How to Turn Your Random Interest into Art, Kakao Edition

Do you think of yourself as an artist/emoji-enthusiast?

No? Well, it was a long shot. But you probably do have random interests. And maybe you’re hoping to get some artistic value out of those interests.

This week I’ll walk you through my journey from the discovery of a new interest (or obsession, the word choice is up to you) to how I (sorta, kinda) turned that interest into art. I know you can’t wait to read more about this vaguely worded summary.


Emojis, Of Course

If you’ve seen any of my last few posts, you already know the interest I’m talking about. And that interest is emojis, specifically Kakao Friends emojis.

I’ve established that Kakao Friends emoji are cute. And that emoji art is a thing. Also Yung Jake makes awesome emoji portraits. Now I’m joining the ring with some emoji art of my own (but please don’t compare to Yung Jake).

The artistic process is weird and convoluted and different for everyone. For example, I’m usually surprised at how logically artists choose to create their next works – logical to them, but perhaps not until you hear it explained, as with Dana Schutz‘s Self-Eaters or Last Man on Earth paintings.

So here’s my process, which began with collecting.


Collecting Emojis

I collected Kakao emojis in Korea. And there were many ways to do so. These included:

  • Yes, bread.
  • Secret, limited-time only stores.
  • Makeup


Bread Prizes

For a time, convenience stores in Korea sold pastries that came with a Kakao Friends sticker. Um, yes! The bread didn’t taste that good, but for the stickers, it was worth it.

Kakao Friends Shany bread with emoji stickers Frodo and Jay-G

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was excited.

The pastries, produced by bread company SHANY, were released July 2014, right as I arrived in Korea. According to a company representative, SHANY sold an average of 200,000 Kakao Friends Bread products a day during that time. I didn’t contribute to those sales though, since I was living in isolation with 100+ other foreigners.

Unfortunately Fortunately those pastries gradually disappeared, and so I stopped buying convenience store bread. I gathered a handful of stickers, but now I’ve either given them away, stuck them on my laptop, or lost them. But if you have to get some of these stickers for yourself, it looks like someone’s selling them on eBay. Bread not included.

4 Kakao Friends Shany bread with emoji stickers Muzi, Apeach, Neo, and Tube


(I Said We) Going to the Mall

I apologize to linking to that song. For your own health, maybe don’t listen to the whole thing. But it popped into my head, and I wanted to share the pain. 

The next thing that fueled my Kakao addiction were Kakao Friends pop stores. For limited periods of time, a Kakao store would pop up at a department store or mall, a consumerist paradise of Kakao Friends merchandise. I was enamored with the characters, so everything in these stores was exciting.

Kakao notebooks and folders!

Kakao Friends emoji folder and notebook with Apeach


Kakao phone cases!

Kakao Friends phone cases at emoji pop store

Plush key chains!

Kakao Friends emoji pop store plush keychains

USB drives!

Even golf balls and air fresheners.

Kakao Friends emoji pop store air freshener

So while I bought some products, I also saved the shopping bags which seemed like they could have some artistic inspiration value.


2-in-1: Skincare and Emoji

The final step of my Kakao collecting was through skincare products and makeup.

Korean skincare is a lot of fun. It’s also relatively cheap and available almost everywhere, from shopping districts to subway stations. Most of the subway stations I used regularly in Busan included a Face Shop store underground.

Skincare and makeup chains in Korea frequently collaborate with other brands to produce limited edition products, especially with brands that involve cute cartoon characters. Skinfood did a line of products with Snoopy. Etude House released limited edition products for the release of Finding Dory. Holika Holika did a Gudetama collaboration.

Holika Holika BB cushion with Gudetama face

These promotions seem fairly effective, at least when it comes to me. I’d never set foot into a Holika Holika store before Gudetama. After Gudetama, I went so often that an employee at the Nampo location started to recognize me. To be fair, I already stood out for being a foreigner and did ask a lot of questions.

