KAWS: Revolutionizing Modern Art Through Marketing

We’ve all seen the iconic KAWS figure somewhere. With a resemblance to Mickey Mouse and other culturally significant characters, the creator of KAWS, Brian Donnely has made himself a star in modern art.

With his sculptures appearing across the planet, from cities like Virginia Beach, Detroit, Amsterdam, & Taipei to name a few, it is safe to say something’s working. Donnelly & KAWS have collaborated with famous brands as well, such as Nike, Uniqlo, Jordan, & Dior. All of this publicity the artist receives leads us to ask the question, “How?”.

Who Is KAWS?

Before we get into how KAWS is revolutionizing modern art, you need an idea of who the artist is. KAWS, or Brian Donnelly, is a graffiti artist from New Jersey. Growing up in the skate scene in Jersey City, graffiti came naturally to him and his peers. KAWS first got attention after he moved to NYC and started to subvertize, or paint over, billboards, phone booths, and bus covers.

His graffiti over advertisements and billboards all featured his signature Skull & Crossbones with crossed out eyes. This naturally drew him publicity and recognition in the street scene of 1990’s New York by subvertizing over famous Calvin Klein & Dior advertisements on bus covers.

With his increasing popularity, he made his first companion after being influenced by figures in Japan. This companion, a vinyl figure of Mickey Mouse with his famous crossed out eyes, produced by a Japanese clothing company and was instantly a hit and grew his popularity in Japan and the US. He then worked with Nigo from A Bathing Ape, which helped grow his influence dramatically.


Brian Donnelly has never kept his art necessarily lowkey. While it was not his goal to become famous, it certainly turned out that way. Since the creation of his first companion, and working with Nigo, KAWS has collaborated with modern icons. From the Simpsons to Kanye West, MTV & Jordan, he has made his art iconic as well.

While what we see today is more along the lines of big sculptures and experiences, KAWS is still a very active painter. Drawing from his original influences of Graffiti — drawing & painting is where his true passion lies, and he can make even that an experience.

Creating an Experience

Now here is the meat, the real reason, A.K.A the marketing, of why I believe KAWS has skyrocketed even to an even higher status in recent years. Think of what it would be like to see an art exhibit as big as the KAWS holiday campaign (pictured above). That is more than art, that is an experience. It creates wonder, makes you feel emotions and later associate those emotions with seeing the KAWS inflatable or sculpture.

While creating a positive user experience and brand touchpoint is one easy benefit, it is not the biggest one that propels KAWS to reach the masses. When a gigantic building size inflatable figurine pops up on a beach, it is naturally going to draw attention. What turns this attention into admiration, is the artistic brand KAWS represents.

It is easy for KAWS to reach the masses by using celebrity collaborations, and by already being famous, but it works because of the experience he creates for people on the beach, and the people who wish they were.

This admiration, creates an experience, that you can almost feel through just a picture. This admiration is what drew me to be interested in KAWS back in 2016. You can see a picture of this giant inflatable figure on a beach and are instantly curious and want to know more about it. The best part is, the KAWS experience goes beyond sculptures.

Take this painting for example. This from one of his many takeovers of Modern Art Museums across the country. When it placed with 10 other original paintings of the same concept it is easy to “Wow!” whoever views it.

The use of collaborations with mainstream brands, shows, and people allow for even more interest. But of course, when any of these brands has the prestigious KAWS creative touch applied, interest skyrockets.

Experiential KAWS

Now, I recently just wrote an article describing what Experiential Marketing is and this is a perfect example of it used perfectly.

If you want to know in more depth what experiential marketing, click above. If you want to learn why this works with KAWS, keep reading.

By hosting his artwork at various museums for months at a time, he utilizes their venue to showcase his work for the perfect amount of time. Keeping an entire gallery of his art at certain museums would lose the flare, it is supposed to be limited which creates buzz and motivates people to go before it leaves your city indefinitely.

This is a perfect example of experiential marketing. His artwork creates amazing experiences for people from all backgrounds. This experience allows for his art to have success collaborating with clothing companies of a similar status. People want to own KAWS art because of the experience and feeling it creates for the viewer — his art even creates an experience for viewers without even being there.

He does not have to beg the press to post his sculptures either. By using collaborations with famous rappers and his already successful street image, whenever his artwork appears in the public eye news publications are all fighting to write the best story.

For example, with his recent Holiday Campaign in Virginia Beach, he is creating an experience — a pretty massive one, and in turn, it was no surprise within hours the art was featured in Hypebeast and Complex Magazines to name a few.

How You Can Apply This

Whether you are a small business, rapper, artist, or anyone looking to make a name for yourself the message is clear.

Create an experience.

People remember experiences. Not only is that beneficial for your consumer, but it is also beneficial for your brand from a marketing standpoint. No matter the customer, people want to feel something. When that comes from a brand or person, they associate that feeling with you for a long time — creating life long fans.

Product Designer at CBS Sports | Passionate about designing and building delightful experiences | DM me on Twitter — @jnelly2

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