Brian Donnelly, the artist known as KAWS, has become an international sensation and his works are some of the most sought after in the world.
Early Life and Education
Brian Donnelly was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1974. His mother was a homemaker, his father a stockbroker, who, he says, were “indifferent” to his graffiti work.
Donnelly attended St. Anthony, a Catholic high school. It was during his high school years that he designed, and began to use the tag KAWS. The letters have no meaning, but Donnelly used the tag because he liked the way they fit together visually. He painted the tag on the roof of a nearby building, so that he could see his work from his high school classes.
After high school, Donnelly earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1996.
Career and Personal Life
Donnelly’s first job, after earning his degree, was at Disney-owned Jumbo Studios in New York, where he worked as a freelancer, doing background animation for 101 Dalmations and other films.
His day job left time at night to do graffiti on bus and subway posters. “I started painting over advertisements in 1993.” he said. “I was living with my parents in Jersey City at the time and the billboards were of Marlboro and Captain Morgan. When I moved to New York in 1996, it was more fashion, like DKNY and Calvin Klein. I’d break into bus shelters and phone booths in my neighborhood, paint over the ads and then put them back in their place. I wasn’t looking to get into fashion, I just wanted to get my work out into the world.”
In 1999, Donnelly designed his first Companion toy, which was a global success and was one of the floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2012.
The universal appeal of his work has gotten him shows in Paris, Switzerland, Hong Kong, London and China.
In 2019, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold The KAWS Album painting, which was estimated to sell for $1 million, for $14.8 million.
With an Instagram following of more than 3.3 million, KAWS has become an international sensation. He has collaborated with toy, fashion and music companies with great success.
In 2017, the Museum of Modern Art released a limited supply of the $200 Kaws Companion action figure, resulting in the MoMA Design Store website crashing due to the unprecedented rush of traffic.
In 2021, the Brooklyn Museum, the first major venue to purchase his work for their permanent collection, honored Donnelly with a retrospective called, KAWS: What Party.
Brian Donnelly lives and works in Brooklyn with his wife, sculptor Julia Chiang and their two daughters.
See more KAWS work for sale at Surovek Gallery.
artnet news. In Pictures: See the Brooklyn Museum’s Survey of KAWS’s Meteoric Rise From Graffiti to Sneakers, Sofas, and Global Stardom. February 26, 2021.
Tobey Maguire. KAWS. Interview Magazine. April 27, 2010.
Eddie Eng. KAWS Found His Own Ways of Coping Through 2020. Hypebeast. December 1, 2020.
Liam Freeman. A Private Viewing of the New KAWS Exhibition with the Artist Himself. Vogue. February 16, 2021.
Angelica Villa. The 10 Most Expensive KAWS Works Ever Sold at Auction. Artnews. March 1, 2021.
Keith Estiler. KAWS Pays $17 Million USD to Expand Williamsburg Studio. Hypebeast. November 18, 2019.
Gay Gassmann. Inside the Art-Filled Home of KAWS Artist Brian Donnelly. Architectural Digest. November 2, 2017.
Alexandra Wolfe. Contemporary Art Star Brian Donnelly Mixes High and Low. The Wall Street Journal. October 12, 2018.