Hello Kitty Hooks Generations On Cute, Kitsch

  • For its 50th anniversary celebration, Sanrio celebrated in Los Angeles with a "Kitty in Pink" retro-'80s prom party, a carnival and an art exhibition. Simone Legno, the creatar of tokidoki, a website of Japanese character style design, contributed this piece to the show.
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    For its 50th anniversary celebration, Sanrio celebrated in Los Angeles with a "Kitty in Pink" retro-'80s prom party, a carnival and an art exhibition. Simone Legno, the creatar of tokidoki, a website of Japanese character style design, contributed this piece to the show.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Plasticgod, a Los Angeles artist, created Candy Store with individual characters on little blocks.
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    Plasticgod, a Los Angeles artist, created Candy Store with individual characters on little blocks.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • From left, Sofia Richards, 3; Cici Cortes, 5; Maya Cortes, 6; and Seila Richards, 4, meet Hello Kitty in person.
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    From left, Sofia Richards, 3; Cici Cortes, 5; Maya Cortes, 6; and Seila Richards, 4, meet Hello Kitty in person.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Christine Nguyen and Julianne Hoang prove that Sanrio is not just for little girls anymore.
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    Christine Nguyen and Julianne Hoang prove that Sanrio is not just for little girls anymore.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Los Angeles artist Peekaboo Monster created a Sanrio Fight club. He was inspired by his neighbor's soap factory.
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    Los Angeles artist Peekaboo Monster created a Sanrio Fight club. He was inspired by his neighbor's soap factory.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Illustrator Gary Taxali created this work, Hey!
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    Illustrator Gary Taxali created this work, Hey!
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • As a child, Heidi Moses was denied Sanrio toys. Her obsession with the cartoon cat began only five years ago.
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    As a child, Heidi Moses was denied Sanrio toys. Her obsession with the cartoon cat began only five years ago.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • My Melody is just one of the rotund Sanrio characters' heads hanging from the ceiling of an airplane hanger in Santa Monica, Calif., at Sanrio's 50th anniversary carnival.
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    My Melody is just one of the rotund Sanrio characters' heads hanging from the ceiling of an airplane hanger in Santa Monica, Calif., at Sanrio's 50th anniversary carnival.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Artist Deph says Return to Sender is one of his favorite works yet.
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    Artist Deph says Return to Sender is one of his favorite works yet.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Computer engineer Danielle Polk is dressed as Charmy Kitty. "She's more edgy than Hello Kitty," says the 26-year-old Polk, a self-professed Kitty fanatic who's been to the Sanrio theme park in Japan.
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    Computer engineer Danielle Polk is dressed as Charmy Kitty. "She's more edgy than Hello Kitty," says the 26-year-old Polk, a self-professed Kitty fanatic who's been to the Sanrio theme park in Japan.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Untitled Kitty is a mixed media work by celebrity musician Pete Wentz from the band Fallout Boy.
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    Untitled Kitty is a mixed media work by celebrity musician Pete Wentz from the band Fallout Boy.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Law school student Andrew Malagon, 23, sports a Hello Kitty tiara, dress and accessories. "Hello Kitty's got attitude, a cute bow, she's fashionable and friendly," he says. "She embodies what people would love to be."
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    Law school student Andrew Malagon, 23, sports a Hello Kitty tiara, dress and accessories. "Hello Kitty's got attitude, a cute bow, she's fashionable and friendly," he says. "She embodies what people would love to be."
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • A jellybean interpretation of Dokidoki Yummychums by artist Jason Mercier.
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    A jellybean interpretation of Dokidoki Yummychums by artist Jason Mercier.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR
  • Artist Gary Baseman notes his art is often "drippy."  He tried to bring many characters together in his Sanrio contribution.
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    Artist Gary Baseman notes his art is often "drippy." He tried to bring many characters together in his Sanrio contribution.
    Photos by Amy Walters/NPR

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Sanrio, the Japanese company that defined cute, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Its star, Hello Kitty, and more than 400 other cartoon characters continue to be popular with adults and children.

