Known for his iconic character sculptures and vibrant hand-painted works, US-based street artist KAWS is one of the most easily recognizable street artists in history. From spraying and tagging in New Jersey and New York in the early 1990s, KAWS has risen to gain significant popularity over the past decade and now stands as one of the most era-defining artists of our generation.
To ensure you don’t miss out on all the hype, here are five surprising facts about the prolific artist that you may not have known:
His real name is Brian Donnelly
The Brooklyn-based artist was born in 1974 in Jersey City, New Jersey; he got the name KAWS by writing the letters “KAWS” on train tracks before painting his tags on them. The word could be seen from afar and made his work instantly recognizable (and also more difficult to tag over).
KAWS has frequently commented that whilst his tag “KAWS” doesn’t have any deep meaning per se, he chose the tag as he simply like the way the letters looked together graphically.
Photo credit: NGV
He's a former Disney animator
KAWS started as a freelance animator for MTV in the early 90’s, working on shows such as Daria, Beavis and Butt-head and The Ren & Stimpy Show. He then moved to Disney's animation studios, where he worked on 101 Dalmatians: The Series (1997) and Doug (1996) where he managed to sneak his signature skull-and-crossbones logo into both shows on multiple occasions.
In the late 1990s, KAWS left animation to focus full-time on his graffiti career. He gained prominence by painting cartoonish versions of popular advertisements for brands such as Calvin Klein, Esquire Magazine and The New York Post.
As his popularity grew, KAWS collaborated with major fashion brands like A Bathing Ape (who’s owner, Nigo, is a major KAWS collector), Original Fake and Nike Air Jordan. In 2002, he held his first solo exhibition at Bape Gallery in Tokyo, which sold out within minutes (a theme which has continued throughout his career). His paintings quickly became sought after by collectors and celebrities alike, with notable early collectors including Pharrell Williams, Jay Z and Swizz Beats.
Photo credit: The artist
He is also a toy designer
In 1999, KAWS began designing toys for the Japanese brand Bounty Hunter. Since then, he collaborated with brands such as Vans and Medicom Toy to create limited edition figurines that became instant collector's items.
KAWS has often said that his works are inspired by the popular culture which he grew up around. His style is reminiscent of cartoons like The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants (two shows he watched growing up in New Jersey) however his biggest influence is from Japanese anime and manga, which he discovered while attending the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City. His paintings often feature simplified characters taken directly from beloved shows like Sailor Moon or Cowboy Bebop.
KAWS, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket (2010)
He is a passionate advocate for education in the arts
After attending high school at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, KAWS went on to study illustration at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In 2011, he visited his alma mater to give a lecture on his work to students and faculty members. During his visit, he returned various pieces of his work to Pratt's permanent collection, calling it "a way to pay it forward".
He has also been working with MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, since 2010. In 2014, he donated an original artwork to help fund MOCA's education program. The auction raised an impressive $300,000. Additionally, KAWS is also known to have donated his time and artworks to other institutions in the past.
Photo credit: The artist
From Warhol’s factory to KAWS’ studio
KAWS work displays an unquestionable relationship to consumer society, as he integrates everyday objects and culture into a work of art, this has long been one of the driving forces behind his work.
Spurred on by the world of Japanese plastic art, KAWS' series of a 40×40cm canvases were created, where he uses animated icons from television (the Companion, the Chum and others) in real plastic packaging. The pieces are then given the appearance of being vacuum packed in order to present them like those found in a supermarket.
Kaws, Untitled (Chum), Package Paintings, 2001
Following this, KAWS went further to integrate art with ‘the everyday’ via his now iconic collaboration with the toy manufacturing company Medicom. Through this the characters he had created on paper were brought to life in 3D.
KAWS, Companion, 2016
By engaging with this Warholian heritage KAWS has been able to produce a body of work which achieves a level of genius by way of its fun, simple, understanding and reflective nature of everyday life and today’s consumerism.
KAWS is as an artist who began making his name with his street art but has now blown up into one of the most recognizable artists of our time. In fact many argue that KAWS began the mainstream adoption of the modern-day designer toy craze.
KAWS’ work emits an eye-catching, unique style that incorporates graffiti and pop art with urban fashion and culture along with an infectious good nature and sense of humor that oozes from his work.
The hype surrounding KAWS is well-earned. He's been showcasing his work (be it painting, illustration, sculpture, installation art, fashion and homewares) since the early 90s, growing rapidly in popularity, collector interest and institutional ownership over the years.
On a worldwide level, very few artists compare to his diverse output. So it is unsurprising that he has become one of the most iconic brands in modern history (the art world and beyond). KAWS may not create the traditional type of artwork we’re used to seeing in museums, but clearly there's something to it that the world cannot get enough of…