KAWS: From street artist to global icon

Today’s issue is about the artist known as KAWS, the ex-Disney illustrator whose familiar style has evolved into a global pop culture phenomenon.

What began with the rattle of a spray paint can on New York City streets is now recognized the world over — and has created a huge market for collectibles to boot.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name, there’s a good chance you’ve seen his work.

Lets find out who KAWS is, how he got big, and explore his most valuable collections.👇

Who is Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS?

Meet KAWS, the street name of Brian Donnelly, who has morphed from a street artist on the pavement of New York City into an art universe icon, with coveted works that can be worth millions.

Not only has his art transcended into the arenas of collectibles and fashion, it’s been witnessed by hundreds of thousands in museums from ​Atlanta​ to ​Madrid​, while being enjoyed by ​4.4 million fans on Instagram​.

A powerful KAWS sculpture greets guests at the ​Four Seasons Hotel Madrid​. The sculpture was loaned to the hotel by Mark Scheinberg, founder of luxury hotel investment company ​Mohari Hospitality​

Jersey City-born Donnelly began his career in the early ’90s street art scene, where he towed the line between art and fashion (and even spent some time in ​jail​) all to forge a name for himself.

Donnelly, who studied illustration at New York’s ​School of Visual Arts​, became an animator and graphic artist. He landed freelance gigs painting backgrounds, including Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, MTV’s Daria, and Nickelodeon’s Doug.

Defacing bus stops: The key to success 🔑

It was in Manhattan where he got caught up in the illegal graffiti movement.

Back in the 90s, corporate ads were taking up coveted graffiti space. As he put it:

“These great spots, which artists had used to showcase their work for decades, were suddenly getting painted over, taking voices away from artists.”

Inspired by pop street artists Basquiat and Keith Haring, KAWS decided to take these spaces back.

By day, he was freelancing for Disney. But by night, he was scaling high & dangerous heights — painting bridges, billboards, trucks, and freight trains.

But bus shelters and phone booths were his favorite things to paint over. And what he did with them was genius.

In 1996, a well-known Northern California street artist named ​Barry McGee​ gifted him something special.

It was a special tool — a master key — which allowed KAWS to unlock the ad display cases on bus shelters and phone booths.

KAWS would open the cases, remove the ad posters, take them to the studio, work on them overnight, and then sneakily put them back into the case.

The next morning, New Yorkers were confronted by Kate moss in her underwear, encircled by “Bendy”, one of his first characters.

Just like that, KAWS wasn’t making graffiti anymore. This had become something entirely new.

“I wanted people to think that what I did was actually part of the ad campaign.”

– KAWS
It was on NYC bus shelters where his original, Disney-esque creations took their first forms; beginning character arcs that continue to the present moment.

The cartoonish characters, the double X, and the skull that KAWS developed during this time remain the foundation of his visual vocabulary to this day.

Rather than being infuriated, many of the companies were honored. There was even a defaced Captain Morgan ad, which the company ​incorporated​ into a future ad campaign.

From his “New Fiction” show in London, 2022

KAWS’ characters

Companion

KAWS has developed a lineup of original and recurring characters over the years. But his most famous creation is arguably Companion.

You’ve seen Companion before. The melancholic Mickey Mouse inspiration, the X eyes which signify death, the skull and crossbones head.

KAWS figures have an unmistakable, distinct style. They take a passive stance, have X’s in lieu of eyes and often cover their noses with their hands. Image courtesy of ​Singulart​

KAWS gives these characters a sense of humanity. The white gloves, which often cover the face, lend an air of sadness and fallibility that we all have.

In 1999, Companion was the first of his characters to make the dimensional jump from 2D to 3D, with a limited run of 500 figures…all of which lasted mere moments before selling out.

How big has Companion become since then?

Figuratively speaking, that distinction belongs to the 110-foot-tall inflatable Companion, which debuted in Taipei in January, 2019:

Tapei, Taiwan. Image: ​StirWorld​

That summer, he deployed Companion at Something in the Water — a festival organized by Pharrell Williams — surprising the Virginia Beach crowd on the last day of the event:

Virginia Beach, VA. Image: ​The Art Gorgeous​

Bendy

Bendy is a sexually suggestive, uhh, tadpole-like creature.

It typically features the iconic x’d out eyes, contributing to its playful yet eerie aesthetic. The character appears in a range of colors and the smooth, minimalist style has a morbid yet playful look.

