One of the most talented artists to rise from the international Street Art scene—as witnessed by his crossover success in museum and gallery realms, as well as his recent selection to make one of the few artist-designed balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—KAWS, got his start tagging billboards, bus shelters and phone booths in New York and New Jersey, but soon turned his cool graphic style and iconic cast of characters into a coveted brand. Developing his innovative art and design over the past 20 years, the still-youthful artist has already created a body of work that others might only dream of doing—yet at 38, he’s only just begun to make his ultimate mark. FLATT contributor Paul Laster sat down with the enigmatic artist in his Williamsburg studio to discuss his start, development, and eventual art world embrace.
PAUL LASTER: How did you get your start as an artist? Was it your graffiti art?
KAWS: No, I was interested in art when I was younger. I was always interested in art. As I came into my teens, my graffiti was one of the first outlets for it and one of the first things that propelled my work out.
PAUL LASTER: Were you tagging billboards in New Jersey?
KAWS: Yeah, I started painting over billboards, altering them, in 1993. I was still living with my parents and in high school.
PAUL LASTER: Were you just tagging your name?
KAWS: Yeah, just KAWS. I was doing pieces with spray paint. It was very basic, traditional graffiti.
PAUL LASTER: When did you first start altering images in the bus shelters and phone booths?
KAWS: The painting over advertising started with the billboards in Jersey and then I moved to Manhattan in ’96. Right before that I met Barry McGee, who had a key for the phone booths and he gave me a key—and then I broke into locks.
PAUL LASTER: How quickly would you have to work?
KAWS: I’d take my time. I’d work on them at home.
PAUL LASTER: Oh, you’d take them out and bring them back?
KAWS: Yeah, I would have ads that I’d stolen from different neighborhoods and I would work on them and then go the neighborhoods where I wanted to put my pieces and switch them out.
PAUL LASTER: How many of those do you think you did?
KAWS: I’m not sure, maybe about 60 or 70.
PAUL LASTER: Did you do them around the world?
KAWS: Yeah, besides New York, I did them in London and Paris. I did billboards in Germany in 96—my first time out of the country—and I later did billboards in Tokyo.
PAUL LASTER: Did you document them at the time or did you rely on other people’s photographs?
KAWS: No, I’ve always been self-reliant. You learn from graffiti that the end result is the photo. There’s nothing else that will last. So I found it important to get good photos from an early age.
PAUL LASTER: When I look at the altered ads, I see two different symbols that you were using. One is like a snake or sperm kind of figure and the other one transforms the figure in the ad into what might be the beginning of the ‘COMPANION’ figure, which is somewhat like a mouse.
KAWS: Yeah, at first I was doing lettering and then I started painting a bulbous skull and crossbones. When I started painting over the smaller phone booth and bus shelter images, I let the lettering part go and stuck with this iconic imagery. I thought it would reach a broader audience than the select graffiti following that I already had.
PAUL LASTER: The two kinds of marks work in different ways. One takes over the head of the person and transforms it and the other embraces the figure. Is that right?
KAWS: Yeah, but all that stuff is stuff that I haven’t done in more than 10 years.
PAUL LASTER: I know, but when you were doing that what was reasoning behind it?
KAWS: I was just looking for interesting ways to interact with the image. I felt the one that wraps around worked really well with some of the fashion advertisements that I was going over.
PAUL LASTER: Especially if it was a female figure—embracing it in some way.
KAWS: Yeah, embracing could be an interpretation of it.
PAUL LASTER: When Keith Haring was drawing on the subway ad sites, he was working out issues of composition. Were you working with issues of color?
KAWS: There were only a few concerns when I doing that stuff. It was really just color and composition and how it read. When I was making that work I wanted it to be part of the ad rather than on top of it. I wanted people to do a double take and wonder what they were looking at.
PAUL LASTER: Yeah, it was integrated into it. What came first, the Companion figure or working with Sponge Bob.
KAWS: No, I think one of the first images I was using was this figure [Man]. Besides from aesthetically liking the image I started using it because it’s one of the first characters used in advertisement. I just thought it was ingenious the way they created a character to sell a boring tire company’s product and within that they created a whole life for themselves. I always liked characters from an early age. I liked the way they interact and how they’re interpreted and how they last with people. They’re like celebrities, but they don’t age.
PAUL LASTER: With Sponge Bob, you’ve found so many incredible ways to abstract him.
KAWS: It’s just the continuation of an idea. I did the same thing when I was working with this figure in 1999-2000. I did a bunch of abstract paintings based on it. I’m always conscious of these different audiences and different markets. At the time I was thinking that abstraction plays a role, but to the informed there are things that they can understand about it. I just liked the idea of taking something like the ‘man’ image or Sponge Bob image and abstracting it and have it relate to an audience that could recognize it, which might be a younger audience as opposed to the more educated art audience. There’s a role shift.
