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Filled with a cast of cartoon characters and brand mascots, KAWS’ art is truly contemporary, tapping into the fast-moving Pop culture of the 21st century and capturing millennials’ imaginations through canny collaborations and a unique vision.
Brian Donnelly – as KAWS is legally known – originally trained as an illustrator at New York’s School of Visual Arts before working as an animator for cult TV shows such as Daria and Doug. In the mid ’90s he began tagging buildings in Manhattan with the name ‘KAWS’, chosen due to the enticing way the letters looked together.
KAWS first made his name with a series of ‘interventions’ or ‘subvertisements’ in which he would remove advertisements from bus shelters and phone booths in the city and take them home to paint over them. In acrylic KAWS would add his now familiar characters such as the Companion – an homage to Mickey Mouse – all featuring his signature crossed out eyes, a universal symbol of death in cartoons, and now emojis.
Soon children and collectors alike knew the KAWS tag and his work was in high demand. In 1999 he collaborated with Japanese cult brand Bounty Hunter to make a limited-edition toy figurine of the Companion which sold out almost immediately. This success, however, did not keep KAWS away from the street. In 2000, KAWS made Untitled (Chum, Times Square), a subvertisement on the side of a phone booth in one of New York’s busiest sites. The work features the artist’s take on one of the most recognisable mascots of the 20th century, the Michelin Man, originally drawn by French cartoonist Marius Rossillon – popularly known as O’Galop – and now one of the world’s oldest trademarks.
With Untitled (Chum, Times Square), KAWS seemed to be making a comment on capitalism and copyright. By appropriating the beloved mascot and giving him his signature crossed out eyes, KAWS claims the Michelin Man for himself, for the street and for the art world, elevating a trademark into a figure of satire or resistance.
Outlined in orange on black, the first Chum work recalls the early work of Keith Haring who also made his name by drawing on advertising panels. With his unorthodox route to fame, KAWS also appears to be following in the footsteps of Jean-Michel Basquiat who was known for tagging the walls of New York along with Al Diaz. KAWS places himself in a tradition of artists who believe art is for the people rather than an art world elite. Favouring accessibility over profit, in his early days KAWS was trying to become a part of the street culture and language he had grown up with in New Jersey and New York, and to reach a wide audience before the days of selfies and retweets. Speaking of this desire to make art for everyone KAWS has said, “When I was doing graffiti, my whole thought was, “I just want to exist.” I want to exist with this visual language in the world… It meant nothing to me to make paintings if I wasn’t reaching people.”
The Chum figure would continue to appear in works such as the 2002 Chum vs. Astroboy, a monochrome screen print which depicts the Michelin Man standing on the manga character’s neck with a curious expression on his clown-like face. That year, KAWS also painted Chum on canvas in a running pose, his face turned toward the viewer with a determined look, as if ready to burst out of the canvas. These works are related to a piece from 2012, CHUM (KCB7) which recently became KAWS’ highest selling work at auction.
The Chum figure has also been featured on a pair of DC shoes – a brand favoured by skaters – in yet another ‘KAWS x’ collaboration that has marked him out as one of the most commercially savvy artists of his generation. Chum can also be bought as a key chain, figurine and pin, as well as a blister packaged canvas that, despite being an original work, has been packaged to look like a limited-edition collectible toy or promotional item.
Once again with Chum, KAWS subverts the traditional dichotomy of so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Like Andy Warhol and Haring before him, KAWS plays with the notion of uniqueness and exclusivity that is so precious to the art world. Ironically KAWS is now considered a blue-chip artist and his work is greatly sought after by dealers and collectors. KAWS is also in demand for collaborations by brands whose advertisements he would have once had to graffiti in order to attach his name to theirs.
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