Street artist KAWS reaches new heights

"Companion," a character by the street artist known as KAWS, made its debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
CBS News

(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.

A graffiti artist goes mainstream

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.

Artist KAWS poses in front of his balloon "Companion" at the 86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade's on "Inflation Eve," November 21, 2012 in New York City. Taylor Hill/Getty Images

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.