NFTs and the Democratization of Art: KAWS as a Catalyst for Change

Exploring the democratization of art and why the next KAWS will come from Web3



As we approach the 1 year anniversary of KAWS and his 1st NFT drop. I took the time to reflect on the event, KAWS as a whole and his impact on art and why the next KAWS will come from Web3 and not from the web2 world or traditional art space.

KAWS Background

KAWS, aka Brian Donnelly, is an American graffiti artist and designer. Born in Jersey City, he’s been at his craft since the late 80s. KAWS now operates out of Brooklyn, New York.

KAWS started off as a graffiti artist and through this medium he was able to achieve fame/notoriety. While attending high school is Jersey City he came up with the name KAWS, which he liked because of the way the letters looked together. KAWS surprisingly does not have any meaning.

As a kid “he was always drawing, it was the thing he retreated to. It wasn’t for a specific reason, he did not know artist or had the desire to be one. Art was his way of dealing with things.” This stuck out to me as something I have been learning from speaking with artists in web3 is there are three types of camps, those that don’t have formal training in art like school and those that do but felt either constrained by the rules or others who felt it empowered them with the skills and tools to develop and grow. His professor early on knew he was extremely talented. So how did KAWS take his passion and graffiti tagging to the next level?

He was a talented artist, his art professor knew he had talent from day one. But he chose his style and stuck with it. He managed to get a key that opened the glass displays for bus stops where the ads where and he would open then and work on them overnight in his studio and make his version that was more provocative but still left the ad intact (like who it was by) but it was essentially a kaws x brand unofficial collab.

fuck yea KAWS — Ad Disruption + Scarlett Johansson

He hijacked advertisement campaigns, embellishing his iconic skull graffiti images on posters of major brands like Calvin Klein, Dior, Chanel and more. I think what stood out to me with these tactics is that KAWS was able to get a key to open those ads and the fact he had such a short amount of time to turn around a piece. It was a type of gorilla marketing that worked and people enjoyed these as they became extremely sought after.

Unlike most artists, he was not interested in pursuing a career the traditional way, like through an art gallery. He was fully aware of the benefits of showing his work in the street and mass-producing pieces in order to build a following.

He became a popular social media personality with over 4.2 million followers on Instagram. His organic following became so big that it attracted the attention of traditional art collectors and critics. It was this type of democratization of art and expression that I think made KAWS what he is today. He took a trailblazing approach, to achieve the goals he set for himself and still received the attention of the galleries, auction houses, and traditional artist world.


From the Margins to the Mainstream

But it wasn’t all tagging and graffiti for KAWS. What some may not know is that KAWS worked as a freelance artist for Disney, where he created animated backgrounds. His most popular works for Disney were his contributions to animated series like 101 Dalmatians, Doug and Daria.

While working with Disney, he found inspiration in the epic animation figure Mickey Mouse. It became the muse of his new character, Companion.

KAWS COMPANION - Guy Hepner | Art Gallery | Prints for Sale | Chelsea, New  York City

KAWS’ artistic style can be characterized by an emphasis on color and line, graphics, and the appropriation of pop culture icons such as Mickey Mouse, The Smurfs, Spongebob Squarepants, Snoopy, and more.

The appropriation is commonly done in his signature motif of Xs on the eyes, hands, nose, and ears.

Shortly after Companion was created a reinterpretation of the Michelin Man, known as Chum. Chum entered the scene around the same time as Companion as well as other figures in the KAWS universe.

In 1999 he was approached by Bounty Hunter a popular streetwear brand, to create a toy. This led him to visit Japan, and his first limited edition toy, Companion. This became a significant step in KAWS reaching the stardom that he has. It was popular among, collectors, sneakerheads, artists, and everyone. Each drop becoming more and more hyped and desirable. These figures play a larger role to his success later on.

The toy sold out almost instantly, and Companion became a recurring figure in KAWS’ oeuvre. It was one of the most discussed and sought-after creations of the 90s.

Later on he also took a similar playbook to earlier his career with his ad work where he got popular characters in pop culture and recreated them in his style, these included Peanut, Snoopy, Simpsons and more got this treatment. Most notably the KAWS album (created in 2005), which is the Simpson with his iconic X eyes started garnering him mainstream media attention.

The culminating events took place in 2012 and 2013. In 2012 a huge KAWS was introduced into the Macys parade and people went nuts. With so much success from the life-size Companion, MTV in 2013 asked KAWS to recreate their logo. And it was a smash hit! From there, the rest is history.

