When people think of graffiti, they would most likely discard it as incidents of vandalism or the rough, violent cries of the ignorant and impoverished, but does graffiti deserve a place in art establishments? What exactly is graffiti? Is graffiti vandalism? Can it be considered a form of art that deserves to be praised and valued in art galleries and establishments or is it a mere act of anti-social behavior which is done to achieve attention? Art, when defined generally, according to Merriam-Webster “is the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” While graffiti, as recognized by graffiti artists themselves is in the first place art, while in some contexts is damaging and inappropriate. With these definitions, it can be said that graffiti is considered art, but does it deserve a place in the art establishment and do the graffiti artists even want to be there in the first place?
Brian Donnelly is best known as the artist KAWS a New York-based artist who has made a name out of him designing limited edition toys and clothing. He is also a world-renowned artist who exhibits in museums and galleries internationally. While living in Jersey City, KAWS began his career as a graffiti artist. By the early 1990s, he moved to New York City and began to work focus on subverting the images on bus shelters, phone booth advertisements, and billboards, soon after his notoriety and popularity reached heights never expected and these ads became increasingly sought after by the public.
KAWS got his start as a graffiti artist in Jersey City and then New York, eventually working his way up to high art and commercial art gaining both street accreditation and more recently gallery exhibitions, his work can be found in the collections at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Rosenblum Collection in Paris. It is also worth noting that he has gained fame in the commercial art, collaborating with fashion brands like Comme des Garcons, sportswear giant Jordan Brand, creating an album cover for one of Kanye West’s greatest albums, and revamping the iconic “Moonman” award of the MTV Video Music Awards. Most of KAWS’ work besides his “Companion” figures (wherein one model was even included as one of the gigantic inflatable line ups in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade) still showcase a graffiti-esque look in them, one piece which was even sold at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong for 115.9 HKD or around $14.7 million U.S. Dollars. With all that under his name, KAWS has easily bridged fine art, commercial art, and street art or graffiti, combining all of these and started a movement that resulted in the reconsideration of modern contemporary art.
KAWS and his works are very iconic, even leading to some pop culture magazines to call him the face of contemporary art, naturally this puts him under the spotlight, but has he embraced this fame that he achieved most notably through graffiti and street art? Does he approve of the auctioning of his art that has graffiti deeply embedded in its roots, for millions of dollars?
According to KAWS himself being associated with art galleries and establishments, earning money through art and even becoming successful in the industry was not his be-all-end-all, although he mentioned being extremely lucky to be associated with fine art, his main goal which he realized mid way in his crusade of painting over ads was communication and acknowledging that dialogue was present in this, which quintessentially is also the many reasons graffiti exists, communication, whether it be used to claim territories, tell untold stories of the neighborhood, or spread a message.