Street artist KAWS reaches new heights
(CBS News) The artist who calls himself KAWS took part behind the scenes in the country's biggest Thanksgiving Day parade . . . and his contribution produced quite an effect. Serena Altschul has the proof:
All of the usual suspects were there - familiar faces to the millions of people lining the streets of New York City and watching at home on TV, in a turkey day tradition: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
Among them was a balloon many people might not know. His name is Companion, a gray-and-white creature who's a little too shy to show his face.
But those who HAVE seen his face are obsessed with the character - and the man who created him: KAWS, a painter and designer we first met four years ago, who is now one of art's biggest draws.
It wasn't all that long ago that the 38-year-old KAWS was just another mischievous kid who found his artistic voice through the illegal painting of graffiti.
"I just started simply through graffiti and drawing on my skateboard and painting on walls and getting that small recognition," he told "Sunday Morning" in 2009.
To his family, he's known as Brian Donnelly. He grew up in the shadow of Manhattan, across the river in Jersey City, where his faded tags can still be seen on the sides of buildings.
Donnelly used the name KAWS to stay anonymous. He didn't make his real name public for many years.
He said the name was "just a combination of letters I liked. And when your whole art's based on the lettering you choose, you kind of figure out what ones work together. I just liked the shapes of the K, A, W, S. It has no meaning."
KAWS became a street legend in the '90s by drawing over bus stop ads, establishing his signature mark - placing X's over character's eyes.
He then started designing products and vinyl figures - his first character was called Companion - and painting cartoon characters from his childhood.
Altschul commented on the "nostalgic" feeling those characters evoke, which Donnelly likened to the Smurfs: "For me, that's one of the things, if I went to the dentist, I was allowed to buy a Smurf afterwards."
Those paintings soon turned him into an art scene sensation.
Lines wrapped around the block to buy his figures. His work graced album covers, and was snapped up by the rich and famous, like hip-hop star Pharrell Williams.
Williams said that, to his generation, KAWS was "the guy that made us pay attention to art." He commissioned dozens of pieces for his Miami home.
"When you see KAWS, he is something," said Williams. "His work is really truly like a stimulant. Like, you see it, and it connects with the inner child."
Today, KAWS is busier than ever. A current show of new paintings has Parisians buzzing. He said he is more focused now on working in the gallery/museum environment.
And his fanbase has grown larger as his work has done the same. A 16-foot version of Companion traveled the world, and now sits outside the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
It caught the eye of the folks at Macy's. The store's executive producer, Amy Kule, asked KAWS to design a balloon and all of the art for this year's parade.
When asked if KAWS was at the top of her list, Kule said yes: "The list was short. There was one name on it, and it was his," she laughed.
KAWS said accepting the project was "a no-brainer." He spent the past year in his Brooklyn studio putting his touch on the Thanksgiving tradition he loved as a kid.
"When we first started discussing to do a balloon, immediately I knew that's what I would want to do," he said. "For me, I feel like he's sort of the most iconic."
The 41-foot high balloon was hand-stitched in South Dakota over the summer.
In August, at a secret location near the factory, Altschul joined KAWS as he saw the character he dreamed up 15 years ago come to life for the very first time.
Macy's employees tested the helium-filled polyurethane balloon, as KAWS closely inspected every inch.
Back in Manhattan, his artwork was unveiled along the parade route.
Even a subway car was wrapped in this former graffiti artist's design. "Oh, there's a great irony," Donnelly said.
This past Wednesday, families came to watch as the balloon - unfamiliar to most - found his spot in line.
And on the big day, with Papa Smurf leading the way, Companion bobbed through the streets of New York while KAWS watched on like a proud father, at his little guy . . . all grown up.
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