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10 things you should definitely know about KAWS 

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Kaws alias Brian Donnelly is not only an artist, but he is also a designer and the artist himself is often described as a phenomenon in pop culture.

When you hear the name Kaws, what are you thinking of? Right, it’s these sculptures, an interpretation of Mickey Mouse with x-ed eyes. The most famous motif of the artist Brian Donnelly, however, is only his biggest trademark. Kaws (stylized as KAWS) alias Brian Donnelly is a lot of things at the same time: he is an artist, he is a designer and he is a pop culture phenomenon.

The works of the New York based artist are similarly diverse as his profession title – and at the same time, his style is unmistakable. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1974, Brian Donnelly started his career in the 1990s.

Being an underground graffiti artist in the beginning, over the years Kaws became one of the most interesting characters in the context of pop-art and design.

Since then Kaws’ work has been seen in Paris, London, Berlin and Tokyo. He had solo shows at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, High Museum of Art, Modern Art Museum and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

His work is exhibited in international galleries and is part of several private collections. Especially famous musicians like Swizz Beatz or Pharrell Williams seem to have a preference for Kaws’ art. In terms of design Kaws has worked with a lot of big players in the clothing industry like Nike, Vans and Comme des Garçons.

Kaws alias Brian Donnelly and Pharell Williams. ©Kaws via Instagram
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Kaws alias Brian Donnelly and Pharell Williams. ©Kaws via Instagram

Kaws is a man between spheres

Kaws is an artist slash designer of the present if not from the future. Not only that the 45-year-old New Yorker looks like he was much younger then he actually is. He also shows how the art world could predominately look like in the upcoming decades. Unlike many other artists, Kaws does not limit his work to the traditional art market.

On the contrary, Kaws is directly beyond this classical understanding and his art stands somewhere between fine art and global commerce. Brian Donnelly is thus taking advantage of both, a very exclusive market and a global market.

Kaws worked for the series “101 Dalmatians”

Brian Donnelly moved from his hometown Jersey City to New York when he was about 20 years old. In New York City he attended the School of Visual Arts, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration in 1996.

After his graduation, Donnelly started to work for Jumbo Pictures. As a freelance animator for Disney, Brian Donnelly had the chance to contribute to productions like “101 Dalmatians”, “Daria” and “Doug”. Still today, one has the impression to recognize an influence form that time. Kaws has often reworked familiar Disney-Characters such as Mickey Mouse in his artworks.

101 Dalmatians, ©Disney
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101 Dalmatians, ©Disney

Kaws first became famous for designing toys

The artist’s career already began at the interface between art and commercial work. In the late 1990s, Brian Donnelly had the chance to design and produce limited edition vinyl toys.

These toys were the first designs Brian Donnelly became famous for – especially in the toy collecting scene of Japan. In the Japanese community, vinyl toys are still well respected and widespread.

Today Kaws is famous for repeated use of a cast of figurative characters and motifs. Some of them are dating back to the beginning of his career in the 1990s. One of it is “Companion”, a vinyl figure of Mickey Mouse with x-ed out eyes, that was created with Japanese company Bounty Hunter in 1999. Others are called “Accomplice”, “Chum” and “Bendy”. A lot of sculptures he realised in later years, were initially painted in 2D and later realised in 3D.

Kaws‘ artwork “Companion”. ©Kaws
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Kaws‘ artwork “Companion”. ©Kaws

In his early career, Kaws had a flagship store in Japan

After Brian Donnelly finished his studies in New York and worked as a freelance animator for different Disney productions, the artist launched Original Fake. With his iconic label, Kaws released different editions of designer toys and sold them in different flagship stores.

One of it was located in Tokyo, which in the end helped the artist to catapult the cult of Kaws internationally. The small vinyl toys became tall sculptures later. Today Kaws’ work includes sculptures of a few inches as well as some that are ten metres tall.

Kaws was first influenced by neighbourhood children

Brian Donnelly’s first interest in the art field was triggered by other children in elementary school. As a young boy, Donnelly became interested in graffiti. He first started to copy graffiti images onto papers.