The six Bendy color variants range in value from ​$930 to $1,500​.

Chum

Chum is an adorably plump character clearly inspired by Bibendum (aka the ​Michelin Man​.)

Chum often appears in bright colors and is characterized by its large, bulky body made up of stacked rounded shapes, reflecting a playful twist on Companion.

Image courtesy of ​KAWS​

Accomplice

The character Accomplice is known for its distinctively long ears, resembling a rabbit.

Accomplice typically appears in two primary colors: pink and black. The character’s design has a smooth texture and minimalist aesthetic; giving it a modern, sculptural feel while still engaging with themes of pop culture and commercial imagery.

Image courtesy of ​KAWS​

Collabs from New York to Asia

Most of his original works appeared in 2D acrylic paint form. But it didn’t take long for him to build a following across the Pacific, and for his art to spring to life as 3D figures…with some literally growing larger than life.

Collabs have taken KAWS to a new level of fame. His collaborations include:

For their Summer 2019 collection launch in Sydney, KAWS created an avatar of Christian Dior himself, via this giant hand-crafted figurine called ​BFF​.

Since making his vinyl collectible debut in 1999 with Japanese company ​Bounty Hunter​, KAWS collectibles have become some of the most sought-after globally.

These days, the KAWS résumé covers everything from paintings and sculptures to toys, clothing and more. All radiating the same panache and energy.

Donnelly thinks outside the box, utilizing materials from aluminum, to bronze, to Japanese wood, and even an incredible ​pontoon inflatable raft​.

Top 10 most valuable KAWS pieces

If you have a KAWS item in your collection, take good care of it. KAWS art pieces can range in value from $15 to upwards of six figures.

Using hobbyDB as a guide, let’s look at 10 of the most valuable KAWS figures to see which are the most coveted.

10) ​Bearbrick Tour 1,000%​ ($12,090)

KAWS Bearbrick is a collectible toy series created through a collaboration with Japanese company ​Medicom Toy​.

It features a bear-shaped figure that serves as a canvas for various artistic designs.

The figures measured in percentages that indicate their scale relative to a standard size; the most common sizes are 100%, 400%, and 1000%.

The 1,000% size is large: About 28 inches tall.

The collaboration between KAWS and Bearbrick has produced some of the most popular and visually distinctive pieces in the Bearbrick line.

9) ​Hajime Sorayama No Future Companion – Chrome​ ($13,200)

This was from a collab with Japanese artist ​Hajime Sorayama​.

Sorayama is renowned for his highly detailed and erotic portrayals of feminized, biomechanoid robots, often finished in a chrome effect that gives them a futuristic appearance.

The result is a striking chrome-finished sculpture reflecting themes of futurism and technology.

It maintains the shape and characteristics of KAWS’s Companion but with the glossy, robotic sheen characteristic of Sorayama’s work.

8. ​OriginalFake x NEXUS7 Karimoku 400% — Grey​ ($15,000)

The OriginalFake x NEXUS7 Karimoku 400% Bearbrick is a unique collectible created through a collaboration between OriginalFake — a now-closed brand created by KAWS — and ​NEXUS7​, a high-end Japanese fashion label.

This Bearbrick was crafted by ​Karimoku Furniture​, a Japanese carpentry firm known for its exceptional woodworking skills. This particular Bearbrick edition stands out due to its construction from high-quality wood, making it distinct from the more commonly produced plastic figures.

The craftsmanship of Karimoku involves meticulous attention to wood selection, finishing, texture, and assembly.

This edition is particularly valued by collectors not only for its artistic appeal and the prestige of its manufacturers but also for its unique material composition, which diverges from the norm of Bearbrick figures.

7) ​Hajime Sorayama No Future Companion – Black Chrome​ ($16,670)

Same as above, but in Black Chrome

6) ​Chum vs Astroboy​ ($20,000)

​Astro Boy​, known as “Tetsuwan Atom” in Japan, is a classic manga and anime character created by Osamu Tezuka in the early 1950s.

With pointy black hair, large, expressive eyes, and a red or blue outfit, Astroboy is one of the most famous and iconic characters in Japanese animation history.

This original KAWS print Chum vs. Astroboy has an estimated value of $20,000.

5) ​Companion — Karimoku Wooden​ ($22,280)

Another piece from of a series where Companion is crafted from wood, a departure from the usual vinyl or plastic typically used.

