eminem?

This remix is how artist Tom Sanford paints his hip-hop heroes. Sanford sees the process as analogous to the creation of music — sample a track, then mix in your style, turning it into something new.

Surprisingly, a Tokyo gallerist based in a traditional, Japanese-style wooden house is the promotional driving force behind the 28-year-old painter, who has recently had exhibitions in his native New York at the Momenta Art Gallery and the Grand Gallery in Brooklyn.

In the spring of 2001, Tomoya Saito, art director of Massive Saito Tomoya Gallery, near JR Ebisu Station, visited some 400 galleries and museums in New York.

“Among the artists whose works I saw during my three-month stay in New York, Tom Sanford was the only one who left an impact on me,” said Saito. “His paintings are the new kind of Pop Art I had been waiting for. They use strong colors and are simple and straightforward.”

Sanford depicts the flashy hip-hop characters in acrylic- and oil-based paints on carefully sanded wood. Logos and patterns for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Burberry, status symbols characteristic of hip-hop, often form the background to the portraits. And the artist makes many of the frames himself, using glittery, bling-bling designs.

His most recent work, “50 Cent Icon,” shows the rapper — 50 Cent — pierced with shot wounds, like a modern-day martyr, against a background of brand-name logos.

Sanford’s paintings are in stark contrast to the mainstream of post-Warhol contemporary art, says Saito. “Much contemporary art work is predictable,” he says. “Such art has also become too conceptual — frankly, it’s difficult to understand.”

Sanford, who is white, leads a life far removed from the inner-city ghettos that spawned his largely black idols. A university graduate with a degree in economics, he currently works part-time as an art teacher and frame-maker.

Some hip-hop lovers might find the union of hip-hop heroes and religious art styles more than a little disturbing. But Sanford is serious about his works, which have evolved over time. Having studied Byzantine art, he initially tried to use the style to depict rock superstars.

But, according to Saito, after the shocking deaths of gangsta rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. at the height of America’s East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry, Sanford realized that these musicians were modern icons, and should be drawn as such.

Not everyone is sympathetic to Sanford’s approach. A friend of Saito’s, a rock musician who lives in Harlem and was a roommate of the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat during the 1980s, warned the gallerist that some people might resent the way a white artist such as Sanford depicts hip-hop stars and feels that he is trying to cash in on black celebrity.

For Sanford, though, cashing in is the obsession that connects celebrity and established religion. That’s why he puts the two together in his art.

“In many strands of Christian belief,” Sanford writes in his artist’s statement, “prosperity can be evidence of piety and favorable standing with God. Like Christianity, gangsta rap has built prosperity into its formal lexicon of acceptable credentials.”

Or as they’d say in rap: it’s all about the “Benjamins” — money.

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