Who is KAWS? Some know him for his collaborations with Supreme, Nike and Uniqlo. Some know him for his Be@rbrick, Astro Boy and Elmo collectible figures. For others, he is an artist working across painting, drawing and sculpture. To all, he is a cultural icon.
KAWS was born Brian Donnelly in New Jersey in 1974. He chose the name KAWS as a graffiti tag during his teenage years, claiming that he liked the shapes of the letters. KAWS attended the School of Visual Arts in New York. After graduating, he worked as a background painter for animated cartoons including 101 Dalmatians and Doug. It was during this period that his street art practice began in earnest. KAWS would remove posters from the city walls and draw over them at home before returning them the next day. It brought him to the attention of the art world, the public and major brands.
In 1999 KAWS shot to fame with the first of his limited-edition vinyl toys: COMPANION. Inspired by Mickey Mouse, COMPANION would become one of his most important characters. He graced the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a 40-foot-long balloon, and occupied Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong as a gigantic floating inflatable in 2019. Others, including CHUM, KURF and BFF, would join his pantheon.
Over the course of his career, KAWS has appropriated a variety of cartoons. They include The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, Snoopy and characters from Sesame Street. KAWS endows them with his trademark features, including skull-and-crossbones heads and crossed-out eyes. In doing so, he seeks to imbue them with human sensibility, rescuing them from the world of fictional happy endings. His characters are flawed, fragile beings that reflect our own emotional states.
Like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, KAWS works at the interface of 'high' and 'low' culture. His practice asks whether there is any meaningful difference between the two worlds. While his paintings have commanded some of his highest auction prices, his work also populates album covers, fashion shows and store windows. His collaborators have ranged from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to Kanye West and Kim Jones. Perpetually expanding the parameters of art, KAWS remains one of the most powerful voices in 21st-century culture.