The wooden texture adds a warmth that contrasts sharply with the more familiar, smoother finishes of other KAWS figures.

4) ​Companion — Brown​ ($52,500)

This Brown Companion from 2007 measures 4 feet high.

Only 100 were ever produced.

3) ​Dissected Companion — Black​ ($74,170)

The “Dissected” design is a signature KAWS style, where the figure is depicted as if it has been anatomically split to reveal its inner workings.

It includes a cross-section that shows skeletal structures and internal organs.

Keep in mind these vinyl collectibles are over 4 feet high!

2) ​Companion — Grey​ ($87,500)

These are the originals from 2006/2007.

There are 150+ Companions available on hobbyDB. But only 100 of the Grey Companion were ever made, originally selling for $3,000 each.

Original holders who sell today would get a 29x return in 17 years. Not bad!

1) ​Dissected Companion — Grey​ ($118,750)

The original grey Dissected Companion ​last sold via Heritage Auctions​ in March 2023 for $118,750

Bonus: ​The Kaws Album​ ($14.7 million)

KAWS prints are highly sought after. The cheapest buy-in is around $1,000, and they range as high as $50,000.

But the ultimate KAWS print is known as ​The Kaws Album​.

The acclaimed Japanese fashion designer ​Nigo​ commissioned a special “Kimpsons” painting (an appropriation of The Simpsons, which was appropriating The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

KAWS’ unique vision often witnesses his original characters appropriating the style of classic figures – such as Mickey Mouse, Spongebob Squarepants, and The Simpsons. This custom painting sold on April 1, 2019 for a then Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction record $14.7 million.

Where to buy KAWS?

The KAWS brand is abundant on the internet. If you’re willing to pay big bucks you can pick up some primo stuff.

As with many high-end collectibles, fakes and forgeries are a common blight. Those looking to collect KAWS should educate themselves in KAWS etiquette and standards, while developing a keen eye for the detailed craftsmanship of Donnelly’s pieces.

Identifying reputable retailers is important. Honestly, the best place to begin or further your collection is to get on the ​official KAWS mailing list​.

What does the future hold for KAWS?

Like most ultra-popular artists, critics have mixed views on KAWS.

His work is noted for its unique blend of street art aesthetics and emotional resonance — particularly his ​bold forms and vibrant colors​​.

If you have a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, you’ve made it. Kaws was essentially one of the first modern artists to have one.

However, others express concerns over the depth of his work.

While his innovative approach has brought him mainstream and financial success, he draws criticism for a perceived commercialism and lack of deeper meaning.

Some argue KAWS has a more ​commercial trajectory​ that may limit how transformative his art can truly be.

KAWS has been well-received by very wealthy collectors, some with significant clout in the worlds of fashion and entertainment. Where he runs into trouble is with the professional scolds who see in KAWS’s oeuvre nothing more than kitsch.

​William Smith​

In the art world, there are multiple registers of value. Kaws has plenty of critical acclaim, he’s regularly featured in respected museum exhibitions, and he’s certainly won the financial game. What he doesn’t yet have is historical value.

Comparisons are often drawn between KAWS and artists such as Basquiat and Haring, for their trajectory from “street art” to highly sought-after contemporary art.

Andy Warhol set the precedent for pop culture success. And notably, KAWS has an ​upcoming exhibition at The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh​.

So the question is: Does KAWS’ commercial success diminish his standing as an artist?

KAWS’ long-term historical value may still be in question.

But remember that Rembrandt did portraits, Michelangelo was hired by the Church, and Monet became a millionaire.

Don’t think any less of KAWS as an artist just because he’s transcended the art world. 😵


That’s all for today.

Reply with comments. We read everything.

See you next time, Christian

Disclosures

  • This issue was co-authored by Christian Braun from ​hobbyDB​, and Stefan von Imhof from Alts
  • The ALTS 1 Fund has no holdings in any companies mentioned in this issue
  • This issue contains no affiliate links

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Author

Christian Braun

Christian Braun

Christian Braun, Founder of hobbyDB (a database of every collectible ever made), Chair of the Pop Culture Hall of Fame (https://popculturehall.com), Advisor to the NB Center of Automotive Excellence and former board member of Auto-Archives worked in collectibles since he helped his older brother write a book about model cars 36 years ago.

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