Just Be Kaws
Kaws is a rockstar in the art world — and in the world-world. Look up, and you'll see the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, and the Companion.
Words Sacha Jenkins SHR Portrait Guillaume Ziccarelli
Brian “Kaws” Donnelly came of age as a graffiti-writing skate rat way back in the ‘90s. A New Jersey resident at the time, Kaws, with inspiration fueling his urethane-wheeled vehicle, would travel to New York in an effort to grind and get up. Tags and throw-ups and pieces and the advertisements he would re-mix via the application of his Companion character — Kaws covered a lot of ground with his handiwork. It was all in fun. It was all about the art of getting over. Today, the impact of Kaws’ creative instigation is global — from sculpture to pop art, action figures to major figure$ (and at the time of this interview, he of course neglected to mention that MTV’s Moon Man trophy has literally morphed into his buddy Companion). Still, if you ever get the opportunity to spend time with the man, you’ll notice that his work is a strong reflection of the artist himself. When speaking with Kaws, it is easy to envision one of his characters mouthing his words: his speech is reserved and thoughtful, yet, in the same breath, direct, honest and whimsical in a Mickey Mouse hand — kind of way. It is the cohabitation of these contrasts that makes Kaws’ work both arresting and refreshing. Open wide.
Kaws is the man. The dude had his iconic Companion character floating like a helium-propelled Godzilla inside of last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Such a move is literally the personification of fly. His Brooklyn studio is teeming with life and artists who assist him with his visions. What he has been able to achieve coming from where he has come from is humbling and inspiring. He is too busy actualizing his creative impulses to slow down and think about what it all means. Mass Appeal was clever enough to con him into slowing down for a few minutes to talk about who he is and what he does.
Mass Appeal: Choosing a name is an interesting exercise. You’re given a name by your parents, and then you enter a subculture where you choose a name. Why did you choose the name that you chose? Was it the letter combination? What was it about the word or the letter combination that lead you to Kaws?
KAWS: I think it was definitely just … aesthetically … how it held a four-letter combination. It was a quick read, easy-to-say letter combination. Over time, I kind of felt content with the name because you couldn’t really associate it with anything; it was just like a sound, you know? It wasn’t like it was an action or anything.
MA: But a “cause” is a pretty active word.
K: Yeah, if it’s spelled c-a-u-s-e. But that’s not where it was coming from.
MA: So, in other words, you created a word that had its own identity, that didn’t necessarily connect to an active word like “c-a-u-s-e?”
K: Yeah, it was more about the sound and the read of it. And I just liked the balance of the four letters.
MA: And that balance of letters has clearly crossed over into your other
K: Yeah, I just kept the name. When I was younger, I was told that I would have to “grow out of this, and move on.” I think I got it in my mind that I was going to keep this name straight through and work it, and make people realize that you can’t just box us into this one section.
MA: Right, but I mean the culture has come a long way now.
K: No, I know it has but, honestly, when I was first entering the galleries, entering with a graff name wasn’t the easiest path to take.
MA: It’s funny, Greg “SP.One” Lamarche is working on a book about his ‘zine, Skills, and he has a letter that you wrote him when you were a kid. At an early age, obviously you were a fan of the culture. You became a participant. But also, I think, writing letters to a ‘zine, at a time when there weren’t that many — that’s saying something. It wasn’t like dropping a blogger an email. You actually had to write a letter … It seems like early on, you wanted a greater connection with the culture and saw something greater in it.
K: I don’t even remember this letter. So now you have me super curious; I’m sure it’s embarrassing … I mean, look — [I] learned about geography through graffiti, you know? Getting some of those magazines and seeing what the graffiti looked like in Spain and then I’m thinking “oh, fucking Spain … what is that?” So it did make me curious about what’s going on elsewhere. You kind of figure that if something is happening in an area, that exact thing is happening in different areas with different groups all over the world, you just have to meet those people. Back then, the ‘zines put people and places and things together in a way they hadn’t before. There’s definitely pockets of like-minded people, you know? That’s why if you’re at a certain level in one area, you have to understand that it doesn’t mean that much to a lot of people in a lot of places in the world. So you can’t get a big head because you boxed out a position in a three-block radius.
MA: I think New Jersey, in terms of graff culture, is finally coming into its own in terms of having its recognition. How do you feel about that?
K: Do you mean “finally” as in 2013?
MA: Yeah, like Jersey’s finally getting respect.
K: [Laughs] I mean, that’s cool. I thought we were getting love in the ‘90s, though.
MA: I mean, you guys were getting love in the ‘90s, but I think that New York always overshadowed Jersey. I think Jersey now has its own identity separate from New York. I think that’s the difference.
K: I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t really keep up with who’s doing what in what city. But things shift. I don’t think New York will ever not be at the top. It just seems like such a strong participant. I grew up in Jersey City and I just wanted to paint in New York. You realize that you’re in a small scene and you’re hungry for more.
