With Covid, the world went into lockdown. We were sequestered indoors as a way to stem the spread of the virus. Communication was relegated to video calls and our outlet to the world was through our laptop screens.
So when something like Kaws:Holiday chose Singapore as the seventh spot to host a giant inflatable Companion—a bulbous, skull-headed figure with Xed-out eyes and attired in Mickey Mouse’s iconic pants, shoes and four-fingered gloves—it almost felt like a reason to head out.
The guy behind Companion, Brian Donnelly—or as he’s better known, Kaws—was in town to do press. We had a scheduled one-on-one with him but Donnelly was whisked away for a sudden Antigen Rapid Test. This ate into his interview schedule. So now our one-on-one turned into a three-way with me, another journalist and Donnelly
Held in a room at the grandstands of The Float @ Marina Bay, through the window you can see Companion reclined on the floating platform. Even if you have no inkling what Companion is about, you’ll still be awed by the sight of it. The onlookers—stray runners, a family, hobbyist photographers—gawk at and take photos of the installation. There’s a buzzing in the air as drones sweep through the sky, trying to contain Companion within their view.
Donnelly sits with a slight hunch. He’s unassuming and soft-spoken. Words such as ‘like’ and ‘you know’ pepper his speech (for this piece, these fillers are marched out into an open field, shot and buried in shallow unmarked graves). His outfit is a uniform: always dressed in a brandless one-tone top, jeans and a snapback. Usually in black, this is his default look. Remove the cap or dress him in bright hues and he might be unrecognisable.
“Dressing up has always been about comfort,” Donnelly says. “I don’t need to walk down the street and have somebody comment on what I’m wearing. That would be horrifying. If you look at a picture of me now and a picture 20 years ago, there’s a good chance that I’m wearing the same thing.” Perhaps his canvas becomes the repository of all his creativity—the vivid colour splashes and lines; the figures from pop culture—by his admission his works are more outgoing than his personality. “I like that to have the attention.”
The other journalist asked if there was any reason for holding Kaws:Holiday in Singapore for their seventh stop. Donnelly asks her to repeat the question; his brows remain knitted. “I wasn’t thinking about the [significance of the] number,” he replies. “Sorry to disappoint. I always wanted to come to Singapore and this was a great opportunity to do so.”
This is the sort of straightforward and unpretentious manner you can expect from him. It’s also how he approaches his work. Take ‘KAWS’, for instance. It was chosen simply by how it sounds and looks when he writes it out. Some articles erroneously attributed the tag to a Raymond Pettibon drawing where the word ‘SWAK’ (sealed with a kiss) appears. As Donnelly would say in response to this, “That is bad journalism.
“The name came first. And [Pettibon’s] piece was the first piece of art I bought. I like his stuff and the association of ‘SWAK’ was funny to me.”
It’s a problem an artist faces when the interpretation is left up to the viewer. We ascribe meaning or, in the moment of confirmation bias, fill in the blanks to fit our world view of the artist. We build up the art and the artist to the point of mythologising them but his origins are far more mundane.
Growing up in Jersey City, Donnelly fared average in elementary school. Not academically inclined, he was just a mote, floating in the air. He went through the paces of the education system and realised that art might be something he might be good at, but even then, he didn’t think that would pan out as a career.
His environment was Donnelly’s creative feeding trough. The world opened up in the ’90s when Donnelly discovered graffiti. He’d take the half-hour train rides into New York City to skate. There, he’d see the wildstyles and bright bold tags— blossoms on a concrete surface—left by its authors like Lee Quiñones, Futura and Stash.
“[As an artist now and taking on graffiti then], fundamentally they are the same,” he says. “You’d want to make work that communicates with people. I wanted to create great work to add to the artists that have existed before me.”
Art school seemed like a natural progression. With a BFA in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts, Donnelly worked for the Disney-owned Jumbo Pictures painting backgrounds for Doug and Daria. “Honestly, working for Disney… it was a job. I showed up to it and there was work. There was a good-paying consistent check for me to pay rent. It was just that.” Looking back at his career, he shares that two defining moments altered the direction of his life. One is when Barry McGee, another graffiti-later-turned-artist, gave him a key that unlocked the ad display boards of the phone booths and bus stops in New York. Donnelly would remove the posters and add his own iconography—the bubble-styled skull with the Xed-out eyes—before returning the doctored versions and locking up the display boards. The public started wising up to this culture jamming.
The second is when Japanese toy and streetwear brand Bounty Hunter approached Donnelly to make a toy. By then, Donnelly was enamoured with Tokyo and was collaborating with like-minded partners like Hectic and Jun Takahashi. The idea of translating his art into the 3D form was exciting and introduced to the world Companion, which evolved from the nascent imagery that once shared the ad space with Kate Moss.
