Araki was born in Tokyo, studied photography during his college years and then went to work at the advertising agency Dentsu, where he met his future wife, the essayist Yōko Araki (荒木陽子). After they were married, Araki published a book of pictures of his wife taken during their honeymoon titled Sentimental Journey. She died in 1990. Pictures taken during her last days were published in a book titled Winter Journey.
Having published over 350 books by 2005, and still more every year, Araki is considered one of the most prolific artists alive or dead in Japan and around the world. Many of his photographs are erotic; some have been called pornographic. Among his photography books are Sentimental Journey (1971, but later reissued), Tokyo Lucky Hole (1985), and Shino.[vague]
He also contributed photography to the Sunrise anime series Brain Powerd.
In 1981, Araki directed High School Girl Fake Diary (女高生偽日記 Jokōsei nise nikki?), a Roman Porno film for Nikkatsu studio. The film proved to be a disappointment both to Araki’s fans, and to fans of the pink film genre.
The Icelandic musician Björk is an admirer of Araki’s work, and served as one of his models. At her request he photographed the cover and inner sleeve pages of her 1997 remix album, Telegram. More recently, he has photographed pop singer Lady Gaga. Araki’s life and work were the subject of Travis Klose’s 2005 documentary film Arakimentari.
His works are held in numerous museum collections including the Tate and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Araki was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, and has since undergone surgery which successfully removed the tumor.
In 2008, he was awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art