Jerrod Maruyama is an illustrator from Northern California. He has worked on educational books, company logos, tattoo art and more. He designed Toy Story t-shirts that were sold at the Pixar Studio Store in Emeryville, CA and recently participated in the show “STRIPPED! Art Inspired By The Creativity and Colour of Comics” at Sweet Breams in San Mateo, where he used cute characters to comment on the very serious subject of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

For fun, Maruyama creates kawaii versions of pop culture icons, taking on everything from The Muppet Show to Lost. You can see his work on Flickr, where we spotted his rendition on Jersey Shore's leading lady, Snooki. We were amazed by how adorable Snooki looked, so we emailed Maruyama a few questions.

What attracted you to the cute aesthetic?

I have always liked cute character designs. As a kid I was drawn to the Sanrio products. Hello Kitty was primarily a girl's trend but I really responded to the simplicity and unabashedly cute characters. I'm Japanese-American so perhaps it's in my blood. The Japanese culture has such a love of cute characters and Sanrio really knew how to develop these characters personalities through a single image. They weren't based on animated cartoons or movies – they were just these simple, brightly colored, big headed little things that looked completely adorable and compelled you to buy all these miniature office supplies. The wonky translation to English was also highly entertaining but that's a different element entirely!

Mad Men tribute; Credit: Jerrod Maruyama

Mad Men tribute; Credit: Jerrod Maruyama

Do you have a favorite kawaii character? Which one and why?

Sanrio's Little Twin Stars and My Melody really epitomize kawaii cuteness for me. I think so much of what is considered kawaii can be traced back to Sanrio. But, those two lines were especially well designed. The perfectly round eyes, extremely large heads and, in the case of the Little Twin stars, the lack of a nose – these characteristics all play out in my designs. Something as simple as the spacing between the eyes can make all the difference and I think these specific characters got that composition just right! More recently, I thought the humor and design of Kogepan (Miki Takahashi and San-X) was just great- cute little illustrations with a goofy back-story.

Anna Wintour; Credit: Jerrod Maruyama

Anna Wintour; Credit: Jerrod Maruyama

Your Snooki is really amazing. The piece reminds me of the gyaru/gal style in Japan with the tans, sunglasses, sundress and jewelry. Was that at all an inspiration for you?

I must admit, I am not all that familiar with the “gyaru” style in Japan but definitely see the resemblance. The Snooki piece is just pure fun. It's mixing a very Japanese style (kawaii aesthetic) with a very cartoon-ish American fashion style. The result was intentionally over the top. The comments regarding the image have been hilarious – from “her boobs are too small” to “…not her usual shade of tangerine.”

Why Snooki?

MTV's Jersey Shore is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. And Snooki is one of the best parts of that show. She is a living cartoon character and I find that very inspiring. Her body shape, the way she talks, and obviously her style are so exaggerated. It's hard to caricature that kind of outrageousness but I wanted to try. I wanted to cute-ify her and see if I could make it appealing. The result is kind of cute and, as one blogger put it, a little horrifying.

Over-the -top people like that – including Anna Wintour and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) just jump out at me. I see them and I want to draw them or at least try to draw them. It's not so much a caricature as an attempt to capture something. Transition to character comes a bit easier with these “big” personalities. Conventionally good-looking people are much harder to capture and thus less inspiring to me.

"Swimming with the Enemy"; Credit: Jerrod Maruyama

“Swimming with the Enemy”; Credit: Jerrod Maruyama

Your work for the “STRIPPED!” show in San Mateo is really interesting. Were the pieces on your Flickr from a comic book?

The theme of the show was comics and comic strips. The Coral's Kingdom images were based on a character concept I had and then adapted to a comic book format for the show. I haven't created a comic book for this character otherwise and don't really plan to. I like the character but I am not a comic book artist. I suppose if I had a story to tell I might be compelled to pursue it. But for right now there are no plans for a book.

Also regarding Coral's Kingdom, what is it about cute characters that help explore darker subject matter like oil spills?

I think it's that juxtaposition of the cute and the not so cute that's always interesting – or at least sparks a reaction. I did these images months ago when I was quite frustrated by what was happening in the gulf. It felt like we needed a Super Hero to stop the ridiculous amounts of oil pouring into the ocean. Add to this the heartbreaking stories of the animals and sea creatures displaced and dying and there was this sort of natural narrative developing. So that's my inspiration right there, but I certainly didn't want to treat this lightly or to in any way oversimplify what was happening. The images were like a cute revenge fantasy if I did a comic book about it.

But I believe cute is always accessible – to boys and girls, adults and children. It's a nice common ground to explore and access darker subject matters. It softens the edges. We assume cute things are innocent so that's an instant reaction to either gain sympathy quickly or exploit and surprise by having something cute do something horrifying. Cute is a button to be pushed. Mark Ryden is pretty much the master of this.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.