Jan 22, 2024

KAWS through five mediums

Paintings, graffiti, sculptures and sneakers, here are five mediums in KAWS's iconic art practice

KAWS: FAMILY, Art Gallery of Ontario Jonty Wilde

Installation view, KAWS: FAMILY, Art Gallery of Ontario. Work shown: GONE ,2020. © KAWS. Photo: Jonty Wilde. 


The exhibition KAWS: Family is on view now at the AGO until August 5, 2024. 

“When I make things, I always approach them in the same way. There's no hierarchy in my head – it’s not as though painting is some elevated thing and sneakers, or album designs are somehow lesser. I approach everything with the same sort of appreciation and effort.”  

For KAWS, all mediums are created equal – regardless of perceived prestige or cultural significance. Over the last two decades, the Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist has become a household name in the worlds of fine art and design, manifesting his iconic family of characters through a broad spectrum of materials. 

From humble beginnings as a New York City graffiti writer in the 90s, KAWS has forged his unique career path. Vinyl toys, large-scale bronze and wood sculptures, paintings, album covers, sneakers and cereal boxes are among the long list of works marking his 20-plus-year artistic journey. 

On view now for the first time in Canada, the full scope of KAWS’s iconic practice is exemplified in the landmark AGO exhibition, KAWS: FAMILY. Here is an exploration of five core aspects of his multifaceted art-making approach:




KAWS. UNTITLED (DKNY), 1999. Acrylic on existing advertising poster, 127 × 66 cm. © KAWS. Photo Farzad Owrang


Growing up in Jersey City, KAWS started exploring graffiti in the seventh grade. He developed his aerosol technique and tagging skills while painting around his neighbourhood. By the mid-90s, he was spending more time in Manhattan, where he developed and began proliferating the tag “KAWS”, honing his skills until he was eventually brushing shoulders with graffiti legends like FUTURA 2000 and Zephyr. 

Towards the late 90s, KAWS began painting large-scale pieces directly on top of roadside advertisement billboards across New York City. He expanded this guerilla-style technique, moving to phone booth and bus stop ad posters. After removing the posters from their frames, he would take them to his studio, paint works overtop of them. He cleverly incorporated his characters into the ads and later returned them to public view. This form of unauthorized street art garnered attention from outside the New York graffiti scene, making KAWS a known entity in the realms of high art and fashion.       

On view now as part of KAWS: FAMILY, the above-untitled work from 1997 features a DKNY ad playfully enhanced with the amoeba-like character BENDY.       




KAWS. COMPANION 2020, 2020. Vinyl, paint, 8 x 43.5 × 22 cm. © KAWS.


In 1997, KAWS took a serendipitous and life-altering trip to Japan. It was through his relationships in Japan that he was introduced to the founder of Bounty Hunter, vinyl toy mogul Hikaru Iwanaga. He suggested that KAWS collaborate with Bounty Hunter to produce his first toy. In a small run of 500 units made in three colourways, KAWS brought his COMPANION character into the three-dimensional world. The figure’s clothing, gloves and boots were reminiscent of classic cartoon character aesthetics. In the years that followed, KAWS toys exploded in popularity as he continued to issue new characters in a limited capacity.

Located in Signy Eaton Gallery (224) as part of KAWS: FAMILY, pictured above is a COMPANION 2020 figurine, installed face-down, portraying the often melancholic nature of the character.    




KAWS. THE PORTRAIT, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 55.9 × 45.7 © KAWS. Photo: Farzad Owrang


One of the cornerstones of KAWS’s practice are his vibrant, hard-edge acrylic paintings that emphasize line and colour. From straightforward portraits of his various characters to multi-coloured and fragmented abstractions, the paintings featured in KAWS: FAMILY demonstrate how the artist approaches a canvas. 

Capturing the essence of the pandemic lockdown experience, a series of paintings features CHUM – KAWS’s most lighthearted character – situated in poses and settings that reflect the loneliness, fear and emotional burden of an international crisis. The juxtaposition of CHUM’s usual jovial personality with the challenging emotional experience of the pandemic symbolizes the universal and inescapable struggle of such a moment. 

Take a closer look at this series of paintings in the AGO exhibition’s largest room, Signy Eaton Gallery (224).



A group of sculptures featuring KAWS characters

KAWS. FAMILY, 2021. Bronze, paint, 219.1 × 207 × 95.6 cm. © KAWS


Some of KAWS’s most attention-grabbing works are his large scale sculptures.  These painted bronze or wood sculptures of the KAWS family range in size from a modest 5ft up to gargantuan 20ft and have become some of the artist’s most beloved and iconic creations. Some of these sculptures are included in the AGO exhibition.  

Located in Signy Eaton Gallery (224), the centrepiece of the exhibition is FAMILY (2021), a bronze sculpture featuring COMPANION, a figure with crossed-out eyes, a bulbous figure named CHUM, and a fur-covered character named BFF, posed together in the style of a family portrait. 



KAWS, Sacai and Nike

KAWS, Sacai and Nike. Sacai x KAWS Nike Blazer Low (Purple Dusk), 2021. Sneaker, 12.7 × 29.2 × 12.7 cm. © KAWS. Photo: Brad Bridgers


KAWS’s collaborations with major entities in the fashion world are impressive.  He started experimenting with fashion in the late 90s with clothing partnerships with Japanese streetwear brands Hectic and Undercover. He has since embarked on collaborative ventures with the likes of Supreme, COMME des GARÇONS, Dior and Uniqlo.

KAWS is a name that resonates with sneakerheads across the globe, and his fan-favourite collaborations with footwear brands like Jordan, Vans and Nike are some of his most notable. A section of KAWS: Family is devoted to collaborating with Japanese luxury brand sacai, KAWS and Nike. In addition to the shoes, visitors can view KAWS’s preparatory drawings and colour charts for the project. 

KAWS: FAMILY is on view on Level 2 of the AGO in Signy Eaton Gallery (gallery 224), Galleria Italia (gallery 223) and Al Green Gallery (gallery 252) until  August 5, 2024.


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