PAUL LASTER: When did the Smurfs first come into the picture?
KAWS: I started doing commissions, actually Sponge Bob paintings and Smurfs started with commissions. I was talking to Pharrell Williams about a commission. He was interested in commissioning me to make some work and was asking me what kind of things I wanted to do. At the end of these conversations we came up with the Sponge Bob and Smurf paintings. I’d previously done drawings of Smurfs. It’s a cartoon that I grew up on and I loved it aesthetically and thought it was something that could translate well. Before that I did this series called the Kimpsons for some package paintings for a show that I did in Tokyo in 2001. I had a toy factory reproduce big blister packs of the paintings and the back cards were printed but each painting was hand-painted. Being in Japan made me realize that my friends who were collectors would spend tons of money on Star Wars prototypes. The culture that I was interacting with was keen on collecting, but it was all product-based and clothing-based. They had no problem spending $800 on a pair of sneakers, but the thought of buying a drawing for $800 was out of the question. I wanted to do a series that tied these two things together and that’s how the package paintings started and that’s why I started using cartoon characters on canvas.
PAUL LASTER: In the paintings, I’ve really seen a development to where you’re either dealing with it as a monochrome and at other times dealing with them with incredible, vibrant colors. What’s at play in your mind when you’re doing each of these?
KAWS: A lot of times my paintings are reactions to other paintings that I’ve made. Sometimes it’s nice to go into a whole series that’s monochrome after doing a whole series that’s full color. In general, I love color. The way I construct paintings is that I have the drawing set, but as far as color there’s nothing preset. I’ll put a color down and then I’ll put another color down. Each one is the reaction to the next and they sort of balance each other out. It’s always something that I find fun. It makes you wake up in the morning and keeps it interesting.
PAUL LASTER: You also like shaped canvases, too—circular and custom-made shapes.
KAWS: I like to move around and keep things interesting for myself. When I first learned how to make shaped canvases in a good way it just opened up another door and let me revisit things that I’d made 10 years ago, like dye-cut stickers. Those were things that I was always familiar with but didn’t know how to transfer to canvas. Now I feel like I’ve found a seamless way to do that.
PAUL LASTER: You mentioned Pharrell; was he your first connection to Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin?
KAWS: He was actually. It’s weird. A lot of the stuff that has happened for me was organic. I met Pharrell because my friend Nigo [A Bathing Ape] in Japan had commissioned me to do a lot of work for his house. At the time Pharrell was going to Tokyo along with other artists and he saw my work in his house. Every time he went and he asked Nigo about it. Through that connection I met him and later Perrotin was at Pharrell’s house in Miami and saw my work and Pharrell made the introduction.
PAUL LASTER: Didn’t Pharrell curate the first show you had with Perrotin in Miami?
KAWS: Yeah, he curated the show. It was mostly works from his collection.
PAUL LASTER: And since then, how many shows have you had with Perrotin?
KAWS: The current show is my fourth solo show with the gallery.
PAUL LASTER: Weren’t you the opening show for his new space in Hong Kong during the art fair earlier this year? Wasn’t that a big show?
KAWS: The installation in the main room was 50 paintings and there was a second room. In total I think I shipped 60 paintings for the show and the art fair. The majority of the show was canvases that were 7-feet tall by 1-foot wide. They acted like these thunder panels. It came from something that I did at the Aldrich Museum. I did a wall that consisted of canvases overlapping a wall painting. I made all of these random size paintings and one of the sizes was the 7 by 1 ft. In making it, I loved the shape. I loved the handling. I knew that I eventually wanted to do a show that was just that. But before that I did these diptychs and triptychs for my 2010 show at Perrotin that had 7 by 5 ft. and 7 by 1 ft. panels. I kind of walked my way into doing a complete installation of them.
PAUL LASTER: What’s are you showing at Perrotin in the new exhibition in Paris?
KAWS: The main focus of the show is a room full of CHUM paintings. After doing several variations of them I wanted to do a completely focused show of the vertical paintings in Hong Kong and now I’m using this opportunity in Paris to really focus on this one image to see how it works in repetition and how all of them work response to each other.
PAUL LASTER: What came first after working on the streets? Was it making clothing or the sculptures?
KAWS: The first thing that I made in 95 and 96 was clothing, just through knowing STASH and Futura and other guys like my friend James Jebbia of Supreme. I had this access to make these products.
PAUL LASTER: Was it T-shirts?
KAWS: Yeah, T-shirts, real basic stuff. Later on in 99 I made a full collection for a company called UnderCover by Jun Takahashi in Japan. We did everything from women’s clothes to kids clothes and patterns. It was the same year that I made my first toy, through meeting this guy in Japan who was doing small-run toys for his company.
PAUL LASTER: How many toys have you made?
KAWS: I don’t know. I haven’t even counted.
