KAWS | Flat base decoded
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The Williamsburg studio of the artist known as KAWS is neatly lined with racks of acrylic-paint bottles in primary colors and guarded by a cluster of standing toy collectibles—life-size 3-D comic book characters of his own design—like a platoon of robot children. By the window, there is a small-scale model of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in Connecticut. KAWS, an unassuming, soft-spoken 35-year-old New Jersey native named Brian Donnelly, is plotting his first solo museum show at the Aldrich next month. It will serve as the unofficial grand induction to the institutionalized art world for the graffiti artist, painter, illustrator, sculptor, toymaker, and product designer. Yet KAWS has a long history outside of the white cube. His street-born cartoonish graphics—specifically spermatozoa-shaped figures with x-ed out eyes—have achieved a subcultural iconography. He has applied this KAWS signature to his street art, a clothing line, heroically outsize toys and sculptures, and countless cobranding ventures with labels like A Bathing Ape and Marc Jacobs.

KAWS was a teenager growing up in Jersey City in the late ’80s and early ’90s, where he spent his high school years graffiti-bombing trains, walls, and billboards. He honed his street-art act in New York City, hanging out with the spray can–wielding skate kids in downtown Manhattan. He graduated to a more covert form of interventionist street art in the mid-’90s, when he began unlocking the glass panels encasing bus stop and phone booth ads. He stole the posters, added his own graphics to them in acrylic paint, and then surreptitiously put them back. These hits were so skillfully executed—brushstrokes are never apparent in a KAWS painting—that often no one could distinguish the artist’s work from the original advertisement.

After graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1996, KAWS traveled to Japan, pursuing his street-art projects with Tokyo subculture heavyweights Hectic and Jun Takahashi of Undercover. In 1999, KAWS made his first toy with Japanese company Bounty Hunter,a vinyl figure of Mickey Mouse with x-ed out eyes (as if Mickey just drank from a bottle marked POISON). Nigo, the tastemaker behind A Bathing Ape, asked KAWS to collaborate on a clothing line in 2001 and began collecting his pop paintings of cartoon characters like the Simpsons, the Smurfs, and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Channelling the commercialism attitude of Claes Oldenburg and, more recently, Takashi Murakami, KAWS has produced everything from x-marked sneakers for Nike to an album cover for a special edition of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak (2008). To sell all the KAWS-mobilia, the artist opened a dazzling Masamichi Katayama–designed store in Tokyo in 2006 called OriginalFake. Although KAWS does not separate product from art or art from product, it was only a matter of time before the art world caught up with him. He found Los Angeles–based dealer Honor Fraser, who took on not only the paintings but the whole breadth of his work.

With a monograph from Skira/Rizzoli due out this fall and the Aldrich show at his doorstep, KAWS has gotten approval from an art-world establishment that he felt would never take his guerrilla act as its own. He bought a building not far from his Brooklyn studio, which his good friend, the interior designer Katayama, will convert into a massive studio that will become the creative hub of the KAWS universe. That’s all in the future, but it is one KAWS can see from the seventh-floor window of his current studio—which is where the actor Tobey Maguire, a fan, friend, and collector, interviewed the artist.

TOBEY MAGUIRE: I’m interested in your backstory—how KAWS came to be. So let’s start there.

KAWS: I was born in Jersey City, and I guess that’s probably where it started. When I was young, I tried sports but never really got into them. I played ice hockey because there was a rink up the street from me, but once I grew out of my equipment, my parents were like, “Are you serious about this?” and I said, “Not really.” I think I got into skating and graffiti mostly because they are both solo activities. You can take it where you want to without needing a team to play.

Did you have a drawing background? Did you take art classes as a kid?

In elementary school I was a bad kid—not bad as in bad behavior but kind of illiterate bad. My fifth grade teacher told my mom, “Maybe he can pursue art?” But really, I had no background. Even in high school, art wasn’t something that occurred to me to pursue. It was just a hobby that I had a heavy leaning toward.

So it was more that you were just immersed as a teen in the culture of skating and that led you to art?

Definitely. Jersey City is so close to Manhattan. You took the PATH train in for a dollar, so it would only cost $2 (R23,55) for a whole day of skating—from Brooklyn Banks to Tompkins Square Park. I would meet tons of kids from different boroughs, and that parlayed into graffiti. I got mixed into that.

What was your family like?

My mom’s a housewife. My dad’s a stock-broker. He didn’t graduate from high school. He started by running coffee for the guys on Wall Street.

A hustler. A go-getter.

Yeah. You learn to appreciate that as you get older. But when I first said that I wanted to go to art school, he was like, “What?” [both laugh] They sent me to look at [Borough of ] Manhattan Community College. I’m not dissing that school, but I went over to look around one day and was like, “Fuck outta here, I’m not going.” So when I got out of high school, I didn’t go right to college. At this time, I was doing graf six nights a week, just painting a lot.

Were you going out and hitting walls?

