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NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports that a new generation of artists is reinterpreting Sanrio's images.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: There's just something about the simple, yet classic Hello Kitty.
DEL BARCO: Meow.
DEL BARCO: Just ask five-year-old Cici Cortes about the sweet cartoon character, a Japanese bobtail cat who loves baking cookies and was a UNICEF ambassador.
DEL BARCO: She has bows in her hair, she wears cute clothes and she has cute little whiskers. She doesn't have a mouth.
DEL BARCO: So she can't talk to you.
DEL BARCO: Meow, meow, meow.
DEL BARCO: 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 she's not just for young girls. There's now official Hello Kitty motor oil, Hello Kitty wine, a Hello Kitty Smart Car, and even a Hello Kitty adult toy.
DEL BARCO: It's a little battery-operated thing, it's a personal massager, and they see it as a very innocent product meant for, you know, tired muscles and elbows and shoulders and stuff.
DEL BARCO: New York Times writer Ken Belson is author of a book about Hello Kitty's global brand. He says Sanrio has lasted for half a century with a winning formula: getting generations hooked on cute even while unintentionally creating kitsch.
DEL BARCO: Because it's so pure, it's become sort of sickly and a kind of a pendant of mass consumerism that people have come to hate. That's not something the company would ever want to admit or even promote, but it's taken on a second life of its own, and actually, nine extra lives.
DEL BARCO: In 1960, Japanese World War II survivor Shintaro Tsuji started Sanrio, first to sell silk and beach sandals. Now the company hosts two theme parks and rakes in about $50 billion a year, thanks in part, to its unique collaborations - that includes fashion designers and artists.
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DEL BARCO: In Los Angeles, Sanrio celebrated its 50th anniversary with a "Kitty in Pink" retro-80's prom party, a carnival, and an art exhibition.
DEL BARCO: Hello Kitty, as well as all the Sanrio characters, have almost been muses for the artists.
DEL BARCO: Here we have Hello Kitty, looks like she's bleeding pink from her head.
DEL BARCO: Mr. PAUL FRANK (Cartoonist; Designer) It just makes you happy.
DEL BARCO: Frank says he and his wife love Sanrio so much, they have a Hello Kitty baby grand piano at home.
DEL BARCO: I remember in the '70s, my mom would take my sister and I to the Sanrio store, and I remember just sniffing erasers.
DEL BARCO: Costume designer Jason Alper has outfitted the outrageous characters Ali G., Borat and Bruno. And for Sanrio's anniversary, he painted a mockup of a masterpiece.
DEL BARCO: I've recreated "The Last Supper," replacing Jesus and his disciples with my favorite Hello Kitty characters. I've called it "Pass the Ketchup." It just looked like just more fun, and you know the whole thing is, Hello Kitty is fun.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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