Just ask Cici Cortes, 5, about Hello Kitty — a Japanese bobtail cat who loves baking cookies and was a UNICEF ambassador.

"She has bows in her hair, she wears cute clothes, and she has cute little whiskers," she says. "She doesn't have a mouth."

Hello Kitty is the most recognizable of Sanrio's marketing sensations. Since 1974, her image has adorned everything from small plastic coin purses and pencils, to toaster ovens and TVs with the sunny philosophy that small gifts create big smiles.

But Hello Kitty is not just for young girls. Now, the company sells official Hello Kitty motor oil, Hello Kitty wine, a Hello Kitty smart car — even what's turned out to be a Hello Kitty adult toy.

"It's a little battery-operated thing," says New York Times writer Ken Belson. "It's a personal massager, and they see it as an innocent product meant for tired elbows and shoulders."

Unintentionally Creating Kitsch

Belson, author of Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon, says the company has lasted because of its winning formula: getting generations hooked on cute, even while unintentionally creating kitsch.

Belson says some fans have twisted kitty in many ways "because it's so pure, it's become sickly and a pendant of mass consumerism people have come to hate. That's not something the company would ever want to admit or promote, but it's something that's taken on an extra life of its own — or nine extra lives."

In 1960, Japanese World War II survivor Shintaro Tsuji started Sanrio, first to sell silk, then beach sandals, greeting cards and finally character merchandise.

The company hosts two theme parks and has produced films, books and video games starring Hello Kitty, Chococat, Badtz-Maru, My Melody and others.

Sanrio rakes in about $5 billion a year, thanks in part to its unique collaborations. That includes fashion designers and artists.

And now a new generation of artists is reinterpreting Sanrio's iconic images.

A Muse For Artists

In Los Angeles, Sanrio celebrated its anniversary with a "Kitty in Pink" retro-'80s prom party, a carnival and an art exhibition.

"Hello Kitty as well as all the Sanrio characters have been muses for the artists," says Janet Hsu, the president of Sanrio Inc.

The exhibition features paintings, knitted artwork and a jellybean mosaic. One installation, called the Hello Kitty Fight Club, features a sculptured kitty with a black eye and broken paw. She appears to be bleeding pink from the top of her head.

Christine Nguyen (left) and Julianne Hoang prove that Sanrio is not just for little girls any more.

hide captionChristine Nguyen (left) and Julianne Hoang, who went to Sanrio's 50th anniversary celebration in Santa Monica, Calif., prove that Sanrio is not just for little girls anymore.

Amy Walters/NPR

"Yeah, you see little splatterings of blood," says Hsu, who says she doesn't mind the edgy version. "Our characters are very Zen-like and they're pretty much canvases for everyone to interpret, whether they're a fan, whether they're an artist."

Cartoonist and designer Paul Frank, who's best known for his character Julius the Monkey, paid homage to Sanrio's frog Keroppi in vinyl.

"It just makes you happy," Frank says of Sanrio's products. He and his wife are so enamored of the company that they have a Hello Kitty grand piano at their home. "I remember in the '70s, my mom would take my sister and I to the Sanrio store, and I remember just sniffing erasers. I love plastic smells."

Painter Gary Baseman says he appreciates that Sanrio isn't afraid of taking artistic risks. His painting of Hello Kitty and friends was part of the art show.

"A lot of my characters seem to drip and drool, so I wanted to take my own world and bring all the wonderful Sanrio characters to come in and play," he says.

And costume designer Jason Alpert, who has outfitted the outrageous comedy TV and film characters Ali G., Borat and Bruno, painted a mockup of a masterpiece for the anniversary.

"I've re-created The Last Supper, replacing Jesus and his disciples with my favorite Hello Kitty characters," Alpert says. "I've called it Pass the Ketchup. It just looked like more fun, and you know the whole thing is, Hello Kitty is fun."

Alpert's version of The Last Supper will be on display with other artistic Sanrio renderings at the prestigious Art Basel show in Miami this weekend.

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