The origin story of art world phenomenon KAWS features a teenaged Brian Donnelly painting his famous tag letters on the roof of a building outside his Jersey City classroom for his own viewing pleasure. Read on to learn more about one of the highest-grossing living artists.
^ Formerly St. Anthony’s High School, Jersey City
Jersey City Delinquent
Once upon a time, a bored teenaged Brian Donnelly looked out of his St. Anthony High School classroom window and made a plan to improve his view. Enchanted by the vibrancy of early 1990s graffiti culture, he had tagged plenty of building and subway walls since becoming a preteen skateboarder. Today, he pays homage to the men who influenced him in those early years — mentioning famous NYC street artists Futura, Zephyr, and Lee Quinones.
After high school, the soon-to-be art phenom attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration in 1996. He was then employed briefly as an animator for Disney. Leaving the Happiest Place on Earth, the young artist modeled a character he called Companion upon the classic Mickey Mouse cartoon, and his wild ride toward art world fame began.
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An Auspicious Beginning
Like his graffiti tag, the iconic Mickey Mouse form would stick to KAWS as he developed a globally recognized art production practice. He launched his now global art enterprise from Tokyo. He began with small vinyl toys that he later scaled up into towering sculptures. Figures titled Accomplice (which has a Bugs Bunny resemblance), Chum (something like the Michelin man), and Bendy (best described as an elephant worm) joined the KAWS Companion figures in 1999. Many cartoon characters followed. The Simpsons became Krimpsons and Smurfs, Kurfs.
Today the KAWS oeuvre includes sculptures of only a few inches to his balloon for the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to a Taipei City KAWS spectacle at 110 feet tall and the appearance of a 115-foot-long floating Companion in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. Throughout his highly profitable career, Donnelly/KAWS has often gone back to his Disney days for references, developing a pantheon of iconic cartoon images that maintain near-perfect likeness to the original animated figures. KAWS Pinocchio & Jiminy Cricket could merely be commercial products promoting the eponymous characters were it not for the signature X over each eye and the trademark scalloped mouse ears. Like in Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, represented as screen-printed images on canvas, the originality is in the idea of production rather than the images.
A Place in Art History
KAWS’ place in the art historical cannon is, at this point, a given. It is fitting that Brian Donnelly attended the School of Visual Arts of New York (SVA), alma mater of fellow mega-artist Keith Haring, albeit with decades between them. Keith Haring was actually expelled before he could graduate from SVA, after he used campus building walls for a graffiti project with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Along with their time at SVA, these two famous artists share some common features in their biographies, their aesthetic influences, and their commercial success. Both KAWS and Keith Herring’s original artworks are found in major collections and yet the iconic imagery of these two graffiti artists inches toward the mundane due to their ubiquitous reproduction.
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The recognition that comes with that reproduction is why KAWS is now an indelible part of art history. Reception is a part of every artist’s biography. How the public reacts shapes what that very public thinks of the art under discussion. The reception to KAWS places him into the art history chapter that begins with Andy Warhol and focuses intensely on Jeff Koons, whose stainless steel balloon animal sculptures regularly blow up precious art sales records, such as his $91.1 million fetching Rabbit. That both KAWS and Jeff Koons sculptures are often produced from materials with reflective surfaces is fitting for the way in which the popularity of these art objects shows us something of our cultural time and place.
Art as Commodity
In 2017, the website for the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City crashed due to an unprecedented rush of traffic when the Museum Design Store released a limited quantity of a $200 KAWS Companion figure. Signed and numbered, to facilitate their exponentially increasing value, those KAWS sculptures are a curious commodity. Today, they are found in all kinds of iconic locations and attain huge auction prices. KAWS motifs are also found as a design element in endless collaborations the artist has made with celebrity and retail fashion brands, such as Dior, Nike, Uniqlo, Travis Scott, and Pharrell Williams.
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That KAWS toys are marketed as art perhaps makes the most sense in the context of Japanese popular art trends in the 1990s and early 2000s when KAWS vinyl toys first garnered both respect and commercial value. The visual language collapses high and low art and, in a sense, the collectible art objects serve an alternative currency role immediately upon production. This became even clearer in 2022 when the first KAWS figures were released that would be backed by blockchain.
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This Story Starts in Jersey City
St. Anthony High School’s record of prominent alumni is an impressive list of well-known athletes with just the one artist as an exception. From all accounts, the co-ed Catholic school was beloved by its student body. However, class numbers shrank consistently during the early 2000s and, after decades of dwindling enrollment, the school finally closed for good in 2017. St. Anthony’s former location is now surrounded by Newport’s commercial district. Located on Eighth Street, a short walk from the Newport PATH station and the Hudson waterfront. It sat on an increasingly valuable lot and it seemed likely that developers would snatch up the spot. The old school building was, however, not replaced by a luxury apartment building, but is again a school. Hamilton Park Montessori School now occupies the lovely yellow brick building
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Today, the home of KAWS is in Brooklyn. Despite the size and shine of his signature art objects, the famous Brian Donnelly is not particularly conspicuous in dress or demeanor. He looks more like a middle-aged skateboarder than a blue-chip artist. His massive KAWS Studio is not particularly obvious either. Its brick warehouse exterior fits unobtrusively into the surrounding Williamsburg neighborhood. Brooklyn claims Brian Donnelly now, but his story as a global art world maverick starts on the west side of the East and the Hudson rivers.