Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS is an American artist whose work bridges the fine art and global markets. Donnelly was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1974. His mother was a homemaker. His father, who never graduated from high school, became a stock broker after starting out on Wall Street getting coffee and doing other errands for stock brokers.
Although Donnelly began painting at an early age, his father suggested that he attend Community College and study anything but art.
Donnelly took a year off after high school, painting graffiti on billboards every night.
He chose the tag KAWS, not because it had any meaning, but because he liked the way the letters looked when they were strung together. He painted KAWS on the roof of a building across from his high school, so that he could see it when he was in class.
He was arrested once, in New York, for putting a sticker on a building and spent a night in jail in the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village.
In 1996, Donnelly received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Career and Personal Life
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, he worked briefly , as a freelance animator, for Disney’s Jumbo Pictures. He painted backgrounds for the 101 Dalmatians and Daria and Doug.
While working as an animator and living in New York, Donnelly began to add his touch, and his tag, to billboards, bus stop and phone booth advertisements.He has also put his stamp on billboards in Paris, London, Berlin, and Tokyo.
As he honed his style, KAWS’ cartoon figures, with X-ed out eyes, became instantly recognizable. Their shy and helpless demeanor hit an emotional chord with viewers around the world.
He has been creating sculptures and toys with companies in Japan since 1999, about the same time that is works began to be shown at the Colette retail store and gallery in Paris.
KAWS has created cover art for Kanye West and other major artists, he has done cover art for The New Yorker and other publications, designed sneakers for Nike, and clothing for Uniglo and other companies.
In 2012, Companion was fabricated into a 28-foot balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In 2017, the Museum of Modern Art in New York released limited supplies of the Companion action figure, for $200. The demand for the figure was so heigh, that the MoMA Design Store website crashed due to the unprecedented rush of traffic.
In 2019, The KAWS Album, that combined the Simpsons characters and an homage to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album cover sold tor $14.8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
In 2021, the Brooklyn Museum held an exhibit called KAWS: What Party, a retrospective of more than 100 works by the artist, spanning a career of more than twenty-five years.
KAWS lives and works in Brooklyn, with his wife, artist Julia Chiang and their two daughters.
His works are part of the permanent collection of the the Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and other major venues around the globe.
Tobey Maguire. KAWS. Interview Magazine. April 27, 2010.
Angelica Villa. The 10 Most Expensive KAWS Works Ever Sold at Auction. Artnews. March 1, 2021.
Gay Gassmann. Inside the Art-Filled Home of KAWS Artist Brian Donnelly. Architectural Digest. November 2, 2017.
Alexandra Wolfe. Contemporary Art Star Brian Donnelly Mixes High and Low. The Wall Street Journal. October 12, 2018.