KAWS redesigns the MTV moonman

KAWS has worked with some of the biggest name in fashion, artists and more.

Clothing and apparel: KAWS has designed items for famous fashion brands like Bathing Ape (BAPE), Nike, Vans Uniqlo, and Comme des Garçons. He also created his clothing brand, “Original Fake.”

Cover Art: KAWS’ work is avidly collected by music and media celebrities like PewDiePie, Pharrell William, Kid Cudi and BTS. He has designed the cover art for musicians like Kanye West (808s and Heartbreak), The Clipse (Til the Casket Drops) and more.

Kaws Kid Cudi x KAWS – Glow In The Dark black T-Shirt | Grailed

Subscribe now

KAWS' Journey into NFTs

Moving to modern times, KAWS is clearly ahead of his time. He was described as the following

His art is taking him anywhere he wants to go. And the art world is a more interesting place having him in it. He’s taking it to another level.

His work is now respected not just by the streets but also art critics and traditional art spaces. This is evident by his sale of the KAWS Album selling on Sotheby’s selling for $14.8m USD. Public appetite for KAWS is high as well.

He was a dominant figure during Art Basel Hong Kong, where his biggest work to date, Holiday, drew massive crowds. The 115-foot-long inflatable “Companion” sculpture spent the week floating in Victoria Harbor, a picturesque selfie backdrop for tourists and locals alike.

Art Basel Hong Kong Returns Bigger Than Ever | Architectural Digest

KAWS overcame many obstacles along the way and chose a path many do not choose instead of overcoming traditional barriers in the art world: galleries, auctions, exclusivity. He had new barriers along the way plagiarism, copyright issues, and digital authenticity as the world around has gotten more digital since 1999. He might have not made it to where he is now if he had attorneys telling him to no grab existing IP and messing with it. But he did it anyways, and that made him more authentic to others.

So why would he launch an NFT project in the middle of the bear? I think personally it is in his nature to do so. He keeps exploring and pushing boundaries and dropping an NFT backed figurine is something most artists can appreciate. Blockchain for all its issue offers something a buyer and creator want, which is authenticity. He chose a company he had worked with years before NFTs which is great. He had trust in the company in exploring this world which we know is nuts. Each figure sold for $2,857USD and sold out instantly as well. There have been zero sales on OS for the ERC721 which tells you that it went to the right people and they understand the type of item they have.

The Future of Art: Breaking Down the Walls, Accessibility and Inclusivity

So why do I think the next KAWS will come from Web3. KAWS was able to use graffiti, remixing ads and later social media to find his way from the streets into the art world. Some may not like his style but his art commanded attention. KAWS went where not many artist ever go/can do to in terms of cultural relevance. He was able to move from popular culture to fine art with ease. He pushed himself artistically and the art world to be open to him.

Web3 has done/is doing something similar at this point in time. In our digital streets we are able to be exposed to artists from Indonesia, Latin America and from around the world. The decentralized manner of the space lends itself to commanding attention from the traditional art space. Again, we have the attention of the galleries, auction houses and traditional/fine art space.

KAWS at the Brooklyn Museum: A Coming-Out Party - The New York Times

This is evident by some of the largest artist in the space being sought after by Sotheby, Christies, Galleries and more. The art revolution is happening around us, and some of the same challenges that KAWS experienced are happening now to artist in our space. And new challenges are also being found, boundaries are being pushed and art as a whole is better for it imo.


It is this type of environment where we will see the next KAWS live and thrive in. For it takes a special kind of artist to go about it on their own. The freedom that comes with releasing your own work on your own terms is difficult but if you play it right the rewards are immense.

If you build it, they will come. If you are in the traditional art world, I just do not see a way for you to develop the skills required to transcend not just the art world but also become a culture icon KAWS. You will be molded by auction houses, galleries, facilitators of arts, critics and more. If you build yourself outside of this world, you have your own audience, you play by your rules, you refine your style and art, and if the traditional art space comes then it does, if it does not, well at least you can afford an ether rock kek.

What do you think? Is the next KAWS already here or are we all still waiting for them to appear in web3?

Press the heart emoji or share with a friend, it helps with the algos. Want to give me feedback on this newsletter? Please select one of the below:

💸💸💸💸💸 - Super helpful thanks!

💸💸💸 - It was OK!

💸 - Not really!

Collect this post to permanently own it.
Gramajo's Newsletter logo
Subscribe to Gramajo's Newsletter and never miss a post.