To celebrate Hello Kitty's 40th anniversary on Nov. 1, Sanrio put together a four-day convention at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. With art, entertainment, food, fashion and, of course, shopping, Hello Kitty Con was an inspired display of every way this famous character has infiltrated the lives of her fans. There were Hello Kitty food molds meant for making Spam musubi. Outside the building was a Hello Kitty Cafe food truck, a precursor to the brand's forthcoming restaurant in Orange County. The bathroom stalls were stocked with Hello Kitty toilet paper. And, if you wanted a freebie more permanent than a square of TP, artists were on hand to tattoo fans. Yes, free tattoos.
In 40 years, Hello Kitty has emerged as the best known character on Sanrio's hefty roster. Other characters, like Badtz-Maru and Karoppi, have had their moments in the spotlight, but nobody else can rival her success. That much is obvious inside the convention hall and adjacent exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum. Hello Kitty's family and friends, including her sadly overlooked twin sister Mimmy and boyfriend Dear Daniel, made an appearance. So did a few other characters in the Sanrio canon. Hello Kitty, though, ruled the weekend.
Part of Hello Kitty's endurance has to do with how frequently she is licensed. You don't have to go to a Sanrio store to find Hello Kitty. Over the years, the company has collaborated with Target, MAC Cosmetics, Sephora, Forever 21 and many other companies. Hello Kitty is available in a lot of forms at a lot of different price points. Whether you have money to burn or are shopping with a tight budget, you can find legit Hello Kitty items. The same can be said for age groups. There's a lot of merchandise out in Hello Kitty world that's geared towards adults.
"We're very aware of the fact that there is something for everyone," says Dave Marchi, senior director of brand management and marketing with Sanrio. "At the Con, we wanted to make it friendly and available to everyone."
That essentially dictated the the events that transpired throughout the convention. DJs played a mix of old and new tunes and fans shopped in the marketplaces and took photos in the sets that were built for the event. In one area, adults and kids could play carnival-style games to win sticker sheets and other prizes. Then there are the tattoos. "Mom and dad can get a real tattoo, but a kid could get a temporary tattoo," says Marchi.
People did go for those tattoos. YouTube personality Chrissa Sparkles, who moderated panels at the convention, showed off a bandage covering her fresh tattoo of Hello Kitty's teddy bear, Tiny Chum. "I've been into Hello Kitty since the womb and my family, generations before that," says Sparkles. The ink commemorates her personal journey from child fan to an adult professional working the biggest Hello Kitty event Los Angeles has seen. "I had to document that," she says.
In an auditorium, designer Yuko Yamaguchi, who has been working on Hello Kitty since 1980, gave the crowd some insight into her approach to the character. She says, through a translator, that designers can't let "ego" get in the way of working with the character. For Yamaguchi, this character holds a lot of power. She tells the crowd that she only has one sleeping Hello Kitty in her home. The reason being that if her Hello Kitty were awake, Yamaguchi would have to continue working.
The third designer to handle Hello Kitty for Sanrio, Yamaguchi has taken Hello Kitty through decades of trends. However, there are many other artists across the globe who worked with the character as well. Designers like Tarina Tarantino and Tokidoki's Simone Legno have collaborated with Hello Kitty. Five years ago, when Hello Kitty turned 35, a slew of artists brought their interpretations of her to now-defunct gallery/restaurant Royal/T. This time around, there was a bit of art inside the conventions, with pieces from Chicago street artist Pose and L.A.-based duo Dabs Myla, and prints from poster company Globe. Most of the art, though, was inside the JANM exhibition next door. Gary Baseman, kozyndan and Paul Frank were amongst the participants who turned Hello Kitty and friends into exquisite, museum-quality works.
Back at the convention, fans could learn to make their own Hello Kitty goodies at workshops that covered topics like flower arranging, cupcake decorating and jewelry making. Onch, of the jewelry line Onch Movement, taught fans how to make necklaces. The designer, whose work has been worn by celebrities like Kate Moss and Nicki Minaj, is a longtime fan of the character. Years ago, in Taiwan, he spent five hours in line at McDonald's to get the "millennium couple" figures. He has collaborated with Sanrio multiple times, including a Forever 21 line of jewelry that sold out fast. Next year, he'll be working with the company again for a Valentine's Day collection.
"You're working with the most famous celebrity in the world," says Onch of the experience. "Everybody knows Hello Kitty. Not everybody knows Kim Kardashian."
During the course of Hello Kitty's 35th anniversary celebrations, I wrote that the character was popular because she can take on so many different forms, represent so many different subcultures. That remains true five years later at Hello Kitty Con. Whether your passion is art, make-up or even skateboards, there's a Hello Kitty item that exists for you.
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