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KAWS is an American artist and designer, known for his toys, prints and virtual reality works that parody well-known cartoon and cultural characters. Famed for his signature set of cartoon-like characters, which parody well-known cultural icons such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse, KAWS operates at the interface between the commercial and fine art worlds, and is often compared to the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
KAWS hails from Jersey City, New Jersey, part of the New York metropolitan area. Born in 1974, KAWS had always looked to art to distract him from his studies. Growing up surrounded by a burgeoning graffiti and street art scene, KAWS soon began to go out painting illegally – a practice dubbed ‘bombing’ in the graffiti community – and produced his first pieces whilst he was still in elementary school.
It was then that he devised his own tag: KAWS. A meaningless word, he chose it simply because he liked the way the individual letters looked when arranged together. The artist once described his name simply as ‘lettering that works’.
Moving to neighbouring New York in the early 1990s, KAWS enrolled in the city’s School of Visual Arts, graduating in 1996. During this period, KAWS became well-established as a graffiti writer in the city.
Moving away from lettering, KAWS began to experiment with an artistic process which American cultural critic Mark Dery once dubbed ‘Subvertising’. Well-known for painting large billboards in New York and beyond, KAWS received a skeleton key as a gift from fellow artist and friend Barry McGee which he would use to remove advertisements from phone booths and bus stops. Taking these advertisements home to embellish with his own signature cartoon character figures, they would then be replaced the next day. This practice is something the artist has continued, as in his Models series.
Subvertising saw KAWS gain widespread recognition from fellow street artists and advertising companies alike, and in 1997 iD Magazine ran an article which resulted in the artist’s first international exhibition, hosted by French retailer Colette at their shop in Paris.
By 1999, KAWS had travelled to Tokyo several times, where he had met with founders of Japanese fashion labels HECTIC and A Bathing Ape. Meeting the owner of Japanese toy company Bounty Hunter, Hikaru Iwanaga, however, was to prove the decisive moment in the artist’s success. Following Iwanaga’s suggestion, KAWS designed a toy for the company, devising his signature Companion character – a Mickey Mouse-like figure with crossed out eyes – now a central motif of the artist’s œuvre.
The most iconic of KAWS’s signature characters is undoubtedly Companion. Depicted using a variety of media, ranging from painting to 10-metre-tall wooden sculpture, in 2012 the character was rendered in balloon form for the annual Macey’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, taking inspiration from the work of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.
Amongst the most famous of KAWS’s works is the controversial piece, The KAWS Album, produced in 2005. Depicting a whole host of characters from 'The Simpsons', it parodies a similar illustration by comic book artist Bill Morrison for The Simpsons’ 'The Yellow Album'. A parody of Morrison’s work, as well as the original cover design for The Beatles’s 'Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band', by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, it has seen the artist accused of plagiarism.
KAWS cites traditional artists, such as Chuck Close, Klaus Oldenburg and Gerhard Richter amongst those who have influenced his more commercially successful works. Graffiti is a constant point of reference for the artist, however, having been a key feature of his own artistic career since a very young age.
Amongst the most significant Graffiti artists to have influenced KAWS’s ethos and artistic production is the New York Graffiti icon Futura, aka Futura 2000. Born in New York, Futura was a major influence on the nascent French graffiti scene during the 1980s, and painted backdrops live on-stage for British punk rock band The Clash’s 1981 European tour. Much like KAWS, Futura is a crossover artist and has successfully managed to align himself somewhere between the underground and commercial arts scenes, often working with multinational companies such as Nike and Levi’s, and streetwear companies Supreme and A Bathing Ape.
Much of KAWS’s work makes use of bold, block colours and strong lines, as in the series Ups And Downs. The repeated use of his Disney inspired characters, whose names include Companion, Chum, Bendy, and Blitz, have seen the artist compared with American artists Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. As many have noted, Koons’s 1986 sculpture series, Rabbit – one of the most expensive works of art ever sold by a living artist at auction – bears considerable resemblance to KAWS’s toys and sculptural works.
With repetition as an important feature of KAWS’s œuvre, the artist’s work is consistent with a kind of branding. In this sense, KAWS continues to be influenced by his early freehand graffiti designs, and a graffiti culture intent on ‘getting up’.
KAWS has become one of the most successful contemporary artists of the twenty-first century. With his origins in graffiti culture instilling him with a voracious appetite for mass-market exposure, the artist has exhibited a series of very large sculptures at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK.
A divisive character on the art scene, it is difficult to deny KAWS’s widespread appeal. With over 3.5 million Instagram followers, his crossover appeal has seen him move from strength to strength.
The controversial work, The Kaws Album, broke the artist’s auction record in 2019, selling for $14.7 million US dollars.
Whilst many have doubted KAWS’s artistic integrity, friend, influencer and A Bathing Ape founder Nigo has continued to play a central role in popularising the artist’s work in the commercial scene. As such, in recent years KAWS’s work has become particularly sought-after in the Chinese market, creating a hot demand which has seen the artist collaborate with major fashion brands such as Uniqlo, Dior and Vans, amongst others.
The gargantuan piece KAWS:HOLIDAY recently toured Asia, appearing in Seoul, Taipei and Hong Kong – where it floated in the city’s harbour as part of the international art fair, Art Basel.
The KAWS Album © KAWS 2005
When THE KAWS ALBUM was carried into Sotheby’s NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1 auction in Hong Kong on 1 April 2019, spectators grabbed their phones to document auction history in the making. Bidding started at HK$5,000,000 and a battle quickly unfolded in the saleroom and over the telephones. The painting eventually sold for almost 15 times its high estimate, smashing the previous auction record set for KAWS only a year before.
THE KAWS ALBUM – a parody of The Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper album cover but featuring KAWS’s signature Kimpsons characters – was formerly owned by Japanese fashion designer, DJ and entrepreneur NIGO®, a long-time collector and collaborator of KAWS. His collection of street art and collectables achieved no fewer than three ‘white glove’ 100%-sold auctions at Sotheby’s in just five years.
image © Phillips / The Walk Home © KAWS 2012
An unexpected highlight of Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, The Walk Home sold for nearly ten times its low estimate on 16 May 2019 in New York. In this work, a reimagined SpongeBob SquarePants with KAWS’ signature x-crossed eyes – whom the artist calls Kawsbob – screams among dozens of disembodied arms. “SpongeBob was something I wanted to do because graphically I love the shapes… But honestly, I’ve never even watched it,” KAWS has admitted.
Untitled (Kimpsons #1) © KAWS 2004
Standing almost nine feet tall, UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #1) is the largest of KAWS’s Kimpsons painting – immortalising the iconic Simpsons couch gag on a monumental scale.
KAWS first began creating the Kimpsons works in 2001 and they were his first formal paintings on canvas, bridging the gap between fine art, pop culture and parody. UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #1) was one in a series of Kimpsons paintings commissioned by NIGO® (who also owned the painting at #1 in this list). It belonged to a new owner by the time it was offered in Sotheby’s Hong Kong Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 6 October 2019, but still soared past its low estimate.
In The Woods © KAWS 2002