'It has created a sense of hostility': how Kaws made the art world pay attention (2023)

In a baseball cap and jeans, Brian Donnelly has the chilled-out vibe of a seasoned skater as he leans forward, elbows on knees, and shrugs.

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“Honestly, I wish the headlines were about the work,” says the 44-year-old artist. “There’s money out there, and people can spend it how they wish. It doesn’t make the work better or worse.”

Donnelly, better known as Kaws, is sitting in the office above his Brooklyn studio, surrounded by the collectible characters that have made him a pop culture phenomenon.

If you haven’t heard of him, you have probably seen his work: with 2.4 million fans on Instagram, a huge following in Asia, a coveted line of vinyl toys, and collaborations with brands as varied as Dior, Nike, Sesame Street and Uniqlo, Kaws has become one of the most popular living artists in the world. But that also makes him one of the most contentious.

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The headlines he refers to happened only recently: in March this year, his 2005 painting the Kaws Album was sold for a shocking $14.8m.

It was a secondary market sale, which Donnelly had no control over, didn’t profit from, and is clearly sick of talking about. Just a week earlier, he had launched one of his most ambitious sculptures on Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour: a 30-metre inflatable Companion – one of the iconic characters of the Kaws kingdom – which dwarfed the boats around it as it floated past the city skyline.

The project had left him “on a high”, he said – but then the sale at Sotheby’s happened, “and immediately every headline shifted to the money”.

The painting itself is one sq metre, based on the Yellow Album: the Simpsons’ appropriation of the album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s. On top of the faces of the cartoon characters, Donnelly had painted Kaws’ signature ears and crossed-out eyes.

The sale price smashed the auction house’s estimates 15 times over. As one critic noted, the piece was worth $2m more than Propped by Jenny Saville, which had made her the most expensive living female artist ever when it went under the hammer a few months earlier. Hers was a groundbreaking commentary on feminism and the male gaze; his was a riff on a riff, and seemed more like a cheeky joke.

Suddenly, critics were assessing the conceptual value of the art, and the artist was drawn into a conversation he’d rather not be having. “Do I think my work should sell for this much? No,” Donnelly posted flatly on Instagram that day. “Did I arrive at my studio this morning the same time I always do? Yes.”

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'It has created a sense of hostility': how Kaws made the art world pay attention (2)

The Kaws hype – and backlash – didn’t come out of nowhere. Justin Bieber, Pharrell Williams, DJ Khaled and Larry Warsh are among his collectors, and in the years leading up to the sale, his toys were being snapped up in frenzies and copied by fakes, and his Uniqlo collaborations were bringing all-out brawls to stores.

ArtNet reported that “all 20 of Kaws’s highest auction prices were set in 2018”, but quoted art adviser Josh Baer, who dismissed the craze as a bubble: “If you think that Paris Hilton and the Kardashians are important cultural figures, then you’re likely to think Kaws is an important artist.”

But art institutions are now paying attention. Kaws: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness opened on Thursday at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne: the largest retrospective of Kaws’ 25-year career to date. Another exhibition, Blackout, opens in London in October; and in 2021, the Brooklyn Museum will host its own major survey.

The Melbourne show features more than 100 works including Donnelly’s early sketches, tags and street art; sneaker collaborations; toys; abstract paintings; and large-scale sculptures. The gift shop has been over-run by collectors for the last two days, and the NGV commissioned its own work, too: the largest bronze Kaws piece ever, Gone stands at seven metres tall and weighs 14 tonnes.

'It has created a sense of hostility': how Kaws made the art world pay attention (3)

Donnelly was just 12 when he started tagging around his New Jersey neighbourhood. In the early 90s, through skating, he found a community among the street artists of New York – mostly older men who mentored him, names like Futura, Zephyr and Lee Quinones.

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After a degree in illustration, he was breaking into advertising cabinets throughout the city, taking Calvin Klein, Marlboro and Guess posters back home, painting over them and then returning them to the streets. It wasn’t political, or anticapitalist, he says. He doesn’t like to talk about motivations. “It was a proof of existence thing. I liked the [advertising] images. I painted over them because they were omnipresent.”

'It has created a sense of hostility': how Kaws made the art world pay attention (4)

The ad interventions are showcased at the NGV, as are the artist’s takes on cartoon characters, from Spongebob to Snoopy to the Simpsons – and including, of course, the Kaws Album. But most impressive are his more recent paintings: striking, vibrant and playful abstractions, with block colours so vivid and intense you want to reach into them. To get that effect takes anywhere between 30-60 layers of paint.

