Urban vinyl collectibles overview
Designer toys have permeated the contemporary art market recently in the last decade, giving room for urban artists to strive in a field that holds high prestige. Not everyone wants a boring painting that you spend a lot of time trying to interpret. Some people simply want something fun and relative. These Kaws toys play with our expectations and conformity.
The genre opens doors for these urban artists to use these kinds of collectibles as a platform to make their art more affordable. Urban vinyl is a medium where art is exhibited as a toy in limited editions. Michael Lau, one of the biggest inspirations for a lot of the most popular art toy creators today, created the first urban vinyl figures in Hong Kong in the late 1990s. With the movement expanding further globally giving birth to an art toy collecting community. The phenomenon makes these collectibles highly sought-after items. Urban vinyl not only allows the artist to reflect their individual style and consciously distorted but celebrates mass-market plastic toys while orienting and becoming a product of the urban hip-hop culture.
Following Lau, many other artists started creating urban vinyl figures. Japanese artist/designer Takashi Murakami, Australian designer Nathan Jurevicius creator of Scarygirls, Los Angeles based Craig Anthony Perkins, and former graffiti artist KAWS (Brian Donnelly) to name few. Today we tap into the magical world of Kaws toys. We dissect how his artwork has become so impactful in the urban vinyl community and how important his part is.
Brief History: KAWS toys
A world-renowned artist who exhibits in museums and galleries internationally, Kaws is famous for his morbidly cute Mickey Mouse-inspired toys known as “Companions”, which he first introduced in 1999.
His art stands somewhere between fine art and global commerce. Moving beyond the sphere of the exclusive art market to occupy a more complex global market, Kaws has been compared to iconic artists. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, whose own inimitable styles started out on the street. Some compared him as well to Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, who both had an instinctive understanding of the possibilities of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Born Brian Donnelly in 1974 in Jersey City, New Jersey. In his earlier years, he studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. After graduating from college in 1996, he worked for Disney as a freelance animator. He worked on Disney’s 101 Dalmations, Daria and Doug and more. Also, a graffiti artist, he was known for marking buildings in New Jersey and Manhattan with KAWS. He chose this tag because he liked how the letters meshed well together, giving birth to his iconic name today.
KAWS soon moved on from the simple tag, developing a unique style that involved adding cartoon-like figures to bus-shelter advertisements. His origins in graffiti brought his work to a diverse audience, many of who had nothing to do with the art world. KAWS was fully aware of the benefits of showing his work in the street and mass-producing pieces. As a result, his notoriety and popularity reached heights never expected. These ads became increasingly sought after by the public.
Kaws toys in Japan
In 1999, KAWS visited Japan after being approached by Bounty Hunter, the cult toy and streetwear brand. After his trip, he would go on to create his first Kaws toy titled “Companion”. These instantly became a hit with the global art toy collecting community.
These were a major hit in Japan seeing as this genre of toys is well respected and widespread over there. Venturing into other genres of art, this also allowed other people to learn who he was. After successfully launching his own fashion label, Original Fake, in the early 2000s, KAWS began working with several cult streetwear labels. Among these labels, there are Bathing Ape, Supreme, Undercover, Kung Faux, Nike, Vans, and Comme des Garcons.
He is well known for subverting iconic cartoon characters and many familiar television personalities such as characters from The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse, the Michelin Man, the Smurfs, and even SpongeBob SquarePants.
In doing so he demonstrates his interest in the characters’ universal cultural value. Therefore, he reinforced the idea that he makes no distinction between concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.
Whether it be Kaws toys or Kidrobot, the genre that is urban vinyl or art toys, have spread worldwide. It birthed a community of people who love and admire this particular form of art. Like a good art piece, there is the downside, where people criticize whether this is art or if it’s simply just highly-priced toys.
Negative thoughts aside, the genre has created a whole new community of art lovers. This brought in people who have never been interested in art. Kaws toys may have nudged open the door to the art market, but who walks through next is anyone’s guess.
Written by Karen Pasos.