Ask about KAWS his influences and will end with a list of contemporary and twentieth-century artists, most of whom have recognized graphic styles: “Martín Ramírez. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. HC Westermann. Chris Johanson. Harry Dodge. Robert Crumb. Peter Saul “. He pauses.” I’m looking around. Ken Price. Lee Quiñones. Joyce Pensato … “It’s a deep knowledge that belies any idea that KAWS is not somehow a” serious “artist because he works with marks.When I put the names of three artists mentioned as comparisons with him in other profiles, it’s incredulous. “Can you promise to give up all the things you read?”
The same goes for the tags attached to what it does. “I went from being called a graffiti artist to a ‘street artist,'” he says, “and they were just other people’s words. So the street art label was an attempt by commercial galleries to legitimize graffiti?” Honestly, when someone looks at my work now and talks about “street art,” I just wonder what the fuck they are looking at. It doesn’t offend me. I just feel bad that they have such a tunnel vision. “
Does that make sense. The world moved years ago and so did the practice of KAWS. The difference between shop, street and gallery is now minimal. In the catalog of a new retrospective of his work published by the Brooklyn Museum, What a party, Curator Anne Pasternak writes about how “the practice of KAWS recognizes that works of art can occupy multiple spheres: the aesthetic and the transcendent, the commodified and the free.” Sure, this is true, but it may be more accurate to describe her work of art as the occupier of all realms at once.
In 1995, if KAWS released a label next to a Jersey City skate shop, it’s likely that no one outside of Jersey City will ever see it. Now, you can do a limited edition sweatshirt with the same store and they can be in the hands of a teenager in Singapore in a few hours. His work is hyper-commercialized and totally global and, although the context could change, the iconography (the companions and references of pop culture) remains the same. And this global appeal can be seen in the way the reception of his work has become more homogeneous in the last two decades. When once, he says, streetwear brands in Japan were more susceptible than American labels to the idea of collaborating with an artist on a piece of clothing, now there are no noticeable differences. “I don’t think there’s a brand that doesn’t really approach artists right now.”
Pasternak, the museum’s curator, continues to point out the three million KAWS followers on Instagram. His production is as online as art can be without being literally virtual and he has always been quick to adopt new means to raise his profile and distribute the work (even since 1996, says KAWS, he was active on the first online Art Crimes and 12ozPhophet graffiti message boards. ”I remember the kids saying,“ You’re crazy to talk about what you do online, because they’ll arrest you ””).