KAWS: From Street Artist to Commercial Success

KAWS is one of the most, successful, respected artists of the commercial design world.

KAWS is one of the most, successful, respected artists of the commercial design world. Most art enthusiasts without an interest in graffiti may not know his name, but his subtle artistic influence is everywhere.

KAWS is best known for his cartoonish figures with X-ed out eyes, as seen in his graffiti art, toys, paintings, and figurines.

Clothing stores throughout the world sell KAWS unique, fun designs, while Fortune 500 companies hire the artist to design attractive, innovative covers for their products. Customers can find his creations on album covers and in magazines, and he’s even designed statues for award shows and balloons for major parades.

Additionally, the modern art world also praises the designer’s unique style, with many international museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), displaying his work.
The facility offered limited-edition pieces of the designer's $200 KAWS Companion action figure on its website.

As soon as the figurine went on sale, MoMA’s Design Store website servers immediately crashed due to heavy traffic.

Although KAWS is now a successful designer, he has never forgotten his roots, as his passionate love for graffiti and street art still remains.


Early Life

KAWS’ birth name is Brian Donnelly. The American artist was born on November 4th, 1974 in New Jersey. His father was a stockbroker that didn't graduate from college, and his mother was a housewife.

As a young child, Donnelly played ice hockey at a rink near his house, but he was not interested in sports. He preferred solo activities like skating and graffiti, and art was another favourite hobby.

During the 1980s, Donnelly hung out with other teens and would spend $2 to skate in New York parks like Brooklyn Banks and Tompkins Square.


Skate Parks and Graffiti

The artist graduated from high school in 1992, but did not enter college immediately. Instead, he spent six nights a week spray painting graffiti on to buildings, tagging his name KAWS onto his creations.

When actor Tobey Maguire asked Donnelly about the meaning of his tag, KAWS, Donnelly replied: "There's no meaning to it. It's just letters that I liked. I felt they always work and function nicely with each other...I went with that name because I felt like it had no connection."

KAWS vandalised property throughout the city and tagged his name onto buildings. He graffitied bare walls, and spray painted billboards, subways, and trains.


Commercial Design and Subvertisements

Donnelly enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York, completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration in 1996. Disney Studios hired Donnelly as a freelance animator after he graduated. He painted backgrounds for animation films and series like 101 Dalmatians, Daria, and Doug.

KAWS did not stop creating graffiti art. In the interview with Maguire, Donnelly said:
"The graf stuff was almost like a sport I fell into and was good at. I woke up wanting to do it and fell asleep thinking about it. When I was in school, my mind would be on painting. I guess that's the only thing I've ever really been focused on."

The street artist took a subtler artistic approach in the early 1990s. He unlocked glass panels at bus stations and phone booths, took down their advertisements and posters and then altered them with his own style, adding humorous touches with acrylic paints. The changes blended so perfectly with the originals that the brush strokes were undetectable. The artist returned the posters to their rightful place, applying his KAWS street signature to his art.

Underground artists called the practice of subtly altering ads "subvertising." Subvertisements are spoofs and parodies of actual advertisements. The public loved these pieces, and Donnelly's posters became highly popular.

People believed that Donnelly had political motivations for subverting these advertisements, but the American artist says he actually liked the visual design of the ads and the photographs. He saw himself as a collaborator with the commercial designers.


Toy Designs

KAWS travelled to Japan and joined forces with the Tokyo artist Undercover’s Jun Takahashi. He then pursued street art projects with Takahashi.

Two fashion companies, Hectic and Undercover, invited Donnelly to design a clothing line. Nigo, a designer for A Bathing Ape Clothing Company, also asked KAWS to create a few pieces for its business, and eventually became one of Donnelly's biggest supporters.

In 1999, Donnelly collaborated with Bounty Hunter, a Japan-based company, to design a limited-edition vinyl toy.

After his international visit, KAWS developed a deep appreciation and respect for the incredible, impressive designs produced by Japanese artists and companies. Before working with Bounty Hunter, KAWS said his idea of toys were Hasbro and Kenner dolls. This time, he decided to take a different approach.

He studied his favourite pop artists that made Gemini G.E.L. Edition figurines, and drew inspiration from commercial artists Tom Wesselmann, Claes Oldenburg, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons.

Donnelly drafted rotation drawings of his toy. He envisioned his figurines in a 3-D format. Bounty Hunter would produce a prototype, and then Donnelly would adjust.

The company released his designs and the figurine became an instant hit with international toy collectors.

KAWS took a few of his figurines to the New Museum to sell on consignment, and Colette in Paris also sold a few for him. He took the proceeds from his sale to produce his next toy, selling the figurines directly to customers on his website in 2002. The profits allowed him to keep creating more.

In the early 2000s, Donnelly met magazine photographer David Sims who shot several campaigns of his graffiti work. Sims invited KAWS to travel to London to collaborate together, and asked him to paint over his finished photographs with acrylic paints. The partnership led KAWS to pursue publishing projects and the demand for his work increased.


Other Projects

Today, Donnelly is a successful commercial artist. Numerous companies hire the brilliant designer, painter, and graffiti artist to create many compelling pieces.

Donnelly continues to receive praise for his gigantic sculptures, like a grey Mickey Mouse figure whose face is hidden by his hands. A balloon replica of the piece was used in a 2012 Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and his acrylic painting has garnered praise from critics and the public.

Kanye West commissioned KAWS to design his 808s and Heartbreaks album cover, and the design was an instant hit. It was named one top album designs of the modern era.

KAWS has created other memorable designs for Towa Tei, Clipse, and Cherie. Dos Equis and Hennessey hired the artist to make special edition bottles for their liquor brands.

MTV hired KAWS to redesign its 2013 Moon Man Statue for its Video Music Awards (VMA) ceremony.

KAWS collaborated with Nike to design an Air Jordan 4 shoe in 2017. He also worked with Uniqlo to create a Peanuts-inspired shirt.

Donnelly's commercial and pop art pieces can now be found at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Rosenblum Collection in Paris.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art has an exhibit dedicated to 60 of Donnelly's paintings and sculptures. The exhibit blends contemporary and traditional American art.

Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Galerie Perrotin, and Honor Fraser Gallery also display his work.

The artist currently resides and works in Brooklyn, New York.

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