Kawaii 4-0: L.A. Artworld Celebrates Four Decades of Hello Kitty

Audrey Kawasaki, "Hi Kitty," 2014, oil and graphite on wood.
Audrey Kawasaki, "Hi Kitty," 2014, oil and graphite on wood.

If you're a Sanrio fan, you might still be reeling from the company's recent revelation that Hello Kitty is not actually a cat but is in fact a little girl who lives in a two-story home outside London with her twin sister Mimmy. Now, there's even more cause to get whipped into a frenzy over Hello Kitty and her Japan-based mastermind, Sanrio. This time, though, there's cause for celebration rather than confusion. As a tribute to Hello Kitty's 40th birthday November 1, the debut edition of the Hello Kitty Con 2014 comes to the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA October 30 - November 2. Coinciding with Hello Kitty's extended birthday party, there's also a new exhibition: "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty" at the Japanese American National Museum, directly adjacent to the fan convention. Given that all these things are happening L.A., one is left to wonder: what exactly is the nature of our relationship Hello Kitty, and why is the mouthless "little girl" with cat ears so popular in Los Angeles?

The answers lie in the exhibition at JANM, which is on view through April 26, 2015. "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty" traces Hello Kitty's roots as a pop-culture phenomenon and illustrates the many ways that she inspires artists today. Part retrospective and part contemporary art exhibit, "Hello!" features new works by 40 artists, 14 of of whom are based in Southern California -- twice as many artists as those living in Japan.

Brandi Milne, "Eat Cakes, You Kitty," 2014, acrylic on wood.
Brandi Milne, "Eat Cakes, You Kitty," 2014, acrylic on wood.

The retrospective portion of "Hello!" showcases a range of consumer products, from the original Hello Kitty vinyl coin purse to calculators, a Hello Kitty phone, electronic LCD games, and hair dryers from the mid-1970s. There are also more recent Hello Kitty appliances on view, such as a coffee maker, waffle maker, and mini fridge, as well as every items including Hello Kitty "duck" tape, motor oil, light bulbs, and even HK-themed toilet paper. A display of Hello Kitty-inspired lifestyle products such as a skateboard, helmet, and a guitar reinforces the already evident notion that Sanrio has managed to permeate just about every aspect of everyday life.

Sanrio began as the Yamanashi Silk Center Co., Ltd. in 1960. Born in 1927 in Kofu, Japan, the company's founder Shintaro Tsuji used to decorate his goods with a little rubber beach sandal, followed by other other types of small trinkets. As Tsuji moved away from producing the company's original commodities towards issuing decorative products, he deliberately changed the name of his company to "Sanrio" to appeal to global audiences. (Sanrio means "pure river" in Japanese.)

Gary Baseman, "Play Date," 2014, acrylic on wood.
Gary Baseman, "Play Date," 2014, acrylic on wood.

"It embodies the spirit of the company as a global enterprise with roots in Japan and a far-reaching, global ethos," writes Dr. Christine Yano, author of "Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific" and curator of the retrospective portion of the exhibition.

Because Hello Kitty began as a way to appeal to global audiences regardless of social or cultural customs, she bridges the divide between Asian and American pop culture, in many ways transcending the "Asian American" demographic and reaching all ethnicities that comprise the American population in general, most of which are represented in L.A.

When asked how contemporary Japan influences L.A. in particular, Dr. Yano answers, "Modern Japan is a source of a lot of cutting-edge culture that crosses the Pacific. L.A., too, is a city that embraces such a wide variety of influences that it becomes a logical entry point for this cutting-edge Japanese pop culture ... In many ways Hello Kitty matches L.A. For one, L.A. is very much open to Asian influences and includes Asian Americans as part of its constituency. Second, L.A. is a city of pop culture. And certainly, Hello Kitty is one of the icons of pop. Third, L.A. is a city of celebrity. And Hello Kitty inhabits the media space of celebrity with ease and elan."

Jamie Rivadeneira is the founder and owner of the Los Angeles pop-culture boutique JapanLA and curator of the contemporary art portion of "Hello!" She was first introduced to Hello Kitty at a little shop in Little Tokyo right by the JANM. Rivadeneira attributes Hello Kitty's popularity in Los Angeles to the city's love of quirky and offbeat trends. With regards to Hello Kitty providing a kind of artistic inspiration, Rivadeneira says, "I think a lot of L.A. artists are influenced by modern Japanese pop culture. I see it in the bright colors and some of their characters seem to have that Japanese-style pop culture. It's hard to explain -- it's more of a feeling you get when you look at the art. It evokes a sense of 'cuteness' or ... 'kawaii' feel."

Simone Legno for tokidoki, "Kittypatra," 2014, sculpture.
Simone Legno for tokidoki, "Kittypatra," 2014, sculpture.

In terms of the exhibition's SoCal artists and their individual tributes to Hello Kitty, Audrey Kawasaki effectively manages to convey a sense of risqué virtue through a blend of styles that evokes both decorative art Asian-influenced comics. Huntington Beach-based Brandi Milne, meanwhile, creates a dreamlike setting where Hello Kitty celebrates her birthday with her friends on a pink cloud, surrounded by cherries and balloons. Born and raised in Los Angeles, self-defined "pervasive artist" Gary Baseman's iconic characters appear alongside the birthday girl herself, and the creator of Julius the Monkey, Paul Frank delivers an eye-popping pop-culture artifact with Hello Kitty manning a submarine full of other Sanrio characters. The entire exhibition finishes with a flourish, featuring creative director and co-founder of tokidoki Simone Legno's mammoth "Kittypatra" sculpture that only further reinforces Hello Kitty's global reach. And these are only a selection of SoCal artists represented. The others are Edwin Ushiro, Jeni Yang, Julia Sh, Michael Courville, Nicole Maloney, Nina Jun, Yarns and Noble, Yoskay Yamamoto, and the inimitable husband-and-wife duo kozyndan.

With such an impressive display from a majority of Southern California-based artists, it's visually apparent why an exhibition like "Hello!" is happening in Los Angeles. In the words of Dr. Yano: "I think it is fitting that the exhibition is not only in L.A., but also in Little Tokyo, because it is in ethnic enclaves like this that gave Hello Kitty her global start."


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