Artists

KAWS: From Street Artist to Pop Art Phenomenon

Set of Companion Figures by KAWS
KAWS, Set from the Companion (Passing Through) series, 2018

By Charlotte Stace

“As far as my opinion on galleries, I think they are a great thing. I see them as another outlet. I’m sure by now you’ve figured out that I do my work for everybody to see. That’s the whole point.”

KAWS

Often described as an enfant terrible of the art world following in the footsteps of fellow artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, American artist and designer Brian Donnelly, best known as KAWS, has surged to the forefront of the contemporary art world. His practice simultaneously participates in and questions consumer culture, merging graffiti with fine art, design, and commerce, Influenced by great Pop Art icons – from Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg to Takashi Murakami.

On top of a series of highly successful commercial projects, KAWS’ artworks are included in museums and private collections around the world. However, his creative career didn’t start at an art gallery, but rather on the streets. 

Read on to discover more about his life and art. 

Biography of KAWS

Born in Jersey City in 1974, it was during his high school years that Donnelly coined the name KAWS for himself. The world itself does not have a meaning, he chose it for aesthetic purposes because he liked how the letters looked together as a tag. After graduating high school, he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City where he studied Fine Arts with a focus on illustration. Although he had been interested in graffiti in high school, it wasn’t until he lived in New York that he started developing his signature style. Upon completing his degree in 1996, he was hired by Jumbo Pictures as an animator and worked on a number of animations such as 101 Dalmations and Daria and Doug. However, the budding artist spent his evenings creating graffiti around New York City – he was known for subvertising in public areas using a skeleton key. His images appeared in phone booths, bus shelters, and billboards around the city.

As his street art gained more and more attention, with his graffiti popping up in other major cities such as Paris, London and Tokyo, his following started to include collectors and critics as well and in 1998, he received the Pernod Liquid Art Award, which gives young artists money to pursue their artistic interests. However, it was with toy design that KAWS made a name for himself, especially following particularly successful collaborations with Japanese toymakers, which also brought to the commercialization of the first three-dimensional version of KAWS’ recurring character ‘Companion’, his now iconic figure with gloved hands and X’ed eyes.

Mature period 

Besides his products and commercial collaborations, KAWS has also designed magazine covers for a number of high-profile publications like The New Yorker, and i-D; but his collaborations are countless and varied, ranging from Reese’s Puffs Cereal to a number of musicians such as John Mayer, with whom he designed a range of guitar picks, and controversial rapper and producer Kanye West (Ye), for whom he designed the cover of the album 808’S & HEARTBREAK in 2008.

KAWS partnered with The North Face to create an outdoor clothing collection for the brand. Known as the KAWS XX Collection, the artist’s drawings and designs were featured on a special range of ski jackets, shirts, and trousers showing the instantly recognizable ‘XX’ motif inspired by his characters’ eyes as a logo.

In 2021, the Brooklyn Museum exhibition KAWS: What Party offered a retrospective look at the artist’s most striking and influential work, from his cartoon characters and iconic toys to never-before-seen graffiti and augmented reality artworks.

A social media phenomenon, the KAWS continues to make art and his style emphasizing line and color with underlying humor is sought-after by collectors across the globe. Early on in 2022, KAWS took his art to the world of video games with his show New Fiction debuting in the wildly popular video game Fortnite as well as at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

KAWS’ Famous Figures & Characters 

Initially designed as graffiti characters, KAWS’s figures and dolls are some of his most iconic pieces of art. Some drawn from KAWS’ imagination, some appropriated from popular cartoon characters from Pinocchio to The Simpsons, these hybrid figures featuring X-signed eyes are perhaps the best example of KAWS’ depiction of universal emotions across different realms, breaking the barrier between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. A hit in the market, a number of these dolls are now collectible items and can be found not only in art galleries but also in stores worldwide.

Companion

With inspiration heavily rooted in the likes of Mickey Mouse, KAWS started developing his Companion figures in the late 1990s. The character has since taken on a variety of colors, sizes, and poses, and reached different price points as well – from the considerably affordable vinyl toys to the record-breaking large-scale sculpture Seated Companion which sold at auction for over $400,000 in 2017. 

The popular figure has also appeared in the form of monumental installations, for example outside of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 2010 where the statue Companion (Passing Through) character sat proudly while the museum featured an exhibition of the artist’s work.

Companion by KAWS in front of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
KAWS Companion, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

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