It was in the summer of 2000 when KAWS said to me, “I’m going to replace this piece I’m painting now with a bus stop poster on the street tomorrow, you want to come with me?”
Nowadays, it can be said of KAWS - a star in the contemporary art world – that he still has a face as a graffiti writer.
In tens of seconds, he pulled out the poster at a bus stop and replaced it with the poster he painted in his studio. This move still made him strong as a graffiti writer, and that image was strongly exuded.
In July 2021, KAWS will hold a solo exhibition in Japan for the first time in 20 years. If you’re into street culture or follow modern art, you probably know what kind of artist KAWS is, but in fact, 20 years ago, with the exact same title as this time: KAWS TOKYO FIRST – a solo exhibition held at Shibuya Parco. Isn’t the fact that he had a solo exhibition at Shibuya Parco a sign that things may not have been conveyed in such great detail?
While curating his first solo exhibition in Asia, and the second solo exhibition at BAPE GALLERY that followed in 2003, and looking back on the conversations and interviews I had while interacting with KAWS, his trajectory has not been explained at length in Japan. I would like to talk a little about his past activities and his relationship with Tokyo.
First, the most important thing when talking about KAWS is the existence of GRAFFITI. The boy who had already started tagging when he was in elementary school became a member of the FAME CITY Crew, a well-known graffiti crew in NY, shortly after that. As a crew and as writer, his bombs for murals and outdoor advertising at the time fully expressed the graphic quality and pop-flair he is known for today.
After that, what was interesting about the story I heard from him was the so-called KAWS success story. “Pull out the advertising posters in the telephone booths and bus stops, take them back to my house, paint on them, and put them back in place.”
It is the existence of Barry McGee a.k.a Twist, who had already begun to attract attention from the streets to the contemporary world at that time. In fact, when he gave KAWS the key to a phone booth, he came up with the idea of replacing the ad.
And at the end, he had the key to exchange ads for most bus stops in New York City (personal talk). The next step that came from the encounter with Twist was a big one.
Boldly drawn on Calvin Klein and Kate Moss fashion advertisement posters, the KAWS’s “skull motif” was gaining recognition daily, and his art became more and more popular as time moved forward. His art became a hot topic on the streets by the time it was replaced and they would “disappear” minutes later.
KAWS was secretly beginning to gain popularity among the informed and hip people of NY and London.
It created the phenomenon that the advertiser who was bombed did not have any compensation problem, but on the contrary. Moreover, it was received favorably.
From the advertising side, it gets more attention than advertising, so there is no choice. His strategy won.
While developing a series of advertising strategies for telephone booths and bus stops that began in the 90’s, another important thing when talking about KAWS today is his experience of working at an animation studio.
In an interview with KAWS for Relax Magazine in the summer of 2000, he said “I learned the use of color samples and primary colors from the animation studio there. I brought all the animation paint I’m using from work.” As he said, “It’s a thing (laughs)”, his unique matte paint and unique color technique were exactly what he learned at that time.
His artistry in creating a beautiful flat composition without unevenness, while mastering a uniquely shaped sponge brush is reminiscent of the graffiti writer’s clean background painting with a fat cap.
When street techniques combined with training in America’s animation industry, art that made the world enthusiastic was born.
And it goes without saying that FAME on the street crossed the sea and reached here in Tokyo. With the introduction of FUTURA and STASH, who were already familiar with the crew in Tokyo, HECTIC’s YOPPI at that time hooked up. From such things, we gradually deepened our friendship with the members of Harajuku. I myself became friends with KAWS in the summer of 2000 when I interviewed him for the Relax magazine story I mentioned earlier, and the following year, in 2001, I produced TOKYO FIRST, his first solo exhibition in Japan at Shibuya Parco Gallery.
The contents of the exhibition were very ambitious, such as the KIMPSONS series in custom-made blister packs, and paintings directly on the wall...And there is an anecdote about Kim Jones, who was still a kid, sneaking into the reception party with a skateboard in one hand. It is a good memory.
KAWS, who had been deepening his ties with Tokyo since the end of the 90’s, continued to collaborate with Harajuku’s leading brands. Collaboration products with A BATHING APE, UNDERCOVER and HECTIC have become the envy of kids all over the world.
The so-called collaboration (*sometimes called double name or triple name) that was born in the phenomenon of Ura-Harajuku, had a great influence on the world after that. By actively interacting with overseas artists such as KAWS, they absorbed Tokyo-like creative methodologies and business methods.
Meanwhile in 2002, at the invitation of NIGO®︎, I decided to launch BAPE GALLERY in the BAPE shop in Minami Aoyama, and in 2003 I held KAWS’s second solo exhibition in Tokyo called “ORIGINAL FAKE”.
At this time, his style, which he showed at his solo exhibition at Shibuya Parco, had evolved and expanded further. As can be seen from the title, many original canvas works were released.
And most of them were sold out before the gallery even opened, as I remember they were the top seller at BAPE GALLERY. I could say that his popularity on the street was extremely high.
And here is another interesting episode. At that time, while Hip Hop in the United States was flourishing, Hip Hop celebrities such as Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams always stopped by NIGO®︎’s home and atelier when they came to Japan.
They were shocked when they returned to the United States and saw the overflow of works done by KAWS there. It is not well known that the point of contact between KAWS and US hipsters was sometimes created from the connections and collaborative work in Tokyo.
As a graffiti-loving kid, how important must it have been to meet people at these turning points in order to run up the streets of New Jersey and grab the ticket to success, and be strategic.
THE WORLD, MODERN ART
After that, through energetic solo exhibitions at galleries and museums, as well as collaborative works on a global scale, KAWS reached the point of being recognized in the world of contemporary art, and has been recognized as an artist who creates extremely valuable works.
And when the younger generation, who enjoyed Ura-Harajuku culture today, began to run at the forefront of the times in the fashion and creative industries, they began to collaborate with the heroes they admired at the time. An example of this would be the collaboration between Kim Jones of Dior and KAWS.
Why was I attracted to KAWS? When I think about it, one of the reasons is his quiet personality and the nature of an artist who lives a New Yorker lifestyle. The attitude is making light of the society behind some vacant look and character. It is a stylish marketing activity that takes advantage of VANDALISM’s methodology.
I think that cunning style made me sick. KAWS’s first Japanese version of the work made its way with ILLDOZER.
And now I think again that the words I wrote on the book cover at the time were suitable expressions to describe him.
『Subtle, and Audacious』
If you can understand the impact of the collaboration between Pake®︎ and KAWS – a sustainability package that symbolizes modern “Made in Japan” – and how KAWS has such a dynamic legacy on street culture for roughly 20 years, then, I can say that I am very happy.
In 2001, he curated KAWS's first solo exhibition in Asia called "TOKYO FIRST". Launched Bape Gallery with Nigo®︎ and curated various exhibitions.
After that, while working as an art buyer at Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo, he experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and launched the general incorporated association ISHINOMAKI 2.0 in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture with his locals and friends in Tokyo.
He is currently enrolled as a creative producer at the world's largest design office in Tokyo. He is also a member of CEKAI Co., Ltd. and Dentsu B Team.