40 x 70 英吋 (101.6 x 177.8 公分)
$1,000,000 - 1,500,000
2007, leverages KAWS’ understanding of both Japanese and American popular culture in the mid-2000s. In the legacy of Pop masters such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, mixed with the edge of Appropriation artists and street art, KAWS’ keenly deploys the universal language of cartoons in his work, filtered through his own iconic character, the COMPANION.
At first glance, KAWS’ Untitled
seems to perfectly appropriate a still from the popular anime series Dragon Ball Z.
The work presents the show’s main character, Goku, at left, and the god Kami, at right, facing the viewer in a yellow paneled room. However, KAWS has purposefully simplified the composition, removing the Japanese kanji
on each character’s tunic, and replacing each face with the visage of the COMPANION.
Animation still from Dragon Ball Z,
Raditz Saga, episode 6, “No Time Like the Present,” 1989. U.S. airdate: June 22, 2005.
Developed to accompany the advertisement models in KAWS’ graffiti works of the 1990s, the COMPANION has become an iconic figure in its own right. With its fluffy poufs, and blank, skull-like face with crossed-out eyes, the COMPANION is as recognizable as any other international cartoon character, Goku included. KAWS painted prolifically from popular cartoons in the early 2000s, from Dragon Ball Z
to SpongeBob SquarePants
and The Simpsons.
With works like Untitled
KAWS proves how cartoons can be a universal language, and a ready surface for his own COMPANION character, that allows his work to transcend geographic and cultural differences to reach a worldwide audience.
KAWS, born Brian Donnelly in New Jersey, first visited Japan in 1997, where he met fellow artists and culture makers including Yoshifumi “Yoppi” Egawa of HECTIC, Tomoaki “Nigo” Nagao (longtime KAWS collaborator and founder of A Bathing Ape), and Hikaru Iwanaga, founder of the toy design company, Bounty Hunter. These creatives introduced KAWS to the Japanese practice of creating high-quality, limited-edition collectible toys, and the subculture of otaku,
an obsession with manga and anime (Dragon Ball Z
This relationship between popular culture and commerce became a blueprint for KAWS’ own art practice, creating works that scaled from collectible toys to monumental sculptures.
KAWS, Untitled (DBZ).
Private Collection. © KAWS
“KAWS’ experiences in Japan heightened his awareness of the ability of cartoon characters to speak to shared experience that can cut across language barriers.”
— Dr. Eugenie Tsai
Most importantly, perhaps, the language barrier KAWS experienced with the Japanese phenomena around him revealed the cultural power of cartoon imagery like Dragon Ball Z
to speak to people across languages and cultures.ii
The viewer doesn’t have to speak Japanese, for instance, to understand Dragon Ball Z—
its visual imagery, instantly recognizable to any fan, is an effective storyteller on its own. KAWS’ COMPANION character functions in the same way—wherever one sees the COMPANION, regardless of context, they know that it is KAWS’ work. KAWS began painting his COMPANION directly into cartoon stills, and creating his own collectible toys; he opened his own streetwear and collectibles store in Japan, OriginalFake, in 2006, one year before creating Untitled
KAWS, KAWSBOB 3,
2007. Collection of Pharrell Williams. Artwork: © KAWS
It is the universal relatability of cartoon characters that translates so effectively in KAWS’ appropriation of Dragon Ball Z
in the present work. In addition to replacing Goku and Kami’s features with those of the COMPANION, KAWS simplifies the line work of the original composition, specifically by eliminating elements with strong verbal referents. Most obviously, the kanji,
Japanese words written in Chinese characters, on Goku and Kami’s garments have been removed, which give verbal clues to who each character is (Kami’s for example, reads “god”). Instead, KAWS relies on the anime’s strong character design for legibility—the viewer is to identify Goku by his orange and blue clothing, and Kami by his antennae and the peach-colored muscles on his arms. In other words, the universal language of the cartoon takes precedence.
At the edges of the work, too, one notices two speech bubbles. In a Dragon Ball Z
manga, these bubbles may hold Japanese text, or an English translation, but in Untitled
the bubbles are left blank. There are no linguistic signifiers to limit Untitled (DBZ2)
to a particular culture, language, or even to a specific story arc in Dragon Ball Z.