The first influence for his own graffiti work were neighbourhood children, who painted graffiti images on walls in his neighbourhood. Later, more traditional painters became his influences. One of them is the German painter Gerhard Richter. Others are Klaus Oldenberg and Chuck Close.

Graffiti sketches done by Kaws in 1985. ©Kaws via Instagram
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Graffiti sketches done by Kaws in 1985. ©Kaws via Instagram

Kaws is often compared to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat

Kaws himself is often compared to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring and Basquiat also started as graffiti artists in New York City and became fine art artists later. From today’s perspective, Kaws’ works are aesthetically more comparable to Keith Haring’s, while Jean-Michel Basquiat created art in a very different style.

Today the artworks of all three artists regularly can be seen side by side in galleries, as various posts by Brian Donnelly on his Instagram account show.

Today Kaws’ artworks can be seen in galleries all over the world, beside artworks of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – artists Kaws is often compared to. © Kaws, via Instagram
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Today Kaws’ artworks can be seen in galleries all over the world, beside artworks of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – artists Kaws is often compared to. © Kaws, via Instagram

Kaws and his artstyle

The art of Kaws is characterized by always recurring elements. There is a strong emphasis on colour and line as well as the repeated use of “x”s on hands and eyes.

There is also repeated use of a cast of figurative characters and motifs that are connected to pop culture and pop-art: Mickey Mouse for example, but also the Michelin Man, Snoopy as well as Sponge Bob Square Pants. Kaws shows his sculptures often in the same pose, hiding their eyes with their hands.

Kaws works with different material: fibreglass, aluminium, wood, bronze, steel pontoon inflatable raft. He creates sculptures – some a few inches high, others ten metres tall –, acrylic paintings on canvas and screen prints.

As a designer, he is collaborating commercially and creating designs for edition toys, clothing, skate decks and many other products.

Sculpture by Kaws. ©Kaws via Instagram
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Sculpture by Kaws. ©Kaws via Instagram

Kaws has more followers on Instagram than many other artists

Kaws is an artist of the present, his artworks are famous all over the world and the person himself is a famous character in pop culture. This is also reflected in his activity on Instagram. More than 2 million people follow his actions there.

This is far more than many other living artists can claim. For comparison: Jeff Koons, one of the most important contemporary artists, has around 340k followers. Kaws’ fame can also be traced back to his collaborations with large companies such as Nike, Vans and Comme des Garçons.

Kaws is also working a designer. Here, for example, he designed a perfume bottle in cooperation for the Commes des Garçons x Pharrell Wiliams collection. ©Kaws via Instagram
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Kaws is also working a designer. Here, for example, he designed a perfume bottle in cooperation for the Commes des Garçons x Pharrell Wiliams collection. ©Kaws via Instagram

Kaws revealed his tallest artwork in 2019

Cute, handy and colourful – that’s how artworks of Kaws look most of the time. In 2019 the artist presented his biggest work to date in Taiwan. The title of the 36-meter large inflatable sculpture is “KAWS: COMPANION”.

The giant sculpture was realised in cooperation with “All Rights Reserved”, a creative agency from Hong Kong, which already produced a bronze statue of the artist in 2018.

In 2019, Kaws presented his so far tallest sculpture in Taiwan. ©Kaws, via Instagram
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In 2019, Kaws presented his so far tallest sculpture in Taiwan. ©Kaws, via Instagram

Kaws has sold his most expensive work in 2019

2019 is a good year for the artist. In 2019 Kaws not only presented his so far tallest sculpture in Taiwan, but the artist has also sold his most expensive work.

On April 1, 2019 the painting “The Kaws album” from 2005 was sold for 115.9 million Hong Kong dollars ($14,7 million US dollars) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong – a new auction record for the artist.

“The Kaws album” was sold for 115.9 million Hong Kong dollars at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. ©Sotheby’s
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“The Kaws album” was sold for 115.9 million Hong Kong dollars at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. ©Sotheby’s

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