kaws, street artist, urban enhancement

Kaws: From Graffiti and Street Artist, to Global Branding and Pop Culture Manipulator


Urban Enhancement’s lead artist visits the Kaws exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and shares some unique thoughts on this renowned conceptual art icon’s journey from humble street artist to global sensation.

When I heard that the National Gallery of Victoria was hosting the largest retrospective of Kaws work to date, I must admit at first I didn’t consider going.
I knew little about the artist other than he had a background in graffiti and street art, and was now a giant in the world of commercial and conceptual art. I figured I would leave the exhibition to all the vinyl toy aficionados, sneaker-freakers, and hype beasts. 

I caught myself mid-thought: What the fuck are you on about? How often does a graffiti or street artist get to take over the gallery like this? 

I remembered the renowned street artist Barry Mcgee’s installation in 2004 that covered the entire glass façade at the entrance to the gallery, following in the footsteps of Keith Haring, who also painted the iconic water wall 20 years prior. Now just behind the curtain of water that runs down the face of the gallery sits a small weeping Kaws ‘companion’ sculpture. Venture slightly deeper into the foyer to see the largest bronze Kaws piece ever commissioned.

Scroll over images for descriptions…

Ok, so I may not be up-to-date with the latest in popular culture. In fact I often veer in the opposite direction and dwell comfortably where it is quieter and less crowded in the counterculture lane, but I think I have to go and see how a dude from Jersey went from painting freight trains to being: “one of the most prolific artists of his generation.”  

The fact that Kaws has his roots firmly embedded in the street art and graffiti scenes should be more than enough to get any graffiti practitioner or street artist (myself included) excited about the exhibition, despite any preconceived notions they may have about the commercial nature of the artist’s catalogue.

I wanted to leave any of my biases at the door and to view the artwork with an open mind. So I ate a few magic mushrooms as I entered the gallery. This let my guard down and amplified the vibrancy of the artworks and broadened their potential intended meanings. 

As I made my way past the flood of selfie taking fashionistas swamping about the Kaws mega sculpture, I took note of the demographic that Kaws artwork was attracting then entered his exhibition.

The first thing on display that I noticed was a selection of Kaws black book sketches and graffiti flicks. The black book (graffiti artist’s sketchbook) and photo album are the pride and joy of any self respecting graffiti aficionado, and seeing these behind glass at the entrance of the exhibition gave me hope. It seemed Kaws was very proud of his street artist and graffiti roots. Placing rough sketches and photos of graffed up billboards on a pedestal hopefully positively propels the perception of our perennially poo-pooed painting pastime.  

Kaws’s early graffiti photos show that he had a fascination with the manipulation of popular culture, in many cases painting graffiti lettering on billboards that interacts with the existing advertising, as opposed to simply capping it with his own work. You can even see the beginnings of his skull and bones motif popping up next to an early piece on a Marlborough billboard. Say what you want about his commercial success, the man definitely can jam with a spraycan!

kaws, urban enhancement, street artists
Seeing shit like this in the NGV gives me hope that graffiti is starting to be seen with a less critical eye.

Turn the corner and the next phase of Kaws’ output is revealed. After moving to NYC in the 90’s Kaws was given a key by Barry Mcgee (perhaps Barry initiated his contact with NGV?) that allowed him to access the advertising posters in bus shelters and phone booths. 
During this period adopting more of a street artists’ aesthetic, Kaws stole posters by Calvin Klein and other iconic brands, then took them back to his studio, adding his own touch of pop iconography before returning the newly subverted-advertising to its intended spot, to then be viewed by the passing masses. 

He clearly has a good sense of humour, and is quick to take the piss out of being labelled a commercial artist. One of the first subvertisements on display here is a Snapple advert depicting a young man holding up a piece of consumer art, over which is painted the skull and crossbones now synonymous with Kaws. Its message to me was: is commercial art just selling out, or is it in fact art for the people? – or can it be both and is that ok?

Upon reading that during the late 90’s Kaws was working as an animator painting cells for shows such as Daria, I suddenly understood the progression from graffiti lettering to bold, colourful cartoon imagery. What I first saw as a pop art gimmick I now saw as a natural progression brought on by surrounding artists and influences.

I think this is the point where the mushrooms started to kick in and I was able to look past the injection of the self into popular culture and see further into the experiments with icons. 

Kaws has clearly created his own icons and with mass manipulation propelled them into cultural relevance not dissimilar to the appropriated source material such as Simpsons characters, Mickey Mouse, Spongebob, Snoopy and the Michelin man.    

In another piece Kaws pairs his Bendy figure with Street artist Keith Haring (that’s right another NGV connection), and by paying homage to Haring’s work he somehow managed to suggest that his artwork was on the same playing field, and of a similar cultural significance. Whether or not this was true at the time is inconsequential, as the act of subversion manipulates the perception of the viewer in a classic mass consumer persuasion. His contemporary work has definitely proven itself to be just as culturally relevant now though, and manipulated images such as this are the essence of Kaws’ success. Kaws was quite literally manifesting his own relevance, not unlike stunts by Banksy where the artist inserted his own works into the Louvre.  

street artist, kaws, keith harring
It is no mere coincidence Kaws has connections to Mcgee and Haring, the two artists to paint the ngv water wall. Here Kaw’s Bendy character literally attaches itself to the rock star artist Keith Haring.

