Brian Donnelly has grown from street art prodigy to commercial success and art-gallery darling. We pause for the Kaws to talk about his latest projects and where he’s going next.
By Bradley Carbone; Photography by Kai Regan
Of all the artists in the Complex universe, none wields more influence than 34-year-old Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS. Starting with his street graffiti work in the ’90s, and evolving to clothing collaborations and toys, the Jersey-raised Brooklyn rep has managed to walk the line between art and commercialism and still be respected. Over the past year he’s created the cover for Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, debuted exhibitions at major NYC and L.A. galleries, and seen his clothing line, Original Fake, kill it globally. In short, the man is Style and Design. Check out the extended online cut of the magazine interview...
You've been ding more exhibitions recently; what motivated that move?
As far as exhibiting work, that’s newer, but I’ve been painting nonstop since the ‘90s. I started doing commissions early on for Nigo [of A Bathing Ape], and later, for Pharrell. That made it easy, because I like to sell the work to people who know what I’m doing and to people who I respect.
So you were essentially able to skip the whole exhibition step in the art hustle and work directly with collectors from the start.
Well, I learned to be guarded with where I exhibited my stuff. I grew up under Futura and Dondi White; CRASH was one of my best friends. They were all glamorized during the ’80s in the art scene, and then it dropped them. [The art] is kind of like a kid, or like letting someone watch your pet: You want to be careful with where it winds up.
What about Clipse? You did their new album art.
I met Clipse through Pharrell. I’m a huge fan of theirs to start, so when they wanted to work together it was like immediately, “Yes.” I didn’t really need to know the details.
It’s funny how the blogs were labeling the single, “Clipse x Kanye x KAWS.”
For the first Clipse song that leaked ["Kind of Like a Big Deal"], I just adjusted their logo as a fun, quick thing before I got the album art done. I had no idea how much that was going to get out there. That was kind of nuts.
Do you design all of Original Fake?
I don’t design the shapes of the clothes, but I do all of the graphics and I design and direct the line aesthetics.
Was that a new step, moving into clothing?
Actually, no. I’ve worked with BAPE, Undercover, Supreme—all brands that gave me insight into those worlds—since I was like 16. Designing Original Fake was the next step, and it allows me to do projects that don’t have anything specific to do with one thing. If you work with another company you kind of have to fit the product within their image.
How did you wind up in Japan initially?
I first went there in 1997 to do some street work and billboards, and there was no graf on the street. But when I went back the next time, MQ had killed it with fill-ins, and then Barry [McGee] and other guys got over there. [Bringing graffiti to Tokyo] isn’t something I’m necessarily proud of, but it’s kind of funny. Now there is stuff in the streets like any other city. I don’t think there are any more untouched cities, or will ever be anything like that again.
Do you do street work anymore?
A couple years ago, me and REAS were in Tokyo and did some bombing, just ’cause we were bored. The process is fun, but I’m not interested anymore. I have new challenges.
LONGTIME COMPANION KAWS poses with his most famous creation in his Brooklyn studio.
Has the “fuck it” graffiti mentality faded?
I think I still have the same “fuck it” mentality; the reality is that now I’m a business. My interests are other risks, like trying to put together a new studio building. To me, that’s a risk; I don’t have a safety net. If I mess up, then that’s hard.
Where’s the new studio?
I’m working on a studio space in Brooklyn with Masamichi Katayama [of Japanese architecture firm Wonderwall]. More on that to come.
What influences the new work?
I don’t really know where the new stuff is coming from. It’s super-colorful and friendly looking, but for me it’s really dark. When I paint identifiable pop stuff like the SpongeBob series, I’m not seeing SpongeBob at all, and it’s weird to have someone connect it to the TV show because I forget that that’s how the viewer relates. Now I’m abstracting it and making it more about color and shape. As far as artists influencing my work, when I get into another artist, I try to work with them—like Hajime Sorayama, who we did the figure with.
How did you put the piece together?
I’ve become friends with him through traveling to Japan. I wanted to take the figure work to another level, to do something totally outside of what I did. So, in 2006, I asked him to paint a version of the Companion, which I then worked on turning into the figure. I didn’t want to compromise the project at all, so I let it take as long as it needed to, and let it get as expensive as it needed to.
Do you collect his work?
I’ve been collecting Sorayama’s paintings for a few years, and I'll buy one or two every time I go over there. He’s 60 and was the Playboy illustrator in the ’70s and ’80s, and probably the best living illustrator in Japan—not exaggerating. He designed the Aibo robot dog for Sony.
Sorayama plays the line between art and commercial work kind of like you do, right?
Well, it’s only recently that there even really is an art market in Japan, so his craft was about finding a way to do what he wanted to within a commercial world. But instead of doing product like I do, he painted and made money through illustration work. I think it’s awesome that he figured out a way to chill and make the paintings he wants.
That’s not so bad.
I mean, really, that’s my goal. To know that I can just make paintings and be all set.