“Is there no limit to the precipitous rise of KAWS?”
This question posed by an article in news.artnet.com, perhaps, sums up best what the art world is feeling right now about artist Brian Donnelly better known as KAWS. His painting titled The KAWS Album,commissioned by Japanese DJ and record producer Nigo in 2005, fetched a whopping $14.8 M at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong this year. That’s 15 times the value Sotheby’s estimated the painting could fetch. The artwork, described as an appropriation within an appropriation, features the characters of the well-loved Matt Groening-created cartoons The Simpsons recreating the cover of the Beatle’s 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club. This new auction record just gave long-time KAWS collectors something to be ecstatic about, perhaps even prompting some to bring out their toys and calculators to find out the new value of—wink—XX.
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KAWS, whose work is easily recognized by his signature X-eyed—also called ‘dead eyes’—skull animation, has seen his art rise in popularity and value since starting out as a street artistin New York in the 90s. In the past 30 years, he has seamlessly straddled between low and high art, creating paintings and supersized installations that find their platforms in contemporary museums around the world to producing highly collectible toy figures and collaborating with top commercial brands that have used his art in luxury items and everyday tees.
The beauty of KAWS is in his art’s accessibility, making him appeal to collectors of all kinds from your thousand-dollar suit wearing art enthusiast to your T-shirt wearing hobbyist and everyone else in between (Vhong Navarro had the KAWS figure on his shirt atIts Showtimerecently). Steve Aoki and Pharrell Williams are just two of the biggest celebrities who have not only devoted walls but entire rooms to KAWS art.
Here in the Philippines, broadcast journalists Jay Taruc, Julius Babao and DJ Bigboy Cheng are three of the country’s well-known KAWS toy and sculpture collectors, starting as early as the 2000s.
“KAWS is probably the most important street artist na tumawid safine arts. Sila (Keith) Haring and (Jean Michel) Basquiat ka-linya niyafor me,” says Taruc, whose introduction to KAWS was through his vinyl art toy addiction way back in the early 2000s. “I stumbled upon an obscure/non-mainstream collab between KAWS and a boutique shop in Japan called Bounty X Hunter in 1996 if I'm not mistaken. I bought the toy not knowing it would be my gateway drug to this vinyl art toy madness,” Taruc adds. His first purchase from that collaboration was a seven-inch Mickey Mouse in monotone colorway, in standing position with KAWS’s ‘dead eyes' trademark.
✖️✖️ OG’s 👑👑👑 by @michelco_33 🙏 @kaws #kawsarchive #kaws #kawsart #urbanvinyl #sculpture #urbanart #kawscompanion #arteurbano #sculptureart #kawsbountyhunter #bape #briandonnelly #supremenyc #urbanstreetart #urbancontemporary #modernart #originalfake #medicomtoy #contemporaryart #hypebeast #arturbain #artderue #hypebeastart #highsnobiety #村上隆 #ポップアート #现代艺术 #미술 #искусство #فنان
Taruc found a kindred spirit in Cheng, one of the country’s hard core high art toy collectors. “At that time, it was just Bigboy (Cheng) and me here in Manila who understood this pre-street art/vinyl art explosion,” says Taruc, then laughs at the memory of selling most to Cheng, “Yung karamihan ngKAWS ko binili niBigboy.”
According to Taruc, it was also Cheng’s passion for KAWS that led the latter to put up Secret Fresh (then Fresh Manila) and collaborate with artist Louie Cordero for the artist’s Nardong Tae toy in 2007. Secret Fresh, which was relaunched in 2010, is an artist vinyl toyshop that caters to a niche market and is the first specialty store of its kind in the Philippines. It has brought together a growing community of artists and art lovers of graffiti, comics, film, animation, music, architecture, sculpture, fine art and design.
In an interview with ANC-X, Cheng says that he is an admirer not only of KAWS’s art but of the artist’s business acumen, and noted how well KAWS promoted himself in Japan, arguably one of the artist’s biggest markets. “Mautak si KAWS. He knows how to play the market. Gustong gusto ni KAWS ang Japan way, maski sa toys, sa art, sa paintings.
Babao, like Taruc and Cheng, is also one of the earliest KAWS toys enthusiasts. In an article in Business World published in January 2011,he reveals that he owns a five-figure toy set designed by KAWS along with famous Chinese artists Yue Minjun, Liu Ye, Zhou Tie Hai, Jin Nu and Zhou Chun Ya, called My Art for the Masses. "I got it for about $10,000--now it’s being sold for about a million pesos or more,” he told the paper. Apart from that, Babao also owns two four-feet vinyl KAWS Companion statues and several KAWS figures by Medicom and that time was eyeing three more four-feet KAWS Companion figures to complete the set.
“I have been an admirer of KAWS for many years now. I own at least 80% of his OG toy collection, rare ones most of which I acquired from my fellow KAWS collector Bigboy Cheng. I like his works because they’re iconic and unique especially the toys and sculptures. I also have a lot of respect for him because his art rose from the streets,” he tells ANCX.
One thing Taruc, Cheng, and Babao share with KAWS collectors like Aoki and Pharrell is a generation. Like KAWS, all belong to Gen X, and in that sense, share an understanding of the context, milieu, and references from in which his art has evolved.
Taruc says that KAWS’s work, like most street artists, is mainly fueled by anti-establishment, anti-commercialism, and anti-capitalism which is basically punk doctrine. He also stresses that when appreciating KAWS’s art, credit should be given to his contemporaries, British artists James Jarvis and Kidrobot creative director Frank Kozik. “Why am I underscoring this fact? Kasiafter KAWS’s Japanese collab, putok na angstreet art and vinyl art scene. For me it’s KAWS, Jarvis, and Kozik who started all this and should be acknowledged equally,” he adds. Both Jarvis and Kozik have done collaborations with KAWS as well.
With the record-breaking Sotheby’s auction and the continued collaboration with big mainstream brands, the value of KAWS’s XX will never be the same again. But even without the auction, the artist makes it hard for skeptics not to notice him. Just recently, Brooklyn Museum has announced that it is set to organize a major survey of his works in 2021 “despite not seeing his appeal” initially.
Perhaps, apart from his provocative work, his genius also lies in keeping that disruptive appeal of street art while at the same time transcending different platforms and connecting across generations. All these force critics to take a serious look at his art whether they like it or not. As Babao puts it, “His art has crossed over to fashion and high art. He is truly an artist of this generation. Just like Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, and Takashi Murakami, KAWS is revolutionizing how people appreciate art.”
Yes, that’s right: Never take that P590 Uniqlo KAWS x Sesame Street shirt for granted ever again.