As a child of the ’70s, I consider myself first-generation Hello Kitty. As such, I have a lifetime membership in the secret society of the O.G.H.K. (Original Gangsta Hello Kitty). Membership is one of the many compensations for coming of age after the Archies but before the Spice Girls.
I first heard the siren call of Hello Kitty in second grade, on the day after Christmas vacation. A very nice, very rich girl named Heidi (her grandparents owned Vons!) brought some of her holiday loot to school. I don’t recall what she had — maybe a pencil case or coin purse — but I do remember that the shit was cool, cooler than anything I’d ever seen. (At that moment, I knew in my heart there was something going on with Santa.)
And from that instant, my 7-year-old soul was captivated and awed by the Kitty we call Hello. I coveted anything Hello Kitty, everything Hello Kitty. It was all magic, and deeply satisfying to aesthetic instincts I had never before sensed within myself. Through the coming years, those instincts would develop into a full-blown Lifestyle Choice.
(My family poked fun at me for my Kitty obsession, as they did for my Xanadu fetish, but history and pop culture have absolved me on both counts. Thanks to Target and the Internet, Hello Kitty is bigger than ever, and she’s not just for children anymore. Still, something in me rebels against the officially sanctioned Hello Kitty vibrator.)
I have owned all kinds of Hello Kitty items, from bandages to hair-dryers, but for me, and I think I speak for an entire generation of girls, the ultimate Kitty totem will always be the Hello Kitty eraser. Appearing in the late ’70s, this eraser was a paradigm-shifting revelation: truly an eraser from the future, come to deliver a message of hope and beauty to our grim American lives. Unlike the grainy brick-red erasers we had, which were no fun to chew, left streaks on the paper and eventually tore holes in it, these erasers were soft and smooth and bubblegum pink. And the scent — oh! more bubblegum than bubblegum itself. Intense. Intoxicating. Also doable on a 7-year-old’s salary.
And so it came to pass that, in third grade, I finally gained the means to make my own first Hello Kitty purchase. (My family moved close to a shopping mall that I could reach on bike.) I began visiting the Sanrio store weekly for small, prized trinkets, and the occasional major investment, paid for with carefully saved allowance money. Finally, I had something to live for, and plan my future around. At long last, Hello Kitty wasn’t just for the rich or Japanese.
And it wasn’t just about Hello Kitty anymore, either: It was Little Twin Stars (the baby space-angel soul mates —still my favorite) and My Melody (the bunny version of Kitty). Patty & Jimmy. You know, the whole gang.
The message of these erasers, wearing their perfect little paper sleeves, and the little comb sets and pencils and diaries and purses and cases for this and that, was a radical one for me at that time. It said: Normal things can be beautiful and fun, for no reason. And that sleek, clean design, so ahead of its time, really, completely blew away typical American-girl shit. Holly Hobbie? Trash. Strawberry Shortcake? Can you say wannabe?
Kitty was and is an emissary from a perfect land far beyond our Ken (and our Barbie). She comes from a land of order. Of peace. Quiet. Whimsy, too. (My Hello Kitty screensaver features little angel Kitties flying through the clouds, occasionally emitting discreet, heart-shaped poofs from their wee Kitty bums.) In Kitty land, everything moves slowly, and all things are in their right place. Sigh.
I have witnessed Sanrio/Hello Kitty’s influence everywhere, from Gwen Stefani’s ouevre to Lisa Loeb’s Hello Lisa album to all the many fantastic Korean bootleg items sold in places like the Eagle Rock mall. In their way, these knockoffs, especially the stationery, surpass the originals through their fanciful misuse of English, with printed phrases like “Always together blue city,” “Nothing last only Tomato,” “You are always and a honey melody,” or “My friend tennis sky.”
Like the notion of perfection, or like youth itself, Hello Kitty has always been something I can technically possess but never truly capture.
That’s also what art is, and does. In fact, I’d wager Kitty has been an influence on the Japanese “cute” art movement, a new aesthetic school dominated by young women with intense, powerful, beautiful and incredibly feminine visions of this world and other worlds. It’s at once everything and nothing Japanese women, and women in general, historically, are supposed to be.
Strong. Bold. Brave.