NGV contemporary art curator Simon Maidment believes Kaws’ work has been unfairly dismissed by some critics, who have varyingly described it as “conceptual bankruptcy” and “pointless promotional toy garbage”.

“I see Brian, through his work, as a great kind of humanist, who is engaging on quite an emotional level with people,” Maidment says. He feels “pathos”, “despair” and “consolation” in Kaws’ sculptures, which are categorised as Companions, Accomplices, Chums or BFFs. These are the heroes of the exhibition, and when they appear together they hold or carry one another. When Companions appear alone, they mostly appear despondent, dejected or mortified.

“The figures are often talked about as cartoon or fun or whatever … but I think he’s responding very clearly to the rise of loneliness in our society.”

'It has created a sense of hostility': how Kaws made the art world pay attention (5)
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Loneliness is a topical theme, and now a global concern, but the sculptures that best represent it make up only part of the show; the majority is dedicated to Kaws’ pop culture riffs and collectibles. When the New York Times spoke to Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak about the artist’s 2021 survey, she admitted: “I didn’t see the appeal [of Kaws] initially,” explaining that art with too much mass appeal “makes the art world uncomfortable”.

Maidment is invigorated by these debates. “Are these significant works in the world or not? Yes, they are for some people, and no they’re not for others – but that’s the case for all art,” he says. “But there seems to be something in particular about Brian’s work – I think because it has attracted such extreme sale values – which has created a sense of hostility. People want each individual work to live up to a level of significance that they don’t feel is matched by that about of money.”

On the secondary market itself, he says: “I don’t think there’s a clear relationship between the cultural significance of a work and the monetary value ascribed to it. If there was, there would be a lot more women selling for a lot more money.”

'It has created a sense of hostility': how Kaws made the art world pay attention (6)

Kaws has now produced more than 130 varieties of toys, sold in limited – and unlimited – editions for fans and private collectors. Visiting Japan in the late 90s, he was inspired by the otaku subculture and its obsessions with characters and collectibles. Soon, he had fallen in with high profile Japanese streetwear designers, and in 2006, Kaws launched his own fashion label and shop, Original Fake, in Aoyama.

His commitment to merchandise and “product” may be a turn-off for the high art world, but being accessible, he says, is part of the point. “When you’re a kid, you look at galleries as these zones that are like, ‘stay out’ and ‘you’re not welcome’ or ‘you’re priced out’. Through product, you get to become familiar [with the art] in a very personal way, in your own home … It gives you confidence to go to see other works, to learn more.”

He calls activist Keith Haring a “pivotal influence” – another New York street artist who opened his own shop, the Pop Shop, selling work cheaply as a means of democratising it.

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“Keith was like a bridge to me,” Donnelly says. “When I was younger, I wasn’t going to galleries, I wasn’t going to museums … There was a lot of ‘this is fine art’ or ‘this is not fine art’; ‘this is commercial’, ‘this is high art’. In my mind I thought, art’s purpose is to communicate and reach people. Whichever outlet that’s being done through is the right one.”

FAQs

What type of art does KAWS do? ›

Kaws lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, creating sculptures, acrylic paintings on canvas, and screen prints while also collaborating commercially, predominantly on limited edition toys, but also clothing, skateboard decks, and other products. KAWS is represented by Skarstedt Gallery, New York.

Why are the KAWS so famous? ›

The artist is known for subverting iconic cartoon heroes and in doing so he demonstrates his interest in the characters' universal cultural value, reinforcing the idea that he makes no distinction between concepts of 'high' and 'low' art.

How was KAWS created? ›

KAWS's career began as a graffiti artist in New York, NY, in the early 1990s. His images were seen on billboards, bus stops, and in phone booths. He obtained his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Is KAWS still popular? ›

Kaws figures are very well known, and not just amongst those in the art market. Not only is the market large for Kaws figures, the prices they are fetching nowadays is quite impressive. Brian Donnelly formally known as Kaws is not just a toy maker but primarily a traditional artist.

What makes KAWS so expensive? ›

Since there is a large market for KAWS toys and figures, more people are willing to pay very high prices to get them, which explains the high prices. KAWS figures are also very popular in pop culture, with many celebrities buying or posting about them on social media.

How much does KAWS art cost? ›

Today, KAWS boasts a huge fanbase — he has 3.5 million followers on Instagram — and his paintings have fetched millions of dollars at auctions. According to the 2019 Artnet Intelligence Report, his average sale price nearly doubled from US$42,272 to US$82,063 (approx.