Yeah, mostly painting walls at the time. I graduated from high school in ’92 and the first billboard I painted was in ’93. But I was doing regular graf long before I hit the advertising stuff.

Where did the name KAWS come from?

There’s no meaning to it. It’s just letters that I liked—K-A-W-S. I felt like they always work and function nicely with each other.

It’s provocative, as in “to be the cause of something.” “To cause.” There was none of that type of thinking when you came up with the name?

No, I think I went with that name because I felt like it had no connection. Trust me, editors later had a field day with that. In every article it was like “KAWS and effect” or “KAWS célèbre.”

But let’s stop and think about that for a second. What is your cause? [KAWS laughs] I mean, at that point in your life, were you thinking about becoming successful, making money, or just sharing your art? What were you doing it for? What was your approach?

I didn’t know for a long time. The graf stuff was almost like a sport I fell into and was good at. I woke up wanting to do it and fell asleep thinking about it. When I was in school, my mind would be on painting. I guess that’s the only thing I’ve ever really been focused on. When I started painting on advertisements, it occurred to me that the ad really set the work in a specific time. You could look at a dozen walls and an untrained eye might not be able to distinguish the difference between the ’80s and ’90s. When you paint over ads, it clicks—especially with the phone booths I was doing. There were these Calvin Klein ads of Kate Moss or Christy Turlington. I think that’s when I realized it was more about communication. There was a dialogue to it.

A dialogue with other graffiti artists or with a broader audience?

Both. It’s strange with graffiti. You put a lot out, but you don’t get that much back because not many people know who’s doing it. You have your peers of about 10 guys who know you are the one painting. Like, this morning, I took my dog out, and I noticed my assistant hit the rooftop across the street on his way out yesterday. He’s a new assistant and has been working for me for about two days, and I saw this tag over there and thought, Fucking god. I recognized his sign.

Sounds like he’s following in your footsteps. How did you choose the billboards and advertisements that you targeted?

I think just visually. At the beginning, people thought I had political motivations, like I was doing an antiadvertising crusade. I’d get hit up from magazines like Adbusters. But that’s not really my thing. I actually liked the visual nature of these ads. I really liked some of the photographers I was painting over.

So, in a sense, you were collaborating with them.

In a forceful way, yeah.

Was that the beginning of a fine-art career?

Well, after I took a semester off, I put a portfolio together and went over to SVA to apply. I didn’t know then that they’ll take anyone’s money. Like, if you’re not asking for a scholarship at art school, you can get in pretty easily. I went for illustration. I figured I could get a job doing that and still have my personal work. When I showed a teacher some of my graffiti, I remember he said, “Stop wasting your time. You need to focus.” Obviously, I dropped his class.

I remember when I was a kid growing up in L.A., I would see graffiti on a regular basis, and over time, I would get to know the tags of the various artists. They started to have a presence. There was a whole mystery around them: “Who is this guy?” I know you said that you don’t get to communicate with your audience, but if you do it enough and you’re good enough, there is a lot of talk about you. There is an aura about KAWS and who he is.

Graffiti is like building a career. And there is a dialogue with the other artists out there—mostly fellow writers because a lot of people who don’t paint just see a blur when they look at it. After I started painting over the advertising, I began to take photos of the final images. When you do graffiti, you leave your work in the street, so I wanted to document it. [KAWS shows Maguire shots of some early work on his computer.] I shot that one at night and came back and shot it again in the day.

Is that the Got Milk? campaign?

Yeah. That was in ’97. It was right on Houston where West Broadway turns into LaGuardia. I loved doing that spot. I think another reason why the painting worked so well was that in the ’90s, advertisements started to have a much stronger presence. They started doing those full-building billboards down Houston, taking over walls that had been covered in graffiti for years. It became a focal point for me to take back some of those spots.

But I like that you are actually working with the advertisement. You aren’t just ignoring it and treating it like a blank canvas. You incorporated it—a forced collaboration. Did you ever get caught by the police when you were doing one?

No, not doing graffiti. I once got caught putting up a sticker. I had to do a night in jail—not at Central Booking but at the Sixth Precinct downtown. [laughs] But eventually I got bored painting over ads. I started taking white paper and painting it in, so at night it would almost glow like a giant light box. Remember when Marc Jacobs did that show on Houston and Sixth Avenue [in 2000]? I remember the day before, they were setting up that whole basketball court and I hit both walls there. It was the perfect flood of people. Then I met this photographer, David Sims, who had shot a lot of campaigns I worked over. He invited me to London and had made a lot of prints for me. So I started painting acrylic over actual photos. That led me to doing actual magazine stories. The whole project just started to grow, and I didn’t put any boundaries on it.

So Sims and other photographers were actually encouraging your process and development to do your work over theirs.

KAWS: Yeah, and it was fun. I put the results in a few shows, but I never sold them. It was right around the time when I’d made my first toy.

External link's:

KAWS Companions page
Small lies

Registered article

Tobey Maguire | Interview Magazine | Exhibitional art

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