Whats The Craze For Kaws?!

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KAWS's installation in Taipei. Photo: © All Rights Reserved.

Picture this: a line of dozens of people snaking down the aisle of a convention center, each writing their names on a legal pad. No, they aren’t signing up for the chance to win a free trip to the Bahamas, or an Oculus Rift headset. They are entering a lottery for the chance to pay $65,000 for an edition of a new print by the artist KAWS.

This unlikely scene played out during the first hour of the VIP preview at Art Basel Miami Beach in December. And it is emblematic of the extraordinary ascent of an artist who has become a phenomenon without following the art market’s rules.

Most artists work with galleries to find a niche, develop a moneyed collector base, and then wait for those buyers to donate their art to museums, where it finds a broader audience. KAWS worked backwards, developing a massive global following on social media for his toys and collectibles. Eventually, interest trickled up to some of the most powerful players in the art world.

“I had a feeling that he was going to shake up our old art-world habits,” says dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who started showing KAWS just over a decade ago in Miami and has organized eight solo shows in Paris, New York, Seoul, and Tokyo since. Perrotin’s inaugural show with the artist in 2008—the same year KAWS designed the cover for Kanye West’s album 808s & Heartbreak—marked “the only time someone stole a work from my gallery,” he recalls.

Last year, however, a switch seemed to flip. The steady burn that had characterized KAWS’s market for the past decade transformed into a full-blown inferno. His work generated a total of $33.8 million at auction in 2018—an 113 percent increase from the previous year, according to the artnet Price Database. His average sale price also nearly doubled, from $42,272 in 2017 to $82,063 last year.

What’s more, all 20 of KAWS’s highest auction prices were set in 2018, including five works for more than $1 million apiece. On November 15, the artist’s auction record was broken three times in a single night.

This week, his quest for global domination continues in Hong Kong, where a 121-foot-long inflatable figure by the artist has taken up residence in the city’s Victoria Harbor ahead of Art Basel Hong Kong, peacefully floating with his face to the sky. And on March 26, the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation opens a survey of the artist’s work at the PMQ mall organized by none other than Italian art historian Germano Celant, the same man who coined the term Arte Povera (“poor art”).

There is nothing modest, however, about KAWS’s meteoric rise.

Graffiti Beginnings

The 44-year-old Brooklyn-based artist, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, got his start as a teenager, when, by his own account, he would shell out $1 to take the PATH train from New Jersey to New York City to leave his KAWS tag—the somewhat random letters he chose because he liked how they looked together—on downtown walls and buildings. He later began tagging street advertisements with playful, cartoon-like figures. 

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