Millions adore his collaborations, major companies compete for a collection with him, and his paintings sell for millions of dollars.
Some people still don't know how Brian Donnelly (KAWS) became one of the biggest figures in contemporary art and what's behind his portrayal of his characters.
He was born in 1974 in New Jersey. He spent much of his youth drawing and graphitizing. He began tagging the streets of Jersey at age 12 and found community through skateboarding. After graduating high school, he moved to New York City, where he studied illustration at the university. (School of Visual Arts - New York)
He later worked as an animator on animated backgrounds for Jumbo Pictures, where he also illustrated two of Disney's best-known series. (101 Dalmatians, Daria ,Doug).
This is where he developed his own style of cartoon characters.
If you've ever complemented a picture in your textbook with a thick moustache, glasses, or a pair of over-sharpened teeth, you've had the artistic idea that made KAWS famous in the first place.
Brian shaped the streets of New York into his own form by repainting billboards. Under the cover of night, he broke open boxes of billboards at bus stops, took them home, added his own characters, and then put them back up. This allowed him to feature his illustrations alongside world brands such as Calvin Klein, Marlboro and Guess. KAWS says he had no political motivation for repainting the posters, he simply liked the ads. He thought they were everywhere and part of our lives. In addition to New York, he boycotted advertising in Paris, London, Berlin and Tokyo. Later, between 2000 and 2006, he replaced advertising with his own work, a period that saw the development of his still well-known style and characters.
The first Companion
In 1999, his first toy figure was released in Tokyo by Japanese streetwear brand Bounty Hunter. The puppet, Kaws later told us, is a dead version of Mickey Mouse. Sales generated a good profit, which provided the financial background for his future work. The sculptures sell for between $9-10,000 at auction these days, but they are far from KAWS' most expensive works.
This started Brian Donnelly on his journey to collaborating with some of the biggest brands. Over the next few years, he worked with some of the world's biggest streetwear and luxury brands, including Bathing Ape, Medicom Toy, Undefeated, Supreme, Dior, Comme des Garçons, Uniqlo, Nike...
We'd be picked up on mentioning one of the brands listed above, but Kaws has designed so many collaborations that we couldn't list them all in this article. Not to mention his cartoon collaborations. (Snoopy, The Simpsons, Sesame Street, Sponge Bob, etc.)
Kaws's sculptures and figures have been given different names Companions, Accomplices, Chums or BFFs, but in the depiction of the characters we can equally observe a global problem, the loneliness.
When they appear together, they hold each other, embrace each other. While the sculptures depicted alone are depressed, lonely.
Among the Giants
In 2012, he was able to show the world one of his creations in a way he'd only dreamed of before. At the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on the streets of Manhattan, a 13-foot-long helium-filled Companion ""sculpture"" flew between Mickey Mouse and several world-famous characters. His artwork has also become a treasure for ordinary people.
In 2013, he was asked to redesign the MTV VMA (Video Music Awards) Moonman award and played a major role in the show's design.
Since Kaws became a living design legend, he has appeared in the showrooms of some of the most prestigious galleries and museums. His first solo exhibition was in 2010 at the (Connecticut, United States) Conn. Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Since then, his work has travelled to all continents.
His characters became famous after they were molded in 3D, but he wasn't content with vinyl figures on shelves. His giant sculptures have been erected in major cities around the world, from New York to Hong Kong.
In recent years, Kaws has become one of the favourites of auction houses, with his paintings selling for record prices. Brian has said in an interview that he feels it is unjustified to sell his paintings for millions of dollars. (Although he may feel this way because the money is going into private collectors' accounts. )
His most expensive painting is the repainted Simpsons Family (Kimpsons) couch scene, which sold for $6,258,387 in 2019.