KAWS (a.k.a Brian Donnelly) was born in New Jersey in 1974. He started his creative life as a street artist vandalising advertising hoardings. Today his acrylic paintings and large-scale sculptures are internationally acclaimed and displayed in galleries around the world.
As a child KAWS spent his time copying onto paper graffiti designs he had seen around the streets of Jersey City. In the early 1990s he moved to New York, where he began hijacking commercial images on trains, phone booths and billboards with his own characters. ‘Skully’ – a pirate skull with Xs for eyes and crossbones for ears – and ‘Bendy’ – a snake’s head in the same style, usually found with his body wrapped around a figure in the image – are two of his most recognisable characters. A monochrome version of Mickey Mouse with facial features deleted and eyes replaced with Xs, often portrayed sitting with his head in his hands, is another of his well-known creations. Marking the eyes of his characters with a distinctive X is a signature ‘tag’ designed to identify his work and assert his own style.
After his early years as a street artist, KAWS graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts with a bachelor degree in Fine Arts and Illustration in 1996. Initially he went to work as a freelance animator at Disney. There he created animated backgrounds, working on a number of feature films, including 101 Dalmatians. In 1998, he won the Pernod Liquid Art Award and in the late 1990s began designing and producing limited-edition toys. In 1999 he launched his first Mickey Mouse-inspired toy in Tokyo. His precipitate success in Japan led to a collaboration with designer and entrepreneur Nigo – founder of clothing line A Bathing Ape – which in turn led to the opening of a clothing and design store in Tokyo – Original Fake – a collaboration between KAWS and Japanese toy company Mediacom. At the same time KAWS began developing idiosyncratic redesigns of Mickey Mouse, the Michelin Man and SpongeBob SquarePants and making a series of paintings inspired by these and other well-known cartoons characters, among them The Simpsons and Hello Kitty. Like a number of other high-profile contemporary artists, KAWS consciously plays with the distinctions between gallery art and street art; branding, design and advertising; cartoon and commodity. In recent years he has collaborated with a number of global brands – among them Marc Jacobs, Comme des Garçons and Kiehl’s – to produce a series of exclusive, often luxury product lines.