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Born in New Jersey in 1974, the artist formerly known as Brian Donnelly adopted the name KAWS as a teenager, using the moniker as his graffiti tag of choice. The name itself has no real significance, other than Donnelly simply liking the way the four characters look next to each other.
After attending St. Anthony High School in his native Jersey City, KAWS enrolled in the New York School of Visual Arts to study illustration, graduating in 1996. From there, he applied what he learned from his degree to drawing backgrounds for animated movies and TV shows like Nickelodeon’s Doug, MTV’s Daria and the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians. However, he never stopped working with an aerosol, and KAWS’ tags and figures were regularly seen on bus stops and billboards across the Big Apple.
Thanks to his love and talent for animation, cartoon characters become a mainstay of KAWS’s art. It also led to Japanese toy and fashion brand Bounty Hunter commissioning him to design his own range of vinyl figurines for the first time in 1999. These were based on the characters he had begun to incorporate into his tagging, most notably Companion — a version of Mickey Mouse with X’s over his eyes.
The figurines were hugely popular, and it wasn’t long before he began exhibiting both the toys he had designed, and his more traditional canvas-based artwork, beginning at the Parisian boutique Colette. In the last two decades, KAWS’ artwork has been shown in galleries across the world, and been incorporated into collaborative clothing lines with the likes of Uniqlo, Nike, and A Bathing Ape.
His work has also performed exceptionally well at auction, with his most expensive piece selling in 2019 for $14.8 million. The piece, entitled The KAWS Album was a bastardized version of The Yellow Album, a Simpsons soundtrack record whose cover was itself a homage to The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper album art, and commissioned by Japanese fashion designer Nigo in 2005.
Taking inspiration from the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Keith Haring, KAWS’ most famous art is arguably the collection of characters he has immortalized as figurines. Using globally-renowned cartoons as a starting point — such as his Kimpsons range of Simpsons-inspired characters — his work skewers the line between capitalism and fine art. This is probably best represented by the traffic following the announcement of one such line of toys being put up for sale by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which caused the website to crash.
His figures go beyond mere toys in terms of both size and prestige, though. KAWS was tapped to design the awards for MTV’s 2013 Video Music Awards, and one of his Companion characters became the blueprint for a balloon in the previous year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Another of KAWS’ Companions even appeared as a 121-foot balloon, serving as an installation at Hong Kong harbor as part of the country’s Basel art fair.