In the back of Brian Donnelly’s studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, behind three wheeled, wooden work tables and neatly organized racks containing bottles of brightly colored acrylic paint, past an array of painted canvases in different shapes and sizes, hides a four-foot-tall sculpture of Mickey Mouse. Mickey has seen better days, apparently. He’s gray. And his eyes are x-ed out, as if he just drank from a bottle labeled “Poison.” Donnelly, 36, who is better known by his alias, KAWS, is getting ready to haul a 16-foot-tall version of this mouse, titled “Companion (Passing Through),” from the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., to the Standard hotel in New York. A graffiti artist, illustrator, toymaker, sculptor and painter, Donnelly first collaborated with the hotel earlier this year, with a series of blue, red and green light bulbs that sold out in a matter of days. For all of his visibility in the worlds of fashion and art, Donnelly remains an unassuming, self-proclaimed “blusher” from New Jersey. T caught up with him on the eve of the unveiling at The Standard to talk about art, life and why his large “companion” looks so darned shy.
Where did your signature “X” come from?
Before I got into painting over ads, I was just working traditional graffiti. And that kind of led me into painting over billboards. So, in 1993, I was still doing letter stuff, but I just started incorporating it into ads. I’d stand there painting while cars went by.
How did you get involved in graffiti?
It was just all around. It’s sort of, you know, if you have an art interest. … Actually, it’s great for a young kid who’s just interested in being creative, because you meet other kids who have the same interests. It’s like you play soccer. You meet kids that play soccer, and you just come out of the woodwork when you get involved. I started painting other imagery like the skull and crossbones and when I got into breaking into the phone booths and the bus shelters, and I started using that imagery and kind of let the lettering fall out. I started to think about it almost like competing with the advertisers for space. That’s how I saw graffiti; I mean it was the parallels that were really kind of funny. The point is to make work that would last on the streets and almost just be there, but not. You know? Maybe someone doesn’t even stop but later is like, “What was that? Weird ad.”
And New York was your canvas?
Yeah, I grew up in Jersey City and I was coming to New York when I was a little kid skating. I moved here in ’96. Growing up, a lot of the way I got to see art and learn about things happening outside of Jersey City was through magazines and stickers and graphics and stuff. So now, when I’m making work, I’m always thinking how can I communicate within these avenues to make those bridges for kids and pull them out of their holes into other worlds? And I’m not just thinking of kids when I’m creating something. I’m always thinking of like — I’m probably turning red, I turn red a lot — but I always think of how I grew up and how I came to this and sort of the different opportunities and different ways of finding that. And I always try to think, There have to be other people like that. How do you reach them? Or, how do you like pull them into the mix or show them kind of ways to get into other things that they want to get into? That they might not know they can get into?
How did you make the jump to go to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and study illustration?
Ever since I was little, I wanted to be in the arts, I just never really saw it as a reality. So, when I got out of high school, I took a semester off just ’cause I didn’t know what the hell to do. And I figured I would go to SVA and when I got in there, that’s when I realized there’s always opportunities and I got superfocused. I feel like from entering school till now, it’s just been like ch-ch-ch, you know, just working.
Did people ever suggest that you stop tagging?
Yeah, I mean you meet all kinds of people who don’t understand what you do. I’m sure if you were trying to go into any profession — I mean, maybe people don’t get talked out of being a doctor — but if I had kids, I’d be like, “There’s a lot of other things you can look into.”
Can you speak about your childhood at all?
What’s to speak about? I mean, I think I spoke a lot about it, just through graffiti, through meeting kids, through skating. … I’m definitely not the spokesman type. I feel like your actions are what speak and the stuff you make, and so now I’m getting these opportunities, like with the Aldrich [Contemporary Art Museum] and the sculpture going to go from the Standard to the High Museum of Art. And then in December I’m going to do the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for this series they do each year called “Focused.” But I also feel like it’s important to continue to make the stuff I make, like T-shirts, and I have my store OriginalFake in Tokyo and my clothing line and to continue to make the toys.
What inspired you to go to Tokyo when you graduated from art school?
To be a ninja, like everyone else, of course. No I’m just kidding [laughs]. I just went to Tokyo ’cause, like, at the time, these guys Stash and Futura who were already working over there were super-embraced and, you know, I was always interested in Japan, it just seemed so far away and so different than New York. So, it was just a place I wanted to check out. There were some people making things in New York, but it wasn’t with the, I don’t know, same seriousness, I guess, as the kids who were making stuff in Japan. Like what Nigo was doing, you know, with A Bathing Ape. The attention he was giving to the product, to the store — it was just trumping everybody, worldwide. There was no one that was making stuff for that market, in that way. When I went the first time, I was like “I need to be working here with these guys.” And then slowly, it kind of bounced back to the U.S. When I was going there in the beginning I had friends that were like, “Why do you waste so much energy toward Japan?” And I just always thought, Well that’s where like the creative kids are. And that’s where I went.
Where the creative kids are in art?
Not for art, actually. It was just the opposite. When I went there, I felt like there was no support for art, or very little. I did a show at Parco in 2001. Parco’s a shopping center. If you told somebody in New York you were doing a show at the top of a shopping center, they’d be like, “Oh, that’s really tacky, commercial.” But over there, that was the normal outlet. So yeah it was weird, kids weren’t buying art, it just wasn’t on the radar. They’d sooner spend $300 on a pair of sneakers than they would on a small drawing.
Is that how you came to make products and toys?
The toy thing was just a coincidence. I’ve always loved editions, I’ve always loved the pop artists like [Claes] Oldenburg and [Tom] Wesselmann and what they were doing with Gemini — making silk-screen editions, which I was also interested in. But then they would do these objects as editions and then there were sculptures. I always saw making sculptures as so unobtainable, like you need patrons. So when the idea of making a toy came up, it was like the only way I could see my work three-dimensionally. So instead of making this monumental 10-foot thing at the time, I made a thousand 8-inch things. But it was with the same sort of attention given and the same quality control. The sculptures I’m trying to make now, I want them to feel and look like the toys that I was making.
Like “Companion (Passing Through)” at the Standard?
Yeah, I mean that sculpture’s fun. Originally it was in Hong Kong for Harbour City. When I was invited to do the piece, I went and saw the site. And immediately I was like, “God if I had to sit out here, I would just be mortified if this many people walked past me.” And that’s how that pose came. I just went up to the Aldrich last week to see the sculpture. I saw it in the winter, but I wanted to see it with the grass grown in and everything before they disassemble it — and even just sitting in the museum and watching families come up, stroll out to it, like kids, adults, it was surreal.
You have a lot of supporters. You’ve worked with Nigo from A Bathing Ape, you’ve been commissioned by Pharrell to do SpongeBob SquarePants paintings and by Kanye West for his “808 & Heartbreaks” album (2008). What was your favorite collaborative project?
At the end of the day, I love painting. There’s really not many things that beat just being in the studio, working, but the product also has its benefits in the way that I can exist in all these different houses. If I were only making paintings, I would never have that reach or interaction with an audience that I get to have on a really more casual setting.
And what about graffiti? Do you still tag?
No, I haven’t tagged in like 10 years. For me it is something I enjoy seeing. I have friends that are involved, I just, you know, my interests have changed. I just enjoy other things at the moment. There are people who only know the toys I make. There are people who only know the graf I did. And, you know, I’m probably reaching new people that are only familiar ’cause they go to the galleries. Or maybe they just know the clothing and don’t know, you know, that I happen to paint. … So it really just depends on the entry point. I prefer to not compartmentalize myself.
What’s next for this amazing artist? Check HERE.