Photographs from @KAWS on Instagram
Culture Art

How KAWS made his way from street art to fast fashion to auction superstar

A street art visionary with an astute marketing savvy, KAWS has caught the imagination of his fellow creatives, along with the world’s big brands and collectors. How did an avid skater get to the point where his art can sell for $14.8 million at Sotheby’s?
Bam Abellon | Jun 04 2019

In March 2019, a 121-foot-long sculpture lay supine on the calm waters of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor during Art Basel week. The sculpture resembled the Disney character Mickey Mouse, only this one had Xs for eyes and an “X” mark on each of its gloved hand. For artists and art enthusiasts around the world, the character can only be associated with one man: KAWS. He was the talk of the fair, naturally. A month later, in April 2019, the talk just got louder when KAWS sold his painting called “The KAWS Album” for $14.8 million at Sotheby’s, also in Hong Kong. This June, the Japanese retail brand Uniqlo launches under its UT (Uniqlo T-shirt) range, their fourth collaboration collection with KAWS.

Through this short list of master strokes in a career that spans almost three decades, one begins to wonder: Who is this guy who can move comfortably from high art to commercial art and back?

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Man on the street 

The word “subversive” has been used too often to describe the earliest works of KAWS, whose real name is Brian Donnelly. Born in 1974 in New Jersey, KAWS was an avid skater in his early years, which exposed him to a lot of street art. In a 2010 article published by Interview magazine, where KAWS was interviewed by toy collector and Hollywood actor Tobey Maguire, KAWS revealed that art was not something he thought of pursing. “It was just a hobby that I had a heavy leaning toward,” he said.

Already a budding street artist by the time he graduated from high school in 1992, KAWS moved to New York in the early 1990s and began painting images on advertisements placed in bus shelters, phone booths, and billboards. The images were of cartoon characters that intertwined seamlessly with real-life subjects. One of his more famous works is that of a green X-eyed cartoon character, wrapping itself around supermodel Christy Turlington in one of her Calvin Klein ads. (And, by the way, a screen-print lithograph of the said work sold for around US $127,000 in 2018, at the SBI Art Auction in Tokyo, Japan.)

Calvin Klein ad featuring Christy Turlington

KAWS decided to go to college at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration degree in 1996. After graduation, he had a brief stint as an animator, working for such TV series as 101 Dalmatians and Daria, before he focused on graffiti.

It was not long after that his attention-drawing art made its mark on the diverse spectators of New York City. The works were unapologetic and distinctly KAWS—a name which has no meaning to it, as per his statement in Interview: “It’s just letters that I liked. K-A-W-S. I felt like they always work and function nicely with each other.”

 

"Companion" 

In 1999, the impact of the KAWS name would drastically change and accomplish a bigger audience. That year, KAWS visited Japan which was, at the time, having a major street culture moment. One of the figureheads of this Japanese subculture was a toy design company (now also a popular retail brand) named Bounty Hunter, founded in 1995.

KAWS was inspired by how the brand created toys different from what he saw in the United States. In a fitting collaboration, the artistic visions of the two brands merged to create KAWS’s first toy named “Companion.” It was a vinyl figure that resembled Mickey Mouse—or a clown—sitting on a box. Its elbows rested on its knees; its eyes were covered by gloved hands, each marked with an “X.” The toys sold out fast—and almost immediately became a must-have for street culture aficionados.

Kaws' "Companion (Passing Through)" at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Wikimedia Commons)

Since then, KAWS has created versions of “Companion,” and has placed his Xs on his other merchandise: on his paintings, on his toys, and on his sculptures. He has also X-ed the eyes of other famous characters, most notably the characters on Sesame Street and The Simpsons.

In the years that followed, as KAWS’s name started to become a status symbol, he began collaborating with Nike, Dior, Vans, and the cult Japanese brands Undercover and A Bathing Ape, to name a few.

Black cotton fleece sweatshirt with DIOR x KAWS embroidery

Through these collaborations, KAWS continuously added street culture headmen to his list of friends, including A Bathing Ape co-founder Nigo, who was subsequently named creative director of Uniqlo’s UT range in 2017. Among his other famous friends and collaborators are Kanye, Pharrell, and DJ Kahled.

UNIQLO unveils KAWS: SUMMER, a collaboration collection with renowned contemporary artist, KAWS.

In 2012, people who didn’t know who KAWS was had their grand introduction to the artist when a 14-foot KAWS balloon flew across New York as one of the highlights of department store Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Massive as it already is, KAWS is expected to gain a bigger following as he becomes more attainable to a wider audience.

Bigboy Cheng, one of the Philippines’ most popular collectors and purveyors of the arts, toys, and street wear, is a fan of KAWS. Journalist and art patron Julius Babao is also a KAWS collector.

Julius Babao poses by "Kaws:Holiday," a massive inflatable floating sculpture at Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour

“Magaling siya,” says Cheng of KAWS. His paintings look like a cartoon cell and his toys look like cartoons na binuhay mo.” But it is not only KAWS’s aesthetics that got the attention of Cheng (who owns “a few pieces” of KAWS toys), it’s the artist’s business acumen.

Bigboy says, “Masarap i-collect ang KAWS kasi ’yong toys niya may sistema. Hindi iba-iba, pero by threes, so talagang kailangan bilhin mo ang set. Disciplined ang pag-gawa niya and piling-pili. Natutuwa lang talaga ako din sa colors niya and style, kahit pop na pop, very class pa din ang paintings and toys niya.”

Some of Julius' KAWS collection

He adds, “Mautak si KAWS. He knows how to play the market. Gustong gusto ni KAWS ang Japan way, maski sa toys, sa art, sa paintings.” Bigboy says KAWS promoted himself well in Japan. “Kaya bilib ako sa marketing niya sa sarili niya. Ang galing dahil he went with Uniqlo. I’m sure kikita siya nang malaki with his Uniqlo projects.”

One of KAWS’s other skill is knowing how to keep up with the changing behavior of his audience and his consumers—especially with the fickle online milieu. (That’s not a surprising feat for someone who made his own website in the early 2000s.)  As of press time, KAWS has two million followers on his Instagram, @kaws, and his account is often up to date on his latest projects. His feed is a haven for artists and child-like souls. It’s inundated with colors worn by his paintings and his toys. It also contains a few photos of his family and his famous friends.

A few swipes up, and it becomes obvious that the KAWS name has turned out to be just like many of his famous sculptures: larger than life.