What does the KAWS character mean? ›

In case you're wondering, the name 'KAWS' itself doesn't mean anything other than letters which Donnelly felt, placed together, suited aesthetically. A similar sentiment also seems to apply for his animated skull characters.

How do you pronounce KAWS? ›

How to Pronounce KAWS (Real Life Examples!) - YouTube

Is KAWS good art? ›

Kaws is not the best of street art, and he's certainly not the most interesting. The artist also has the sophistication of a high school student when he discusses his work, unable to provide anything but bromides to an audience of fan boys and hangers on eager to learn more.

Is KAWS Pop Art? ›

Having started as a graffiti artist in New York in the early 1990s, KAWS began reworking advertisements in his distinctive style. Pop Art and culture permeate his cartoonish Companion series of figurines, which bear a resemblance to the works of Takashi Murakami.

Is Bearbrick and KAWS the same? ›

Brian Donnelly—better known as KAWS, the street artist made famous by his small vinyl sculptures—has collaborated with the viral toy brand BE@RBRICK to produce some of the most collectible versions of the teddy bear-like figurine.

What are KAWS dolls? ›

KAWS figures or toys are designer art toys made by famous artists KAWS aka Brain Donnelly. They have a few bells and whistles compared to comparably expensive high-end action figures. Kaws Figures come in many sizes and are produced by the Japanese toy company Medicom.

What kind of paint does KAWS use? ›

Since his early days painting over billboards as a young man, KAWS has favoured acrylic paint. He applied the paint to appear to have no visible brush strokes, so his additions appear printed directly onto the surface – leaving spectators wondering if his characters were intended to be part of the original art.

How old is KAWS? ›

What's the most expensive KAWS doll? ›

The piece sold in April 2019 at Sotheby's Hong Kong during its “NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1” sale for a $2.2 million, against an estimate of $509,600.

How much does a kaws skeleton cost? ›

1,200 V-Bucks.

What's the most expensive KAWS? ›

KAWS Astro Boy Vinyl Figure Red

Released in 2012, KAWS paid homage to the classic Japanese manga series through a set of Astro Boy figures. The figures released in red and grey colorways, with the red figure garnering an average sell price of $6,013 on StockX making it one of most expensive KAWS figures in our history.

How fast does KAWS sell? ›

In the years since, KAWS has rendered most of his signature characters in three dimensions, including Chum, Bendy, and Blitz, as well as his renditions of iconic cartoons like Tweety, Snoopy, and Pinocchio. When first released, these sculptures often sell out in just seconds.

How do you know if your KAWS are real? ›

KAWS
  1. Check the font on the packaging. This is where forgers tend to slack. ...
  2. The color gives it away. Genuine KAWS will always use true colors while knockoffs will use cheap dyes. ...
  3. The eyes never lie. One of the quickest ways to spot a fake is in the eyes. ...
  4. Check the density. ...
  5. Cross-reference.
16 Feb 2021

How do you know when KAWS come out? ›

KAWS Family will release on February 14th, 2022 on the KAWS website. The figurine measures in at 13.39 X 12.2 X 5.71 IN / 34 X 31 X 14.5 CM and is expected to retail for $750.

What is KAWS and why is it so popular? ›

A former graffiti artist and skateboarder, Kaws stands up for popular art that is accessible to all. The iconic figures of the world of cinema and television are his main sources of inspiration. Taken over, doctored and transformed, they become figurations of the consequences of today's society.

Did KAWS work with Kanye? ›

KAWS started his career as an animator and alongside his graphic design campaigns and sculptures has since gone on to work with Pharrell on the design of his perfume bottle for Girl, with MTV to redesign the VMA award in 2013 and with Kanye West on the album artwork for 808s & Heartbreak.

What is KAWS brand? ›

Who is KAWS? Brian Donnelly is currently best known as the artist KAWS. KAWS is a New York-based artist who has made a name out of him designing limited edition toys and clothing. He is also a world-renowned artist who exhibits in museums and galleries internationally.

What is the KAWS exhibition? ›

In his first major solo exhibition in London, NEW FICTION, KAWS (Brian Donnelly b. 1974) will present new and recent works in physical and augmented reality at Serpentine North from 18 January – 27 February 2022.