Subverting the advertising of brands (many of whom Kaws went on to work with) was not an act of rebellion, like fire extinguisher tags over high fashion shop fronts by masked renegade street artist Kidult. It was more like a hungry boy with his face pressed against the cake shop window, tapping at the glass until someone finally noticed him and invited him in for a slice. Now that he has been invited in, Kaws has had his cake and eaten it too, and not since Warhol has the commodification of art been made so apparent by the artist. Kaws does so with his tongue embedded firmly in cheek, as he presents some of his artwork literally plastic wrapped in packaging reminiscent of a figurine or comic book collectable.

The not so subtle work of Kidult is a slap to the face of high end fashion.
plastic package kaws
Art as a product, bought and resold by investors, often at no profit to the artist.

The paintings in the show then move from merely appropriating known pop imagery to an exploration into how deeply imbedded pop culture really is in the psyche. Kaws demonstrates this point in a series of minimalist paintings that use bold colour, shape and a few lines that shouldn’t evoke much more than a feeling, yet the eye and brain make an instant connection to the source material; a cropped close up of characters from The Simpsons. The colour patterns and forms have penetrated the collective conscious so deeply that they cannot be unseen no matter how simplified or abstracted. Kaws is highlighting how deeply ingrained pop culture is in the collective conscious, taking that connection and plugging one end into his painting the other firmly on the forehead of the viewer.

The fact that the brain instantly recognises Bart Simpson from the shape and colour is unsettling. How much of the mind is clogged with popular culture how many names, numbers and faces have we forgotten yet we can still quote Simpsons episodes from 20 years ago?

Now that Kaws has drawn the audience in with the known, in the next part of the show he starts messing around with the unknown. I stepped into a room filled with fluorescent abstraction, and the magic mushrooms instantly kicked into a higher gear. I think the moving trippy iridescence bought on by the psychoactive substance really helped my mind to separate the layers of order and chaos. I was able to piece together the refracted and reversed cropped elements of the poison dipped apple from Disney’s Snow White. These works are large, and have a somewhat dizzying effect. You wouldn’t need to be on any substances to get a bit freaked out in here. So after a brief look, I got out of there pretty quickly. 

street artist, urban enhancement, kaws
This was my favorite piece from the show as it manages to capture the different styles Kaws has experimented with over the years. The pop art abstraction in the back-ground, a play on his fashion photography manipulation in the mid then the sketch up of a graffiti piece over the top. His years painting cells as an animator have really given Kaws a steady hand and exceptional line work.

Making art for everybody, not just the bourgeois, is seemingly the espoused  goal of the pop artists. While Kaws themes of generosity and need for companionship appeal to the masses, his work in the field of fashion seems to have attracted an audience made up of the top 1% of society. I think this is  no accident. The former street artist has seized every opportunity to peddle them his exclusive mass produced plastic figurines and limited edition clothing collaborations.

While meandering further from room to room, I started to realise that I had been just as transfixed by the crowd as the artwork. Gucci, Prada, Balenciaga, Montclair, YSL, LV; they were all there. All vying for a selfie and some limited edition Kaws merch. The room was abuzz with Crazy Rich Asians decked out in $4000 worth of clothing, doing ‘fashion shoots’ in front of the artwork, and bored millenials making an appearance at the latest exhibition to show their followers on the ‘gram,’ and not unlike Kaws, inject themselves into the pop culture ziet-geist. Is this the new way of art appreciation? Shit, I’m here taking photos and writing a blog so maybe I should just STFU.

kaws, street artist, urban enhancement
Get dat selfy. Why look at the art when you can be the art?

I have never seen so many dollars worth of clothing in one place, and it got me thinking: has the NGV bowed down to the dollar sign? I’m guessing this show been put on because of Kaws record breaking secondary sale (14.8m) for his painting ‘The Kaws Album,’ or his instagram following of 2.5 million, or his commercial appeal to collectors? Or am I just a confused psychonaut lost in space? Maybe the NGV are just keeping up with the times and the street artists’ ability to draw a crowd eager to throw money at a plastic toy or limited edition shoe actually solidifies his relevance in the modern context? What is the difference between a modern artist collaborating with a multinational such as Nike and one of the classic masters creating massive works for the corrupt church? I guess it is up to the artist to decide who to work with. Shit, at least he gets to do his own thing as an artist I know the sting of having to paint someone else’s vision in order to pay the bills.

If commercialising street art is the topic at hand, is it not the  gallery who charge a decent wad to see the work then corral the frothing mob through the turnstiles to purchase their collector edition memorabilia, mug or figurine as they exit through the gift shop? 

If you have an interest in seeing how drastically an artist can change their work to progress up the social ladder and find a golden path to success, then I recommend viewing this exhibition. It’s worth it just to see some graffiti and street art in the context of the national gallery. 

However, pop culture appropriation is never really that exciting to me personally, unless it has a sting in its tail like the work of Ron English; so if you are anything like me, the Spongebob and Simpsons renderings may not astound you. In fact, perusing sections of the show you could be forgiven if you thought you had stepped into a Disney gift shop. However, the Nychos-like x-ray sculptures at the end of the exhibition are pretty dope, and provide the perfect back-drop for all your content farming needs. 

So get your hashtags all sorted, and go film your Instagram stories, selfies and live streams. Who knows, just like Kaws you might be able to inject yourself into cultural relevance?

Urban Enhancement’s artists have been in the Melbourne Graffiti scene for over 20 years. If you would like to know more about us, or need some work done, please get in touch HERE