In other words, Kaws -- only 25, a Catholic school kid who graduated dead last in his class and a former graffiti guerrilla from New Jersey who now lives in Brooklyn -- may soon be No. 1 with a bullet on the Art Crossover chart. Eric Clapton, Lenny Kravitz and members of the B-52s own his work; Susan Sontag is reportedly writing an essay on him. No less a king of all-conquering kitsch than Jeff Koons attended the opening of Kaws' show at the Magidson Gallery in New York last month, where doctored ads were going for as much as $6,500.
Back when he was bombing trains with the Kaws name, he was strictly into letters. (The name, incidentally, doesn't mean anything in particular and is definitely not a play on `cause,' he says.) But now he's got a logo, an icon, of his own. It's usually described by critics as a skull-and-crossbones or a sperm-and-crossbones. What does he call it? "It's a skull-and-crossbones that kinda got a tail," Kaws mumbles in semi-dazed, mid-morning post-slacker delivery during a phone interview. "It's kinda like a sperm, too." The suggestion that it's more reminiscent of an elephant's head or foot, the bones stylized tusks, the "tail" a trunk, is met with amusement. "I've heard that before," he chuckles. "It's not an elephant at all."
Well, fine, but the dude did do animation backgrounds for Disney. He also spent some time at MTV working on Daria and Beavis & Butt-head Do America, not to mention a stint at ABC working on Doug. Doug? That wussy? "It's an easy check," Kaws shrugs, adding that he "never really liked animation."
How about advertising? Kaws has no particular opinion of ads qua ads, though he did in fact attend the School of Visual Arts in New York. Not with the intention of building an ad career; he studied "life painting," he says. "I worked in oils every day. I never wanted to be an adman, but I've learned a lot about marketing since I started this." How about outdoor work? Surely he's thought long and hard about it? "It gets in your head whether you like it or not," he notes. Beyond that, he views outdoor ads as things he either wants or doesn't want to paint over, and that's all there is to it. He is willing to offer the observation that the current Wilke-Rodriguez campaign "is really wack." It's apparently a certain lack of verve in the photography. "Text campaigns do nothing for me, of course," he notes. He's a people person. What about the sheer visual pollution of certain campaigns? Like, say, "Milk Mustache"? "Sometimes repulsive can be good," Kaws says, "Milk Mustache" being a case in point. He's done one, turning a kid's smiling face into a big blue whatever-it-is.
How about TV commercials? Any thoughts? Like many top creatives, Kaws claims he "doesn't watch much TV," and he guesses a Kaws-treated commercial would not have the same impact as his street work. "On TV, you expect to see the filler. It's not the same as turning a corner and running into a giant billboard."
At this point, though, turning a corner and running into a Kaws is like finding a bag of money in the street. Not only do fashion houses not object to what he does to their ads, they encourage him. After all, a Kaws-enhanced poster is that much more distinctive. Diesel, for instance, has sent him ads to paint over. Fashion shooter David Sims sent him a Calvin Klein original print of Kate Moss to play with. Despite the illegality of messing with the display cases, isn't there a certain outlaw cachet missing here? Isn't the Kaws logo too cute and unthreatening? He doesn't think so. "I'm sure there are people who object to what I'm doing," Kaws insists. "Not everybody loves it."
Well, there's always Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But this art is not about `culture jamming,' `ad busting' or anything else that smacks of corporate ass-kicking. "I'm changing images to make what I think are nicer images," Kaws explains. "It's about painting. It's hard for people to accept that it's not political." So it's just about him, in the way that street tagging is just about getting your name out there and establishing your `identity'? "It has to be about me," says Kaws, "but it's more complicated than painting a train, which is just blasting a surface."
Moreover, there is a political edge to some of his work. He'll put ads back in different places, thereby changing the context. "For instance, I'll take a Chanel ad from the Upper East Side and put it downtown. You don't often see Chanel ads on the Lower East Side." OK! A blow against gentrification!
But then the inevitable Keith Haring connection rears its adorable, featureless head. Yup, Kaws names Haring as an inspiration. "I didn't go to galleries or museums as a kid, so Haring was one of the few artists whose work I knew about," he says. Haring started out his career by getting arrested for wall-scrawling in the subway, but his signature style, over time, became practically Hallmark cuddly, the stuff of beach towels and birthday cards.
Kaws is similarly committed to his logo -- you can't change elephants in midstream, after all. Is he going to end up with the Kaws Museum Store, his bony Mr. Wigglies decorating coffee mugs and lobster bibs? Kaws doesn't want to deal with it. "I'm not thinking that far into the future," he says.
Well, we are. Can you do up a bunch of our wedding pictures, man, and sign them, please?