How KAWS rose from the streets of Jersey City to be a global sensation

Brian Donnelly aka KAWS inside KAWS: PLAYTIME at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 2019 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Eugene Hyland. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
KAWS, CHUM (KCC3), 2014, acrylic on canvas over panel, 213.4 x 172.7 x 4.4 cm. Photo: Matt Hawthorne
© KAWS. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
KAWS, UNTITLED (KIMPSONS), 2004, acrylic paint on canvas,
152.4 x 127.0 cm.
Collection of Larry Warsh © KAWS . Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
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Take a dive into the story behind how KAWS emerged from the streets of Jersey City to become one of the most prolific and collectible contemporary artists today.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria

Brian Donnelly aka KAWS inside KAWS: PLAYTIME at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 2019 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Eugene Hyland. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

 

There is no denying that KAWS is a global sensation; his trademark motif of X’s for his characters’ eyes is unmistakable to say the least. More recently, to celebrate 20 years of Companion, the artist sent his iconic character in an astronaut suit 41.5km into the stratosphere using a sound balloon for a two-hour zero gravity walk before returning to Earth. In commemoration, figurines were released on 18 August, bringing major social media hype. But what is lesser known is how this graffiti artist emerged from the streets of Jersey City to become one of the most collectible contemporary artists in the world today.

Earlier in Melbourne this year, I had the opportunity to see KAWS’s museum survey show, “Companionship in the Age of Loneliness” at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). The exhibition showcased the breadth of the artist’s practice, beginning from his roots in the 1980s, tracing his rise to fame. Underpinning the curatorial premise was the notion that KAWS’s sculptures possess a universal appeal by speaking to our deep-seated desire for companionship, at a time when we are more globally connected than ever before. In his catalogue essay, Dr. Simon Maidment, NGV Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, writes, “Combating loneliness involves creating a sense of intimacy and connectedness. KAWS offers such an antidote, manifest in COMPANION sculptures.”

Born in 1974 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS) made his first foray into graffiti art around the age of 12 through tagging, taking to the streets of his neighbourhood. In these formative years, Donnelly made regular trips to New York City for skateboarding, where he would meet kids sharing his interests. Around this same time, New York’s subway graffiti culture was drawing attention across the globe and the city’s infectious artistic energy rubbed off on Donnelly.

These early 1990s saw Donnelly earn recognition within the wider graffiti art community and adopt the pseudonym KAWS. This was still largely a pre-Internet era, where dissemination of information and art functioned in vastly different ways compared to current times. Without the convenience of smart phone technology and social media platforms, artists shared their work through 6×4 inch photographs. During this period, Donnelly was studying for his undergraduate degree in Illustration at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, the very same school Keith Haring—whom Donnelly greatly admires—attended before him. After graduating in 1996, Donnelly worked for production company Jumbo Pictures, painting animation cels, for Disney’s 101 Dalmatians amongst others. After three years, with his growing popularity in the art community, he was able to sustain making a living working as an artist in his own right.

 

Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

 

In these same years, Donnelly began to use artistic intervention as both a social and creative strategy, utilising acrylic paint as a new medium at his disposal. Early billboard interventions include advertising for Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum in 1993, and in 1995, MetLife billboard that featured Snoopy and Woodstock from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. Meanwhile, the crossbone skull motif, the beginnings of the KAWS trademark style, first made its appearance in 1996 in a billboard intervention of a Marlboro cigarette advertisement. Maidment writes, “This work represents one of the first times the artist identifies a cultural icon and inserts himself within its frame, an approach that would underpin much of his work going forward.”

1996 and 1997 were golden years for Donnelly, and both his work and life experiences would set the stage for KAWS as we know him today. In 1997, he collaborated with San Francisco graffiti artist Barry McGee—a pioneering artist shaping the graffiti culture of the Bay area. Taking a poster from advertising hoardings found next to bus shelters and telephone booths, only to later return—a practice KAWS had begun a year earlier—the artists created an intervention on a Calvin Klein fragrance campaign with McGee adding his signature face drawing to the side of the bottle, and KAWS painting a snaking creature sporting only the cross bone skull face. This creature, later named Bendy, would become another signature character. McGee shared a trick with him; and later, back home in New York, KAWS pried a lock out of one of these advertising hoardings, and had a local locksmith cut him a set of keys. After that the world was his oyster, he would work on sets of posters at a time—instead of just one—returning them only when he had amassed a series. Such a methodology changed his intervention, and stirred a far more widespread interruption. This was all, of course, illegal, and entirely unauthorized. It wasn’t until later in 2001, through collaboration with fashion photographer David Sims, that KAWS would ultimately shift from the realm of unsanctioned interventions to receiving full-fledged authority for appropriation.

