Who Is KAWS?

Micaela Preble
July 19, 2022

KAWS (b. 1974) is an American artist and designer that has broken the mold of street art and hypebeast culture into the fine art space. Commonly known as his former tag “KAWS,” Brian Donnelly has been at his craft since the late 80s in his hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey.

Since the early 2000s, KAWS has become a household name in Contemporary Art and continues to make strides in the market with his larger-than-life cast sculptures and colorful paintings and prints. 

KAWS Early Career 

Donelly began his artistic career much like the predecessors of street art — with graffiti. While attending St. Anthony’s High School, Donnelly created his tag KAWS. He has stated that there is no meaning behind the name, but rather, that he liked the way the letters looked together. 

He then went on to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City. There he studied and earned a bachelor’s degree in illustration in 1996.

After graduation, Donnelly began a career as an animator for the New York-based Disney animation studio, Jumbo Pictures. Whilst continuing his animation job by day, by night Donnelly began debuting his graffiti as KAWS.

KAWS’ Companion inflatable. Courtesy of Pexels

The Rise Of KAWS

In the late 1990s, KAWS was becoming recognizable on an international stage through his subvertising, a practice of spoofing corporate advertising on billboards and other public spaces throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. 

His origins in graffiti brought his work to a diverse audience, many of whom had nothing to do with the art world. Unlike most artists, he was not interested in pursuing a career the traditional way, like through a gallery,  he was fully aware of the benefits of showing his work in the street and mass-producing pieces in order to build a following. His organic following became so big that it attracted the attention of traditional art collectors and critics.

In 1999, the artist was approached by Bounty Hunter, a popular streetwear brand, to create a toy. This led him to visit Japan and his first toy, ‘COMPANION,’ was born. This cast figure of a Disney-esque creature in monotone coloring was made in an edition of 500. The toy sold out almost instantly and COMPANION became a recurring figure in KAWS’ oeuvre. 

KAWS’ Style

Detail of a KAWS Companion figure. Courtesy of Unsplash

KAWS’ artistic style can be characterized by an emphasis on color and line, graphics, and the appropriation of pop culture icons such as Mickey Mouse, The Smurfs, Spongebob Squarepants, Snoopy, and more.

The appropriation is commonly done in his signature motif of Xs on the eyes, hands, nose, and ears. Donelly also deconstructs the appropriation of these characters into tight spaces and shapes that produce an abstracted style in his paintings. In his vinyl toys, these figures stand independently but carry the same device as his paintings.

KAWS’ Companion & Other Characters

Two KAWS Companion Figures. Courtesy of Unsplash

Aside from Companion, KAWS incorporates a number of other personas into his artwork, stemming from either his imagination or from taking nods of nostalgia from popular characters of his childhood. 

Companion 

By far the most famous of KAWS’ characters is that of Companion. The figure is most easily described as a twisted Mickey Mouse with crossed-out eyes.

Companion has since been adapted to a number of different variations, including dissected, parodying figures of pop culture like Astro Boy and Elmo, and in different colorways of limited edition toys. The figure has grown in popularity on a massive scale, now flying above the streets of New York during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and floating in the Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong in the form of giant inflatables.

Chum 

Another key figure found throughout the artist’s work is the reinterpretation of the Michelin Man, known as Chum. Around the same time as Companion, Chum entered the scene. Since then the figure has been a consistent theme in acrylic canvases and screen prints. Chum has also been the focus of a number of KAWS collaborations, including with the hypebeast brand Supreme.

The Kimpsons

The Kimpsons is a series by KAWS that subverted The Simpsons cartoon. This series contains KAWS’ first formal paintings on canvas. The irony of this is that KAWS appropriates a cartoon that parodies current events and the everyday tragedies of middle-class American life.

This series is also one of the most successful at market, for the artist.

Auction Records For KAWS

KAWS Companion Statue outside Christie’s Rockefeller Center, NY. Courtesy of Unsplash

Since his introduction to the art market in the early 2000s, KAWS has had an impressive run at auction, especially with his paintings. With his great success, KAWS was able to break into the coveted Blue-Chip variety of fine art. Below are his most expensive paintings at auction.

The Kaws Album (2005)

This massive painting was put on sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April of 2019. KAWS’ take on The Simpsons’ The Yellow Album, which in itself was meant to be a parody of the Beetles’ 1967 album Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. 

The painting itself incorporates the whole cast of his Kimpsons series that was originally commissioned by Japanese influencer Nigo. The painting is his most valuable work, selling for a hammer price of 100,000,000 HKD (12,738,800 USD).

(Untitled) Kimpsons #1 (2004)

The largest of the Kimpsons series, this work harnesses the well-known iconography of the beloved cartoon and defaces their visions with his own motif of the x-eyes.

KAWS not only blurs the boundaries of high art and cartoons but propels both genres into a new state of visual culture. The painting also sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October of 2019 for 49,000,000 HKD ( 6,247,108 USD).

The Walk Home (2012)

Completed in 2012, this work is another example of the artist’s ability to bridge the concepts of popular culture like cartoons and live human emotion. The painting features a KAWS rendered Spongebob with the signature X-eyes in a moment of panic and anxiety.

The monumental painting sold for a hammer price of 5,000,000 USD at Phillip’s in May of 2019.

Exhibition History 

Variety of KAWS Companion on display. Courtesy of Unsplash

KAWS  has also been the subject of several international exhibitions, including “OriginalFake,” which took place in 2003 at the BAPE Gallery in Tokyo. 

In 2012, the artist was the focus of a massive exhibition “KAWS: DOWN TIME” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA. This was his largest show to date encompassing 31 works and a massive Companion sculpture. 

In 2020, Donelly collaborated with Acute Art for “EXPANDED HOLIDAY,” a two-week-long exhibition of virtual reality artworks which took place simultaneously in twelve major cities across the world. 

A retrospective of his work was mounted at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia from 2019 through 2020. The retrospective exhibition included over 100 works from the artist. 

In 2021, the Brooklyn Museum opened “KAWS: WHAT PARTY,” a comprehensive survey show, featuring over 100 works and several new pieces.


Micaela Preble
Micaela is an NYC-based art content writer covering art investing, art news, and art historical content. Micaela graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History with a minor in communication arts. During her time at GSU she was a member of The Design Group (DG) and Student Art League (SAL) while also actively participating in curating and volunteering at the Center for Art and Theatre.