In 2017, there’s a pretty good chance that famed artist Kaws is now a household name. Sure, not everyone knows that his work is his, but if you’ve listened to Kanye West, you’ve probably seen Kaws work before on the 808 & Heartbreak cover. By today’s standards, Kaws, born Brian Donnelly, is one of the leading pop artists, so when he cosigns a collab, it’s sure to be a hit. Looking at the mayhem his recent Nike capsule caused, his star power isn’t fading any time soon. If anything, it solidifies his place as one of the premier artists blending the worlds of pop, street, and fine art.
For any artist trying to commodify their work, Donnelly’s career trajectory is the ideal playbook. His Companion character with signature XX eyes has been part of his repertoire since he worked as a background animator for Disney in the early 1990’s. Sometime after his time as an animator, he moonlighted as a graffiti and street artist. From there, his growing name led him to toy design. His toys, now collectors pieces, led to gallery shows, and eventually the museum worthy painter and sculptor that he is today. If you were to ask any artists, getting into a museum exhibition is very difficult; a solo show is nearly impossible. With the impact Kaws has made in pop culture though, it makes sense.
The interesting thing about Kaws position in the contemporary art world blurs the line between fine art and commercial production. While you wouldn’t call Kaws a commercial artist by any means, he has lent his creativity to a number of clothing and apparel companies ranging from classic Japanese streetwear stalwarts like A Bathing Ape to giant corporations like Nike and Vans. So while the Kaws x Uniqlo capsule ranges from $10-20, his Jordan capsule is on the resale market for upwards of $2,000, and his paintings are selling for $200K.
This is what makes Kaws the perfect collaboration artist for streetwear and sneakers. His work is iconic in it’s own right, and this almost guarantees the product will sell out. Consider how the New York-based icons at Supreme (whom Kaws has worked with in the past) take a subversive high brow/low brow approach to art—they make apparel-based collaborations with artists, but the product is still technically a piece of art. In the same way, a Kaws collab might not be priced the same as a giant Companion sculptor, but it’s still one a "Kaws original" either way you look at it. So for those taking inspiration from this multifaceted artist, imitation is the best form of flattery.