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KAWS (American, b.1974)


Also known as:  Kaws

KAWS (1975 - ), born Brian Donnelly in Jersey City, NJ, is a true genre-bending, 21st-century urban artist. His work is heavily influenced by graffiti and animation, as well as traditional painters such as Gerhard Richter and Chuck Close. His work incorporates pop iconography -- The Simpsons and Sesame Street have appeared in his pieces. He is perhaps best known for his Companion figure which has appeared in graffiti, sculptures, giant inflatables, and as a vinyl toy for KAWS’ brand, OriginalFake.

After years of being entranced by the New Jersey graffiti movement (he spent his early elementary school years copying images of local graffiti onto notebook paper), it was only natural that KAWS emerged from the early nineties New York graffiti and urban art scene. His brilliant images were produced on billboards, bus stops, and other public spaces, where he gained notoriety for his funky and cartoonish aesthetic. While initially concentrated in New York, KAWS graffiti spread as his popularity did, becoming highly sought after in art centers like Paris, London, Berlin, and Tokyo in the late nineties.

KAWS graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1996 and began working as an artist for Disney. He painted the background for popular animated series of that era including Doug, 101 Dalmatians, and the MTV program Daria. It was during this time that he became interested in the way that animation could affect us on a fundamental level. In a 2007 interview, KAWS stated that he, “found it weird how infused a cartoon could become in people's lives; the impact it could have, compared to regular politics.”

From these seeds grew the flower that would become Companion, a cartoonish Mickey Mouse-inspired character that continuously appears throughout KAWS work. Originally a 2D image, KAWS designed a series of limited edition vinyl toys featuring Companion in the second half of the nineties. This led to collaborations with other urban art luminaries like Nigo, as well as commercial collaborations with Nike for the Air Jordan 4, with Kanye West on his clothing line, and with the MTV Video Music Awards, where he created a Companion-inspired redesign of the classic MTV award.

Indeed, KAWS art has been integrated into the very fabric of pop culture in a way that many of his other urban art contemporaries hasn’t. His has created animation for M&M commercials (2017), the bottle design for Pharrell’s unisex perfume, Love for Fairer Sex (2014), the design for a limited edition Hennessy Cognac Bottle (2011), and a purse for the Nancy Gonzales’ fashion line (2016). These endeavors have raised KAWS’ profile and further blurred the line between commercial and high art -- an ambiguity that KAWS seems to revel in.

These commercial applications haven’t dulled KAWS’ artistic instincts, which are still razor sharp and full of biting satire. His Instagram account boasts 1.8 million followers, making him one of the youngest and most vital voices in the art community today. No matter how you feel about him, KAWS promises to be one of the defining artists of the early 21st century, a mantle that he’s uniquely qualified to carry.

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