What is kaws skeleton from? ›

The Kaws Skeleton Skin is a Rare Fortnite Outfit from the KAWS set. It was released on October 18th, 2021 and was last available 68 days ago. It can be purchased from the Item Shop for 1,200 V-Bucks when listed. Kaws Skeleton was first added to the game in Fortnite Chapter 2 Season 8.

Is KAWS still at the Brooklyn Museum? ›

February 26–September 5, 2021

For twenty-five years, Brooklyn-based artist KAWS (Brian Donnelly, American, born 1974) has bridged the worlds of art, popular culture, and commerce.

Why is Bearbrick so famous? ›

Why are they so exclusive? No one can exactly point to what has made Bearbrick so wildly popular among design aficionados. But two factors that certainly contributed to its exclusivity are the uniqueness of its design and limited-edition figures. A Bearbrick toy is like a blank slate on which anyone can draw anything.

How big is a 1000% kaws? ›

Size: 1000% approx. 70cm(H).

Whats the story behind Bearbrick? ›

Bearbrick (rendered Be@rbrick) is a collectible toy designed and produced by the Japanese company MediCom Toy Incorporated. The name is derived from the fact that the figure is a cartoon-style representation of a bear and that it is a variation of MediCom's Kubrick design.

Who is the richest living artist? ›

Damien Hirst – Net Worth $1 Billion

Damien Hirst is an English artist, art collector, and entrepreneur, grossing the highest net worth of $ 1 billion and making him the current richest artist.

Is KAWS Pop Art? ›

Kaws becomes a manufacturer of icons, in the direct lineage of pop art! The artist is shaking up the art world by giving free rein to his creativity on different media. Real touch to everything, drawing, sculpture, painting, fashion, music and design.

What kind of paint does KAWS use? ›

Since his early days painting over billboards as a young man, KAWS has favoured acrylic paint. He applied the paint to appear to have no visible brush strokes, so his additions appear printed directly onto the surface – leaving spectators wondering if his characters were intended to be part of the original art.

What is Contemporary Arts all about? ›

Contemporary art is the term used for art of the present day. Usually the artists are alive and still making work. Contemporary art is often about ideas and concerns, rather than solely the aesthetic (the look of the work). Artists try different ways of experimenting with ideas and materials.

What is the meaning behind KAWS? ›

In case you're wondering, the name 'KAWS' itself doesn't mean anything other than letters which Donnelly felt, placed together, suited aesthetically. A similar sentiment also seems to apply for his animated skull characters.

How do you pronounce KAWS? ›

How to Pronounce KAWS (Real Life Examples!) - YouTube

What are KAWS figures called? ›

In the years since, KAWS has rendered most of his signature characters in three dimensions, including Chum, Bendy, and Blitz, as well as his renditions of iconic cartoons like Tweety, Snoopy, and Pinocchio. When first released, these sculptures often sell out in just seconds.

How old is KAWS? ›

How much do KAWS figures retail for? ›

According to famous auction house Christies, Kaws work can sell from as little as $15.00 to as much as $2.4 million. Kaws has got to be one of the most famous modern day artists today, his presence on social media is huge (especially when you compare him to your average recognized artist).

Who designed KAWS? ›

Who is KAWS? Brian Donnelly is currently best known as the artist KAWS. KAWS is a New York-based artist who has made a name out of him designing limited edition toys and clothing.

What is kaws skeleton from? ›

The Kaws Skeleton Skin is a Rare Fortnite Outfit from the KAWS set. It was released on October 18th, 2021 and was last available 68 days ago. It can be purchased from the Item Shop for 1,200 V-Bucks when listed. Kaws Skeleton was first added to the game in Fortnite Chapter 2 Season 8.

Does art require talent? ›

Art can take many forms, but in all cases, to be a successful artist you need a combination of talent and hard work. Hard work and determination to learn a certain skill will help you produce wonderful pieces.

What are the 3 types of art? ›

The three fine arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture are sometimes also called the “major arts”, with “minor arts” referring to commercial or decorative art styles.

What is art in simple words? ›

Britannica Dictionary definition of ART. 1. [noncount] : something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.

Is KAWS good art? ›

Kaws is not the best of street art, and he's certainly not the most interesting. The artist also has the sophistication of a high school student when he discusses his work, unable to provide anything but bromides to an audience of fan boys and hangers on eager to learn more.

Who is the richest living artist? ›

Damien Hirst – Net Worth $1 Billion

Damien Hirst is an English artist, art collector, and entrepreneur, grossing the highest net worth of $ 1 billion and making him the current richest artist.

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