Public Art by Graffiti Artist KAWS
KAWS straddles the worlds of fine art, street culture, and consumer products with an ease that is both impressive and disarming. His cast of hybrid cartoon characters translates across mediums and scales, from figurines to lobby-sized sculptures.
A recent 115-foot-long installation of COMPANION floating in Hong Kong’s harbor required two tugboats to pull it. The work instantly became an Instagram favorite and a conversation piece.
KAWS’s work straddles high art and commercial design, influenced by Japanese aesthetic concepts of kawaii (cute) and yurui (lethargic). He uses pop culture imagery as his artistic vocabulary. His paintings and sculptures feature cartoon characters, often riffing on famous figures such as The Simpsons or Snoopy with their eyes crossed out with Xs—KAWS’ signature style.
Unlike traditional art, which can be difficult to access for non-millionaires, KAWS’s affordable toys and mass-produced prints allow his art to be accessible to everyone. He has also collaborated with brands like Nike and Uniqlo to add his style to their products, further blurring the lines between fine art and commerce.
SHARE highlights a wide range of the artist’s work, from early graffiti sketches and framed drawings to large-scale public installations. A small adjacent gallery features works centered on the character CHUM, including URGE (2020), a series of vividly hued canvases depicting the figure’s face and gloved hands emblazoned with the artist’s signature Xs.
With a massive presence, 4-foot KAWS Companions are an impressive addition to public spaces and museums. Their larger size also makes it easier for viewers to observe intricate details, enhancing the overall experience. However, it’s important to consider transportation and installation logistics as well, as these sculptures may require specialized equipment or extra resources for handling and maintenance.
The popularity of KAWS’ Companions has led to collaborations with numerous brands, from Uniqlo and A Bathing Ape to Nike and Jordan Brand. Moreover, the character has become an enduring symbol of friendship and support.
As the artist continues to explore digital art, he’s created an Augmented Reality version of his popular Companion figure that can be summoned through a free app. The work allows the public to interact with the sculpture in their own environment, demonstrating the limitless potential of the artist’s work.
Few graffiti artists have straddled the lines between art and commerce as successfully as KAWS. His trademark character COMPANION, a Mickey Mouse-like figure with an exaggerated skull and crossbones head and crossed-out eyes, is featured in toys as small as collectible figurines and as large as monumental sculptures that stand (or float, like the ones that drew on Hong Kong Harbor) next to buildings or billboards.
KAWS’s early guerrilla takeovers of advertisements in phone booths and bus shelters paved the way for his later collaborations with commercial photographers and designers. These collaborations expanded his audience while introducing him to viewers who may not have otherwise encountered his work.
Today, KAWS’s commissioned public artworks and product designs can be seen in shopping malls around the world. His product collaborations—including paintings for skateboard decks, sneakers designed with Nike, and furniture created with the Campana Brothers—reflect his interest in blending modern art with consumer culture. This exhibition traces the evolution of his work through a range of scales and media, from drawings and notebooks to sculptures and monumental installations.
Since his start as a graffiti artist in the 1990s, KAWS has never shied away from using public space, both real and virtual, as a platform for his work. His first forays into ‘public interventions’ involved subverting billboards and advertisements, he then went on to produce large-scale sculptures and acrylic paintings. Using stylized cartoon and human characters, his cast of hybrid icons blurs the lines between illustration, advertising, and fine art.
His character COMPANION, a stylized version of Disney’s Mickey Mouse whose face is obscured by both hands, has become one of the artist’s most recognisable figures and appeared as a balloon in 2012’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Companion has also been featured in a range of merchandise from street wear brands to Nike and Comme des Garçons.
Throughout his career, the artist has worked to blur the boundaries between high and low culture and has collaborated with a wide range of popular brands. His work has been praised by many for its postmodern mediation of the ever-increasing pace of our digital lives and its effect on the cohesion and stability of identity and meaning.