American artist and designer Brian Donnelly, better known by the moniker KAWS, is widely known for his distinctive art and cast of collectible figurative toys that have consistently subverted distinctions of high and low culture. Born in New Jersey, Donnelly took KAWS as his graffiti tag in high school, continuing to practice as a graffiti artist when he moved to New York and attended the School of Visual Arts. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration in 1996, subsequently taking work as a freelance animator for Disney. During this time, fellow “Beautiful Loser” artist Barry McGee literally gave Donnelly a key to a new kind of success: a so-called skeleton key that allowed Donnelly to open street advertisement vitrines in order to augment and alter them.
In 1999, Donnelly collaborated with the Japanese brand Bounty Hunter to create a limited edition of small-scale vinyl Companion toys. As he gained recognition and popularity, he continued to rework pop culture icons, effectively “hacking” recognizable cartoons and mascots including Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob, Garfield, Snoopy, and the Michelin Man to make them his own. The demand for these limited editions, which range in size from miniature to life-size to monumental, has at times been overwhelming: in 2017, the MoMA Design Store released a limited edition of KAWS Companion figures and their website was subsequently crashed by the traffic.
KAWS’s career has been defined by his mass appeal and his relatively unique, mercurial position in fine art and commercial markets, leading to comparisons with Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jeff Koons. As Chris Lee has written for the Los Angeles Times, “By parlaying vandalism into a brand identity as a purveyor of mass-produced collectible toys, KAWS became a bona fide subculture celebrity with a recognizable presence in street fashion.” Among the brands that Donnelly has collaborated with are Vans, Supreme, Dos Equis, Hennessy, Kiehl’s, Nike, Comme des Garçons, and Uniqlo, and his work is held in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and the High Museum of Art, among others.
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