KAWS' artistic beginnings
Brian Donnelly aka KAWS studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York and worked as a background painter on animated series such as Disney’s 101 Dalmations, and cult shows Daria and Doug.
The moniker 'KAWS' developed at an early age from tagging buildings in New Jersey and Manhattan because he liked the way the letters looked together. The KAWS tag evolved into cartoon-like figures later becoming a series of screenprint lithographs, dubbed ‘subvertising’. One of these included a fake Calvin Klein ad.
Knowing his graffiti origins brought his work to a more diverse audience, KAWS did not seek a gallery representation. He knew the benefits of showing his work on the street and mass-producing pieces to build a strong fan base. By going this route, he became so well known that he attracted collectors and eventually art critics.
Speaking of his early days as a graffiti artist, Donnelly said, ‘When I was doing graffiti, my whole thought was, “I just want to exist.” I want to exist with this visual language in the world… It meant nothing to me to make paintings if I wasn’t reaching people.’
KAWS artwork can be seen around the world
He would really reach people in 1999 when Bounty Hunter, the cult toy and streetwear brand, approached him to create his first toy, ‘COMPANION’. With a limited edition of 500 toys, COMPANION sold out immediately and became a recurring figure in KAWS work.
The next major sighting of KAWS COMPANION was 2012 at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade where it appeared alongside Mickey Mouse and Sonic the Hedgehog. The parade brought his art to the masses.
In March 2019, he created a 121-foot-long inflatable version of KAWS’ COMPANION that was installed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor during Art Basel.
In addition to large scale pieces, the artist is known for subverting iconic cartoon heroes. Here he is demonstrating his interest in the characters’ universal cultural value and reinforcing the idea that he believes there is no distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.
After successfully launching his own fashion label, Original Fake, in the early 2000s, KAWS also collaborated with cult streetwear labels Bathing Ape and Supreme. In 2008 he designed the cover for Kanye West’s album 808s & Heartbreak, and more recently he has developed his own pair of Nike Air Jordans.
His strong Instagram following of 4.1M hasn’t hurt his success either. In fact, many say it has been a valuable tool surging him to the forefront of the contemporary art world.
KAWS artwork reaches beyond collectors and gallery owners
With a distinct point of view, KAWS has always looked at art as a form of connecting with people beyond collectors and gallery owners. Perhaps, this point of view is why his art can sell from $15 to as much as $2.4 million. Either way, we think he’s an interesting artist to know and watch.
What do you think!
Is KAWS just a brand or a modern artist who wants everyone to have access to his work?
Does social media play an important role for today’s artists?
Is High Art out of sync with today's art world and technology?