At the crossing of art and streetwear: the heritage of KAWS

KAWS sculpture in Museumplein park, Amsterdam

While many personalities keep the line between contemporary art and fashion, one person is at the intersection of these multitudes: Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS. It cannot be denied that KAWS is one of the most influential people not only in the world of art and fashion but the culture in general.

The future artist was born in 1974 and raised in Jersey City. The young man spent his school years skating and painting graffiti. According to Donnelly, in his youth, graffiti was the only way that creative people with an interest in art, but with limited access to it, could express themselves.

After graduating from high school, Donnelly entered the School of Visual Arts, where he first realized that, in addition to graffiti, art could also become a promising career.

The art of vandalism

In 1996 Donnelly graduated from the School of Visual Arts. At that time, he took his graffiti to the next level. Having managed to get hold of the key that opens the advertising panels of telephone booths and bus stops, Donnelly began to engage in “anti-advertising. He destroyed advertising by adding crosses, skulls, and fantastic drawings to gaudy posters. Often his victims were fashion advertising campaigns – improved by him the ubiquitous posters and billboards Calvin Klein and DKNY. Soon, people began to recognize KAWS’s unusual visual style.

Donnelly then turned his attention to Japan, where his contemporaries Stash and Futura were making great strides. Despite the fact that some friends reacted negatively to Donnelly’s interest in Japan and even ridiculed him, thanks to his work with a thriving street scene, KAWS was able to go global.

At the crossing of art and streetwear: the heritage of KAWS
First KAWS x Bounty Hunter Companion figures, 1999


Bounty Hunter made him a unique proposal – to turn the character into a vinyl toy. With the help of toys, Donnelly has the opportunity to transform his 2D drawings into 3D collectibles.

The first KAWS character evolved into a 20-centimeter vinyl Companion toy (a Mickey Mouse-style hero who seemed to drink from a bottle of poison), which immediately became a hit, sold in the best stores of a still nascent subculture that united art and fashion. The iconic and now closed Parisian boutique Colette was one of the first stores Donnelly began collaborating with.

Building on the success of Companion, Donnelly poured his profits into the creation and sale of his own vinyl toys, and similar to the first figure, many other characters were born based on his work – Accomplice, Chum, Bendy, and BFF.

Unlike traditional art, Donnelly’s work in Japan was highly commercial. First of all, KAWS was a product-oriented brand, not original works or numbered editions.

Impact of KAWS on streetwear

Around the same time, Donnelly officially met NIGO, and the two began to work together, in particular organizing the exhibition Kimpsons – The Simpsons through the eyes of KAWS.

At the crossing of art and streetwear: the heritage of KAWS
KAWS paintings, Kimpsons

Following the success of Kimpsons, NIGO and KAWS began working on a joint BAPE collection. Donnelly worked with the brand for three seasons, releasing legends such as the highly sought-after KAWS x BAPE Companion Hoodie and the equally popular KAWS x BAPE Bapesta Sneakers.

At the crossing of art and streetwear: the heritage of KAWS
KAWS x BAPE Bapesta

The name KAWS has been pronounced by not only rappers but American street culture in general.

In 2006, Donnelly teamed up with Medicom Toy and Nexus7 to create a brand in which he could fulfill his artistic aspirations, building on his popularity in the streetwear segment: OriginalFake. OriginalFake used Medicom Toy’s vast manufacturing capabilities and Nexus7’s cutting-edge technology to not only create figurines, but graphic T-shirts and, over time, entire clothing collections.

In addition to the familiar KAWS characters that appeared in various prints, comically large biting teeth became a characteristic feature of the brand. OriginalFake clearly showed that for Donnelly, the border between art and clothing simply did not exist. Donnelly leveraged his brand’s success with collaborations with Nike and Vans.

At the crossing of art and streetwear: the heritage of KAWS
Vans Chukka Boot x Kaws «The Simpsons», 2007

Donnelly is constantly breaking down familiar symbols – whether characters or sneakers – ingrained in wider cultural perceptions and transforming them into something completely new.

At the crossing of art and streetwear: the heritage of KAWS
Nike Air Force 1 x KAWS, 2007

Although the traditional art world has expressed some doubts about the artist making a living making toys, his ability to take art outside the museum and interact with the wider culture was actively encouraged. He has been compared to both Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, titans who themselves were engaged in commercial art.



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