PAUL LASTER: What are some of the different characters that you do?
KAWS: In the beginning I made a kind of derivative Mickey character and now in later years I’m finding that some of these same companies are opening up their IP [Intellectual property] to me and giving me access to do whatever variations of their characters that I want. And they’re doing it on my terms. We handle the sculpting and production of it. We sell it almost exclusively at my shop and on my website and we just give them a royalty. I did Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket with Disney. Warner Brothers gave us Twitty. Lucas Films has given the rights to use any character. We did Darth Vader and Stormtroopers.
PAUL LASTER: These are the kind of companies that when artists do something without their approval they’re all over them. They’re suing them the next day.
KAWS: My image has grown to a point that I can’t do something without an agreement. If I’m going to do a toy edition and make 2000 pieces then I have to do it that way. Part of the message is that I’m getting this access from Lucas Films, which is notoriously tight with their IP, or Peanuts. This month we’re doing something with Astroboy. These are all characters that have never been changed by an artist. It’s interesting to see how things shift and how companies come around to realizing what the benefits are.
PAUL LASTER: What about the clothing side? Is that something that you are still actively engaged with? Do you have a shop in Tokyo?
KAWS: Yeah, I have shop called Original Fake in Tokyo. This May will be our seventh year. It’s a fun project, but I’m treating it as a project. It’s not something that I want to continue forever. Things will change and we’ll move on.
PAUL LASTER: It’s interesting to see that some of the earliest roots of your altering images keeps coming back, in that you get asked by publications do a project with them by collaborating with a photographer or person of note to transform them. How much fun is that?
KAWS: It is fun. It’s not something that I’ve done in a while. I think the last real collaborative magazine thing that I did was for French Vogue with Mario Sorrenti. That was great. I’ve known Mario for years and love his work. He called me and told me about the shoot and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. It was a fun project. When I was doing the ads I met David Sims and he gave me access to all of his negatives and I made prints and painted all of these individual pieces for no commercial reason actually, just to do them and keep them.
PAUL LASTER: What about printmaking? How engaged are you in it?
KAWS: A bit. I’ve published some prints. Most of the ones that I’ve done so far were made as charity prints for different museums. I made one for the Aldrich. I did one for the Modern in Fort Worth and one for the High Museum. It’s a fun process. There’s a certain part of my audience that are interested in that kind of work, beyond the toys and other products, but don’t the means for a painting.
PAUL LASTER: It’s also great that you can give back to the institutions that are promoting your work. They’re probably able to break even rather than just being out of pocket.
KAWS: Yeah, it’s good. I definitely appreciate the opportunities that I get and it’s a good way to give back.
PAUL LASTER: What do you have coming up after the show at Perrotin?
KAWS: Well, there’s the parade in November.
PAUL LASTER: Oh yeah, tell me about the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I know that Macy’s has done Keith Haring’s Radiant Baby, Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, and Takashi Murakami’s KaiKai and Kiki. How did they pick you for this year’s parade?
KAWS: They just contacted me out of the blue. It was one of those “Really?” kind of phone calls. But of course, there wasn’t even zero hesitation in my mind about whether it was something that I wanted to do. It was like, “Huh, yeah, Macy’s parade, sure.” It was a fun project. This year I drew all of the advertising for the campaign, so all of the visuals that are out there are things that I drew here. It’s just another way of getting the work out and for me that stuff is fun.
PAUL LASTER: What character are they using?
KAWS: It’s COMPANION. It’s pretty much based on the Passing Through version that was at the Aldrich and the Standard. It’s at the Modern in Fort Worth now. Almost as quickly as I knew that I would want to do the thing, I realized that this was the kind of figure that I wanted to do.
PAUL LASTER: Is it black, white and gray?
KAWS: It’s warm grays, different brown grays. I thought, aesthetically, it would look beautiful in the city, as well as it being a reoccurring character, a theme, in my work. I’ve taken this character from its first incarnation in 1999 and five years later a made a new version where he got taller and fatter and then in 2006 I made a version where he looks dissected.
PAUL LASTER: My two earliest memories of your work was seeing the altered ads in the bus shelters and phone booths in the late- 90s and the second was a window installation at the New Museum with the COMPANION figure in 2000.
KAWS: Yeah, they let me do two window installations for them when they were on Broadway and one of them was COMPANION. It was really simple. It was my first toy and they had a great bookstore—it was one of my favorite shops. Jennifer Heslin was the manager and took COMPANION on consignment. I gave them my first book, KAWS Exposed, and the toy, both on consignment. I’d get a call saying we sold 10 copies; bring 10 more.
PAUL LASTER: Did you self-publish the book?
KAWS: Actually, Colette in Paris and ARO Space co-published it. The book was just my phone booths and bus shelters—no text, just straight photos. It was the first tangible thing to get things started.