big up to kaws, the man behind the cartoons

As KAWS prepares to open his new exhibition Permanent Vacation, at Galerie Perrotin on 26th November, we look back to our interview with the artist in our KAWS special, The Stepping Stone Issue, July 2008, where he tells us how to not get caught doing...

by Jeremy Abbott
24 November 2014, 12:35pm


From time spent tagging public spaces and reappropriating fashion billboards, working at Disney and designing with A Bathing Ape, launching his line Original Fake and being collected by Pharrell and Nigo, the brilliant painter, ex-graffiti artist cum fashion designer, toy maker, doer, player, cultural magpie, lover of cartoons, oracleon cool and zeitgeist for everything hot right now - KAWS - has grown out of the shadows and emerged as one of the most vibrant, exciting and commercially viable artists working today. Using his skills through various disciplines and mediums, KAWS ties together hip hop, skateboarding and cartoon culture all in one perfectly positive, pristine vision of impossible perfection. His work is a joy to behold; an all singing all dancing fun packed celebration of positivity, life and FUN. His work is a craft, a skill that most mere mortals couldn't even begin to comprehend. In fact - just how does he do it? His is a gift direct from the Gods, having received a hand as steady as a rock, an eye for beauty and an instinct to make appealing artefacts that would make Jim Henson, Matt Groening and Walt Disney themselves proud to call KAWS their peer and ally. X marks the spot with KAWS as his signature statements always come with a cross through the eye, rendering the subject matter somewhat devoid of human characteristics and instantly cartoon in their exaggerations.

The Stepping Stone Issue, No. 289, July 2008

What were the first things you remember drawing as a kid?
I drew some little comic books, I guess.

Did you draw all over your schoolbooks?
Yeah, that's all I did in school. Drew all around the borders. Monsters and things like that. Probably anti-religious stuff cause Iwent to Catholic school.

When did you realise art was going to be your calling?
Definitely during elementary school. Probably fifth grade. One of my art teachers called my mom and saying, 'maybe he could pursue art?' Because my grades were always really, really bad.

Were you happy with that?
I was stoked. But at that time it just seemed like a joke. It was never something that really seemed like an option.

So later you went to art school?
Yeah, I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Is this when things really started to pick up with graffiti?
I mean, even before that in high school l was already painting on the street. Really through graffiti, I finally got to meet other kids who were already into that kinda stuff. It just really opened up the possibilities.

So how old were you when you started, like 15 or 16?
Ha, no-no earlier than that. It was when I was in elementary school when I was skating like 7th or 8th grade. Like the last two years of high school in '92, I was painting a lot, especially in high school. In '93 was when I started doing pieces, full-on walls and doing billboards, when I really started getting out there.

Were you nervous when you first started defacing public property?
Yeah, that's pretty much why I started doing it. You could be nervous. It's fun. I've always enjoyed doing graf and piecing, and just always wanted to do stuff like billboards and street spots. It'smore of a sport.

And which crews were you a part of?
A few. Mainly FC and TC5.

Did you ever get caught?
Nothing really serious. I've been in Central Booking in Manhattan. I was caught putting up stickers, ironically, after everything. Yeah, never really been caught.

So how did you manage to not get caught, what were your tactics?
I guess not to have tactics. I just used to do it in the daytime, and I'd ask people to move out of the bus shelter so I could put something up. I guess the bolder you are, the less people question. I've been out painting with people heckling me, and then having them just walking away.

So you started with billboards and then bus shelters?
It started with billboards in '93, full pieces right over it, and then writing on top of the ads. And then Barry McGee gave me the key to open up the phone booths, and then once I did that, that gave me access to all of that. I moved to Manhattan in '96, so growing up in Jersey I had access to freight trains, billboards and a lot of walls, then when I moved I was more heavily into phone booths. I also made akey to open up bus shelters, and did that also when I first moved to London.

What is the driving force behind you?
I dunno. Boredom. Get imagery out there. Basically you grow up drawing and suddenly you start doing graf and you get feedback, and not only is it a fun experience but you're building and constructing things.

How did you decide which brands to attack?
It was definitely brands that I liked or ads that were better. But then there were really bad ones that worked really well. For the most part Calvin Klein were doing great ads and they fit with what I was doing at the time.

When did you actually become KAWS?
It was in high school.

Is it a name you gave yourself, or is it a nickname someone gave you?
No, I just came up with it. I liked the lettering. The way the letters looked together. I liked the fact it wasn't anything, it wasn't a name.

What are some of the best experiences you've had?
Actually the best ones are the worst ones. Like sleeping in bushes, laying in a bush that's routed out, like the core went up and it bowed all around the side. Laying there in this little area and looking out through the bush, and having to lay there for what seemed like forever while people stomped around the area looking for you. I did a train in a full-on blizzard once with my friend Nate, who just passed away. That was fun in '96; we probably wore all the clothes we owned to keep warm. It was funny, because it was super bright, even though it was night time and it was super quiet. Y'know when there'sheavy snowfall it's great. It was peaceful.

So how did you end up working at Disney?
When I got out of college I started working at this company called Jumbo Pictures, and Disney bought out that company. All through college I was never really into animation.

So you just fell into it?
Well I was doing it to receive a steady cheque straight out of school.

Why did you end up leaving that world?
Actually in '98, I won an artist grant from Pernod liquor. I'd actually already moved away from that world and was freelance directing children's books. Then when I received the grant it seemed like a tonne of money back then, it was ten grand, and it gave the opportunity to move on. Then I started to develop the painting, and travelled to Tokyo in '97 and started working with Hectic then in 98/99 started working with Jun (Takahashi) and Undercover.

When did it all start stepping up a gear?
After 9-11, it went weird and quiet a little but after that I started getting a lot of commissions from Nigo, and started designing for A Bathing Ape. I think those designs started to put it out there a lot.

When did you first meet Nigo?
In '98, I met him through a mutual friend of ours Yoppi who has a company called Hectic, and it was through him that I also met Jun, Hikaru (Iwanaga, from Bounty Hunter), Shinsuke (Takizawa) and the Neighborhood guys, basically everybody. It was much smaller back then and a tight group of friends.

Is it through those connections that the KAWS toys came about?
Yeah through Hikaru from Bounty Hunter, he asked me if I wanted to do them, and I just said, 'For sure!' It wasn't anything I'd thought about doing, but yeah great. I'd always loved sculpture when I was in high school and I always loved the Pop Art guys, but sculpture always seemed like an impossible thing to do. Then the opportunity came along. I was really bad at sculpture at school, and I always thought I'd have to wait till much later life before I could do that, and suddenly I had this access. We did the first one and it went really well.

The 3D figures you're creating keep getting bigger, how big do you want them to get?
Ummm - as big as buildings! Honestly. The one in the OriginalFake store is 3m high. There are plans in the mental pipeline that I'd like to fulfill definitely.

Did you ever think you'd be making big money through your art?
It's been strange, it's not like I make a tonne of money. Like when you grow up, you have bad grades and you think you're fucked, and you think that doctorate thing is not really going to work out. And then if you're lucky, you realise you can make a living out of what you are into, and the cherry on top, is that you can survive.

Do your characters talk to you?
Yeah, they all talk to me. And it's really annoying. They all exist in this grim little way. I don't know if they each have a personality, but the Companion and the Accomplice are definitely key… people. Ha.


Text Jeremy Abbott
Photography KAWS

a bathing ape
Brian donnelly
emma summerton
sasha pivovarova