“When you paint over ads, it clicks […] There were Calvin Klein ads of Kate Moss or Christy Turlington. I think that’s when I realised it was more about communication; there was a dialogue.” — KAWS
Born in New Jersey in 1974, KAWS’s interest in art was shaped by his engagement with skateboarding and graffiti subcultures. Graduating from the New York School of Visual Arts in 1996 (the same school that Keith Haring attended), KAWS first worked as an animator for Jumbo Pictures. It was during this period where he began tagging the advertising posters found at bus stops on the streets of New York with crossed bones and ‘X’s for eyes. This motif marked the beginnings of KAWS’s trademark style, as he explored the notion of mass consumption in modern day society and the elevation of popular culture imagery within the discourse of contemporary art.
Since 1996, KAWS began to use artistic intervention as both a social and creative strategy; he saw an opportunity to introduce a new level of dialogue with the consumer through a series of street level interventions, where he reworked advertising posters taken from bus shelters and telephone booths. He would take them out of their cabinets in broad daylight, collecting a variety of posters, returning only when he had amassed a certain volume of completed works. Such a methodology stirred a far more widespread intervention; people would get up the next day and the whole street would be KAWS, from one end to the other:
“I would walk up and ask people to move out of the way, ‘excuse me’ and no-one said anything, people thought it was my job… I would [replace all the posters] of Houston Street in one night.” — KAWS
After prying a lock out of one of the advertising hoardings, KAWS had master keys cut by a locksmith, thus giving him the ability to access virtually all the advertising cabinets in New York City and freeing him from the fear of being caught.i This gave him the time to labour over each brushstroke, and to return the work only after it had been perfectly rendered.