KAWS: 11 Things You Should Know

KAWS, aka Brian Donnelly, evolved from graffiti to global art fame, blending art and pop culture with his iconic x-eyed sculptures.

Jul 5, 2024By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
Untitled (Kimpsons #3), 2003 with Kaws' Companion (Passing Through)
Untitled (Kimpsons #3), 2003, Source: Courtesy Sotheby’s; with Kaws’ Companion (Passing Through). Source: Wikimedia Commons


The name KAWS, or Brian Donnelly, evokes iconic sculptures resembling Mickey Mouse with x-ed eyes. A multifaceted artist, designer, and pop culture icon, his distinct style emerged from his roots in 1990s graffiti. Now globally recognized, KAWS’ work has graced cities from Paris to Tokyo and prominent galleries. Celebrated figures like Swizz Beatz and Pharrell Williams admire his art, while his design collaborations include giants like Nike and Comme des Garçons.


1. Kaws Is a Man Between Spheres

Kaws’ alias Brian Donnelly and Pharell Williams. Source: Kaws


Kaws is an artist-designer of the present, if not from the future. Not only does the 45-year-old New Yorker looks much younger than he actually is, he also shows what the art world could look like in the coming decades. Unlike many other artists, Kaws does not limit his work to the traditional art market. For example, Kaws did a sneaker collaboration with Vans and Nike, among other brands, which incorporated some common imagery and characters from his artwork.


On the contrary, Kaws is beyond this classical understanding and his art stands somewhere between fine art and global commerce. Brian Donnelly is taking advantage of both a very exclusive market and a global commercial market.


2. Kaws Worked for “101 Dalmatians”

101 Dalmatians, Source: Disney


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Brian Donnelly moved from Jersey City to New York when he was about 20 years old. In New York City, he attended the School of Visual Arts, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration in 1996.


After his graduation, Donnelly started to work for Jumbo Pictures. As a freelance animator for Disney, Brian Donnelly had the chance to contribute to productions like “101 Dalmatians”, “Daria” and “Doug”. Still today, one has the impression to recognize an influence from that time. Kaws has often reworked familiar Disney characters, such as Mickey Mouse, in his artworks.


3. Kaws Became Famous for Designing Toys

Companion by Kaws. Source: Kaws


The artist’s career already began at the interface between art and commercial work. In the late 1990s, Brian Donnelly had the chance to design and produce limited-edition vinyl toys.


These toys were the first designs Brian Donnelly became famous for, especially in the toy collecting scene of Japan. In the Japanese community, vinyl toys are still well-respected and widespread.


Today Kaws is famous for repeated use of a cast of figurative characters and motifs. Some of them date back to the beginning of his career in the 1990s. One of them is Companion, a vinyl figure of Mickey Mouse with X-ed out eyes, that was created with Japanese company Bounty Hunter in 1999. Others are called Accomplice, Chum, and Bendy. A lot of sculptures he realized in later years were initially painted in 2D and later constructed in 3D.


4. He Had a Flagship Store in Japan

Companion Original Fake Sculpture by Kaws. Source: Sotheby’s


After Brian Donnelly finished his studies in New York and worked as a freelance animator for different Disney productions, the artist launched Original Fake. With his iconic label, Kaws released different editions of designer toys and sold them in different flagship stores.


One of it was located in Tokyo, which helped the artist catapult the ‘cult of Kaws’ internationally. The small vinyl toys became tall sculptures later. Today Kaws’ work includes sculptures of just a few inches as well as some that are ten meters tall.


5. He Was First Influenced by Graffiti Street Art

Graffiti sketches done by Kaws in 1985. Source: Kaws


Brian Donnelly’s first interest in the art field was triggered by other children in elementary school. As a young boy, Donnelly became interested in graffiti. He first started to copy graffiti images onto paper.


The first influence for his own graffiti work was neighborhood children, who painted graffiti images on walls in his neighborhood. Later, more traditional painters became his influences. One of them is the German painter Gerhard Richter. Others are Klaus Oldenberg and Chuck Close.


6. Kaws Is Often Compared to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat

Today Kaws’ artworks can be seen in galleries all over the world. Source: Kaws


Kaws himself is often compared to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring and Basquiat also started as graffiti artists in New York City and became fine art artists later. From today’s perspective, Kaws’ works are aesthetically more comparable to Keith Haring’s, while Jean-Michel Basquiat created art in a very different style. Today the artworks of all three artists can regularly be seen side by side in galleries, as Brian Donnelly has posted about on Instagram.


7. Kaws and His Art Style

Sculpture by Kaws. Source: Kaws


Kaws’ art is characterized by recurring elements. There is a strong emphasis on color and line as well as the repeated use of “x”s on hands and eyes.


There is also repeated use of a cast of figurative characters and motifs that are connected to pop culture and pop-art: Mickey Mouse, for example, but also the Michelin Man, Snoopy, and SpongeBob SquarePants. Kaws often creates his sculptures in the same pose: hiding their eyes with their hands.


Commes des Garçons x Pharrell Williams Collection perfume bottle by Kaws. Source: Kaws


Kaws works with different material: fiberglass, aluminum, wood, bronze, steel pontoon inflatable raft. He creates sculptures, acrylic paintings on canvas, and screen prints.


As a designer, he collaborates commercially and creates designs for limited-edition toys, clothing, skate decks, and many other products. In this sense, Kaws takes advantage of the commercial appeal of his work than a traditional artist.


8. Kaws Revealed His Tallest Artwork in 2019

Holiday (2019) by Kaws. Source: Kaws


Cute, handy, and colorful – that’s how Kaws’ artworks look most of the time. In 2019, the artist presented his biggest work to date in Taiwan. The title of the 36-meter large inflatable sculpture is Holiday (2019) by Kaws. The giant sculpture was released in cooperation with “All Rights Reserved”, a creative agency from Hong Kong, which had already produced a bronze statue of the artist in 2018.


9. Kaws Sold His Most Expensive Work in 2019

The Kaws Album by Kaws. Source: Sotheby’s


2019 was a good year for Kaws as an artist and commercial success. In 2019, Kaws not only presented his tallest (so far) sculpture in Taiwan, but the artist also sold his most expensive work.


On April 1, 2019, the painting The Kaws album was sold for 115.9 million Hong Kong Dollars ($14,7 million USD) at Sotheby’s auction house in Hong Kong.  This was a new auction record for the artist, and helped him ascend to a new level.


10. A Kaws Show Was Shut Down by Protestors

Pro-Palestine demonstrators stage a protest at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Kinza Zafar.


While Kaws’ artwork has been hailed both in the art world and as a commercial success, it is also no stranger to controversy. In February 2024, a Kaws show at the Art Gallery of Ontario was shut down by a group of more than 75 pro-Palestine protestors. The demonstration was not in response to any action by Kaws, but rather by the museum, which had recently had their Curator of Indigenous Art step down after heavy criticism.


11. Drake Has Multiple Kaws Sculptures in His Home

Two Kaws sculptures in a Drake music video. Source: YouTube


In addition to his appeal in the commercial and art world, Kaws is also popular among celebrities. Drake, a Canadian rapper, singer, and actor who is one of the most influential figures in popular music, has two rare Kaws sculptures in his mansion. These sculptures, known as the FOUR Foot Dissected Companions, featured in Drake’s April 2020 music video, Tootsie Slide.


Originally published: August 24, 2019. Last update: July 4, 2024. 


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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.