KAWS does not need additional (con)text: the presence of the COMPANION’s features says it all.
The composition of Untitled
comes from a scene from the episode “No Time Like the Present” in the Raditz Saga of the original Dragon Ball Z
anime. In this episode, Goku, the hero, has just been revived from the dead (hence his halo, which KAWS faithfully reproduces), and Kami, the green-skinned deity who embodies goodness, brings him before the judge of Heaven and Hell to begin special training.iv
At the same time, Kami’s evil alter ego kidnaps Goku’s son, and begins to train him. This episode is a turning point in the series that introduces new storylines, which bring the anime’s central themes of good and evil into high relief. For an anime with such a robust cultural legacy—Dragon Ball Z
is consistently ranked as one of the best anime of all time, and has led to dozens of dubbed and subtitled versions, spin-off series, video games, and a marketplace of collectible merchandise for fans—KAWS’ selection of such a poignant moment steeps Untitled
in nostalgia for an iconic story.v
“We live in an era of reboots and remakes…reprocessing teenage affections in endlessly permuting ways. What, in visual art, hits this same nerve?”
The universal potential of cartoons has engaged the artist since his earliest days as a graffiti artist, gaining notoriety for his interventions with billboards and advertisements around New York City, and his work as a background artist for Nickelodeon cartoons in the 1990s.vi
He painted backgrounds for cartoons like Doug
a task which required precise brushwork, stylistic consistency, and color-matching skills. KAWS’ description of how he painted his graffiti works strongly parallels the stylistic brief for a background painter, and would be an apt description for the painting style of Untitled
as well: “I painted with no brush strokes, clean and unobtrusive,” he told art critic Carlo McCormick. “I wanted people to think that what I did was actually part of the ad campaign.”vii
Andy Warhol, Double Mickey Mouse,
1981. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Artwork: © 2023 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The brushstrokes of Untitled
are “clean and unobtrusive,” and give the impression that KAWS’ COMPANION really is
in a scene from Dragon Ball Z.
The work is as bright and clean as an animation cell. KAWS seamlessly integrates his own work into the source material with his precise brushstroke and the easily recognizable and reproducible forms of the COMPANION, creating an artwork that blurs the lines of originality and authorship. With Untitled
KAWS works in the legacy of Pop art (Lichtenstein’s early Mickey Mouse paintings are a particularly strong parallel) with the irreverence and omnivorous pop cultural appetite of an Appropriationist. Untitled (DBZ2)
synthesizes these myriad art historical and cultural references into the iconic visage of the COMPANION, Dragon Ball Z-
“Summer Reads: Why KAWS messed with the Simpsons,” Phaidon,
2022, accessed Aug. 2023, online
“No Time Like the Present,” Dragon Ball Wiki,
accessed Aug. 2023, online
“Dragon Ball Z: Reception and Impact,” Dragon Ball Wiki,
accessed Aug. 2023, online
“Summer Reads: Why KAWS messed with the Simpsons,” ibid.
KAWS, quoted in
William S. Smith, “What the Rise of KAWS Says about the Art World’s Ailments,” Art in America,
Sep. 3, 2019, online
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American • 1974
To understand the work of KAWS is to understand his roots in the skateboard and graffiti crews of New York City. Brian Donnelly chose KAWS as his moniker to tag city streets beginning in the 1990s, and quickly became a celebrated standout in the scene. Having swapped spray paint for explorations in fine art spanning sculpture, painting and collage, KAWS has maintained a fascination with classic cartoons, including Garfield
, SpongeBob SquarePants
and The Simpsons
, and reconfigured familiar subjects into a world of fantasy.
Perhaps he is most known for his larger-than-life fiberglass sculptures that supplant the body of Mickey Mouse onto KAWS' own imagined creatures, often with 'x'-ed out eyes or ultra-animated features. However, KAWS also works frequently in neon and vivid paint, adding animation and depth to contemporary paintings filled with approachable imagination. There is mass appeal to KAWS, who exhibits globally and most frequently in Asia, Europe and the United States.