Bounty Hunter would produce Companion in three colourways. Each colour was limited to 500 pieces. They were sold out almost immediately.
When Donnelly created Companion, he wanted to make him approachable. He incorporated elements from Mickey Mouse, an urfigure that all other cartoons are built upon, onto Companion. He added the skull because… well, skulls are iconic.
From Companion, other variants followed—BFF, Chum, Accomplice—pop culture icons with the Xed-out eyes and skull-and-crossbones head. “The name Companion… that’s what it looked like to me,” Donnelly says. “It seemed right. A lot of times I’ll make the painting first, then title them later.”
Companion has become ubiquitous. It’s the new urfigure, so much so that the Companion image is used in other artists’ works. It’s the unspoken rule of appropriation in art, that everything original has been done and all that comes after is just the same thing but recontextualised. (The tipping point was Donnelly’s The Kaws Album that was sold at a record-breaking USD14.78 million. Bill Morrison, the artist of The Yellow Album by the Simpsons which The Kaws Album was parodied after, felt that his work was ‘ripped off’. Except that The Yellow Album parodied The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.)
“A lot of times when I see an artwork, it might trigger me to make a painting,” Donnelly says. “It might be visually connected to the original or it might be something else. entirely But it still leads me to make something new.”
Like many artists, Donnelly wants to create a wider dialogue with the public and public art is key to that.
Enter Kaws:Holiday. This is a series in partnership with AllRightsReserved (ARR), where the Companion makes several pit stops around the world.
“The project is trying to project the idea of relaxation. The first one [we did for the series] was in Seoul and he was lying in the water, looking upwards. In my mind, that’s one of the most relaxing things you can do when you’re swimming. What you’re seeing is different forms of comfort and relaxation.”
SK Lam, the creative director of ARR and a fan of Donnelly’s work, was first introduced to him in 2007 and collaborated on the Kaws:Passing Through exhibition in 2010. “I enjoyed working with him,” Lam says. “Brian enjoys what he does and we’d always share ideas.”
Is there an end to Kaws:Holiday? The topic hasn’t come up. Right now he’s exploring the potential of how far he can take Companion. His signature figure has appeared in the foreground of Mount Fuji to the stratosphere to the snowy plains of Changbai Mountain in China.
“I do things to a point where I need to understand them to get the most out of it. Like OriginalFake [Donnelly’s a fashion and toy company], I started it, learned what I needed to learn and moved on.”
What’s amazing about Donnelly’s career is that he achieved what many have failed to do—total autonomy. He controls all aspects of his work. “There is no one I have to report to. I could change my mind and abandon a project and do something else just because I feel like it.” It is a hard-earned flex that Donnelly keeps dear. He’s aware of the enormity of this, so he’s picky about whom he works with.
Take cartoons. While he finds them interesting he is wary of getting into animation due to the involvement with larger studio productions. “It seems a lot. Y’know, working with a committee.”
But he’s not closed off to it. At least not entirely. Donnelly could be persuaded but there needs to be a ‘pull’. Like NFTs, the bandwagon that everyone is jumping on. Donnelly has read up on it, far more than what he ever needs to, but he’s not going to dive into NFT just because it’s a cash cow. “I like the idea of blockchain and using it to authenticate works, I just haven’t creatively felt the ‘pull’ to make something in that realm.”
“There is no one I have to report to. I could change my mind and abandon a project and do something else just because I feel like it.”
At one point during the interview, Donnelly cracks up at the question: What is it like being Kaws these days? “You two are hilarious. This is like an intervention.”
We suppose he has a point. Our questions would meander into teasing out some deep, philosophical subtext. We’re making mountains out of molehills.
What’s your biggest fear?
Getting sick. Dying, probably.
Nothing profound. Unpretentious. So utterly human
With 3.8 million followers on Instagram, Donnelly is still guarded about what he puts out. He’s still a private man as exemplified by refusing to answer what TV shows he currently watches.
But when it comes to doing press for something huge like Kaws:Holiday, Donnelly sees no point in hiding. “I love social media as an outlet,” he says. “Sometimes I use it to talk about projects I’m working on and other times I use it to vent. I just forget that a lot of people might see the latter.”
Donnelly isn’t a fan of posing in overly-long photoshoots or spending hours in an interview. “But I think it’s important to speak to the press. You need to put words to what you’re making sometimes.” In a perfect world, he would while away on his art and the public will see the finished product; it will be talked and written about.
But this isn’t a perfect world. Instead, Donnelly will do what the rest of us will do—make do with the cards that are dealt. “There are a thousand ways to exist as an artist. You just have to find what you’re comfortable with.”
Donnelly is a speck in an imperfect world, but it is one where his art looms large over its creator.