MA: What were some of your visual inspirations when you were a wee lad in the Garden State?
K: Well, characters in general. They’re like actors that don’t get old, you know? They kind of have this identity and you grow up with them. When I first went to Japan, I realized, we don’t speak the same language, but we all know the same shit from when we were little. You can see SpongeBob when you get off the plane in Japan, at a market in Mexico City, there’s a SpongeBob piñata. That stuff just blankets things, and I think it has such a stronger effect than actors or celebrities. I just love that visual culture. Those Smurfs, those little toy Star Wars figures. When you’re a kid, you’re in your room and you have your eight toys or whatever it is, and it kind of makes up your world.
MA: Do you think different cultures receive the figures that you create or SpongeBob differently? Or do you feel like everyone has the same connection to it? Like you said, you describe it as a language, you don’t speak the native language but there’s a language in the visual representation of these figures. Do you think people in Japan receive the figures the same as someone in the United States might?
K: That’s hard to answer. I would imagine that people have their history and their background and they come at things with their own point of view. But I don’t know, it feels like the world has gotten so small. You wake up, and it’s just like, look at Instagram…
MA: Has that had a positive effect on your career, you think? I’m asking about the web, social media, etc.
K: I started my website in 2002, that’s when I sold my first toy for myself. Before that, the first toy was in ’99, but I had to hope that other people would buy it. The New Museum took some on consignment; Collette in Paris took a few. And I’d, like, hope that they would re-order. But when I started my site, suddenly I was able to make a product, sell it from my Brooklyn apartment, pack it myself, ship it, get the funds immediately, and put the proceeds into making other products. And literally my toy thing grew from that. So if it wasn’t for the Internet or this sort of shrinking of the world or whatever, then things might be different for me right now.
MA: So how many products do you actually have now?
K: The difference is that we make our stuff in editions, so there are editions of 500, editions of 1000. So as we make it, we sell it and then it doesn’t come back. It’s not like I have product lines out there and accounts.
MA: How many editions do you end up doing a year?
K: Gosh, I don’t count. This year was heavy because I ended my shop, Original Fake — out in Tokyo.
Shut it down.
MA: Why did you close it?
K: I was doing collaborations with all of these different companies and I felt like I’ve kind of grown to a place where the next logical step was to start my own store, which was in collaboration with Metacon, who has been making my toys for over ten years. It was something I was really curious about and now I know. So there’s no mystery to it at this point. And I felt like, yes, I could keep it open, but I’d rather focus my attention onto more unknowns.
MA: More unknowns?
K: New things. We had like over 70 wholesale accounts. It’s a business. There’s two seasons a year, over 100 pieces per season. There’s a lot of sample checking. For me, it was great. I learned a ton, but now I want to apply my knowledge in new areas and figure out new things. When I say, “get into new things,” I mean explore paintings, explore sculpture. Really buckle down and focus and be open. I wouldn’t be against doing more product — when it’s interesting.
MA: Talk about this show that you’re about to travel very far to do.
K: I’ve been working with this one foundry that’s based in Maastricht, and they have two locations. The other one is near Amsterdam. And we’ve been working on these wood sculptures for a bit over a year. The show is an exhibition, but it’s more sort of like, “this is what we just made.”
MA: Are these pieces not for sale?
K: They will be. I mean, if there is the right client who’s interested, of course, but that’s not the point of this show in Switzerland. It’s sort of just to be like, this is where we’re at. I’m doing two shows in New York coming up in November. One of them will be sculpture and one will be painting. Some of this work will come over here for it.
MA: Do you work on paintings and sculptures simultaneously? Or do you go through periods where you only do one or the other? How does that process work?
K: Yeah, it’s sort of simultaneously. That’s the reason I liked making product and got into the shop. I like to move around and work on painting a bit, work on sculpture, work on product.
MA: What about music? Obviously you’ve collaborated with Kanye, Pharrell, and various other folks. What kind of role does music play in what you do in terms of inspiration or interest?
K: I’m just a listener. I’m not deep into the music scene or anything of that sort. It’s weird because the stuff I’ve made has brought me into contact with different people. Through working with Nigo is how I met Pharrell, and it’s not something that I would’ve ever aimed for or imagined. You kind of realize that music has power that art doesn’t, in the way that it just reaches such a mass. Visual artists don’t reach people like that. They don’t come out with an exhibition and have ten million people view it.
MA: But the fact that you’re collaborating with people who sell that many records is a testament of how things have changed.
K: Yeah, I mean, art has been embraced tremendously these past couple of years. I still think you’re making the cover for the musician. It’s not like I’m making a painting that a musician is making an album for and they’re going to reach the people through me.
MA: But, I mean, you did an album cover for Kanye, right?
K: Oh yeah!
MA: And there are kids who probably know nothing about art at all who now, even if they’re not actively looking for your stuff, if they come across it, they’re going to make the connection in ways that they probably wouldn’t have before. Props due, my man. Props due.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 53, which you can purchase a copy of here.