On a trip to Japan in 1997, KAWS discovered otaku culture, the power of universal mass appeal, and the growing industry of collectable figurines and merchandise—he also began meeting influential streetwear designers. Through introductions in the community, he met entrepreneur Tomoaki ‘Nigo’ Nagao, among many others, and thus began KAWS’ path into brand collaboration. Nigo, a fashion designer—famous for his label A Bathing Ape, or BAPE—as well as a DJ, hip-hop producer, record label owner, opened doors for KAWS; their collaborations would become prolific. The explosion of Tokyo designers influencing American street style only further propelled KAWS’s reputation.

In 1999, toy designer Hikaru Iwanaga and designer Yoshifumi ‘Yoppi’ Egawa, both of whom were well acquainted with KAWS, invited him to create his first small-run toy. Taking the skull and blending it with elements synonymous to Mickey Mouse—boots and gloves—Companion was born. A year later, KAWS launched his own website where he could sell these toys directly to his growing fan base. As his audience grew, his popularity surged. And here, we begin to really see KAWS’ erosion of high and low culture. To date, KAWS has produced more than 130 toys, with price tags ranging from as little as US$50 apiece to six figure sums.

Often, these figurines act as a prototype of sorts for KAWS’s large-scale sculptures, the first of which was created in 2006 for a shop in Tokyo dedicated to KAWS’s own fashion and design label, OriginalFake (the store closed in 2013). Companion (OriginalFake) was a three-metre tall version of his Companion figure with one half of its body dissected to reveal its anatomy. More recently his sculptures have been growing to a monumental scale. Collaborating with Hong Kong-based creative studio AllRightsReserved, the artist has taken Companion around the world, from floating him face up, on his back in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour; and sitting along a beach in Virginia; to lying down in front of Japan’s Mount Fuji and more. In each, the sculptures simply dwarf its surroundings.

 

Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
KAWS, CHUM (KCC3), 2014, acrylic on canvas over panel, 213.4 x 172.7 x 4.4 cm. Photo: Matt Hawthorne
© KAWS. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

 

Aside from sculptures, painting continues to be another major medium found in KAWS’s artistic practice. Another well recognized character, Chum, which was inspired by the Michelin Man and bears the crossbone skull and X’s for eyes was incorporated into a series of acrylic paintings on canvas in 2000, although the character made its debut earlier in his bus advertising interventions. Following Chum, a set of similarly designed The Simpsons paintings were created between 2000 and 2002. KAWS called them The Kimpsons. Nigo commissioned KAWS to create a series of The Kimpsons paintings, featuring each individual character from the iconic American television animation. Completed in 2005, the series resulted in 48 square canvases and a larger Beatles-inspired painting, The KAWS Album. In 2019, the series was famously put up for auction through Sotheby’s Hong Kong in the sale NIGOLDENEYE® Vol 1. The painting sold for US$14.7 million, by far the highest price paid for a KAWS work to date.

 

KAWS, UNTITLED (KIMPSONS), 2004, acrylic paint on canvas,
152.4 x 127.0 cm.
Collection of Larry Warsh © KAWS . Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

 

KAWS continued working with other animated series, adopting the same strategy, including The Smurfs, Peanuts, SpongeBob SquarePants, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Each was culturally defining of their respective eras. In this way, KAWS’s choice of appropriation of popular culture creates a broader relevancy that resonates collectively. “He repurposes these figures to explore companionship in an age of disconnection, isolation and loneliness, ” writes Maidment. These works, while entertaining, also poke at pertinent issues with cutting commentary on social aspects of contemporary culture, modern life and history.

“KAWS reminds us simply that we need one another and that life should be lived as compassionately as possible to combat this age of loneliness, fear and hatred—and that it should be lived together,” writes Maidment. In a contemporary world where we are ceaselessly connected through social media, yet scientific studies are showing we are feeling disconnected and lonelier than ever, KAWS has successfully tapped into mass media to remind us of this dire human condition.

 

 

 
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