But the collaboration you’ve been expecting is The Face Shop’s collaboration with Kakao Friends. As you’ve probably guessed, I went nuts with this one.

Kakao Friends Face Shop Collaboration Skincare and Makeup haul with skinscreen, face masks, facial cleanser, lip tint, perfume, and a travel pillow in the back

My photo folder for this period of my life is titled “Too Much Skincare.”


And Then There Was Art

Fortunately, this obsession with Kakao Friends led to some art. I now had a reasonably large collection of Kakao characters as I came across them, from stickers to shopping bags to cosmetics packaging. Some I pasted in my sketchbook, and others I saved because they were cute and maybe I could use them for collage or something.

 Kakao friends pop store shopping bag in sketchbook

If you’ve ever made collages for an extended period of time, you know that collecting material is half the battle. In addition to my budding Kakao friends collection, I had started doing some other bizarre collecting. I collected coffee sleeves. You know, those cheap cardboard things that you put around your latte to keep it warm. At the encouragement of a friend I saved them up for a future art project that I hadn’t yet planned. But I could do something cool with these, right?

I didn’t figure out what that project would be until I had less than half a year left in Korea. And I wasn’t planning on filling up valuable suitcase space with coffee sleeves.

So I did turned them into an art piece titled “Pieces of a Grant Year.” On each coffee sleeve, I drew, colored, wrote things, or glued on paper. And I presented my results at the Fulbright Korea “Final Dinner,” our last gathering before the grant year ended.


pieces of a grant year coffee sleeves close up

I’d spent all this time collecting these materials, and it made sense to give them away as solo pieces. It became an interactive work, one that required people to take the pieces apart again.

pieces of a grant year coffee sleeves

The Kakao Friends made it onto some of those coffee sleeves. I paired them with a whimsical series of sleeves from Gong Cha, a bubble tea chain. These sleeves feature art from an illustrator who goes by Puuung (퍼엉).

There are four coffee sleeves in all, with both a front and back. In some I left the Puuung illustration, in others I added a sly Kakao character, while some only contain words.

Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (1) Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (2) Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (3) Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (4) Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (5) Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (6) Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (7) Kakao Friends Emoji Gongcha collab (8)

And that was how Kakao characters made their way into my art.

Coffee Sleeves: An Art Endeavor

While it may have taken me some time to get into the routine of doing art while in Korea, I finished my time there with a frantic flurry of art, as I scrambled to finish before yet another self-imposed deadline. This last art piece was my coffee sleeve project.

Coffee Sleeve Project


This piece, titled “Pieces of a Grant Year,” was displayed at Fulbright Korea’s Final Dinner, the last time all grantees gather before the grant year ends. I’d been fumbling with how I would display the piece – consisting of 55 cardboard coffee sleeves – but I arrived to find I’d been granted a table all to myself, where I laid out the pieces and displayed an artist statement.


Artist Statement

“Pieces of a Grant Year” is a collection of moments I experienced in Korea, from the mundane (students sleeping during self-study time) to the touristy (Beomeosa Temple, Busan) to the seemly insignificant but actually very influential (squatty potties).

Why use coffee cup warmers, also known as cup cozies, java jackets or paper zarfs?

Just because? Actually, the materials came before the plan. Thanks to encouragement from our own Hillary Veitch and my frustrated art drive, I began collecting java jackets in January. It wasn’t until many months and paper zarfs later that I decided to draw, paint and paste memories of Korea onto these pieces of cardboard. The concept was broad enough for any number of cup cozies and finding a connection to the material wasn’t too much of stretch.

Cardboard cup warmers are always wrapped snugly around your cafe drink-of-choice, but afterward they’re nothing but trash. Cup warmers are insignificant physical tokens, whereas the memories I wanted to capture were meaningful but intangible. Through “Pieces” I give form to these memories, but only in snippets, the same way one might experience memories.

The final component of this piece is up to you. The memories here are meant to be applicable to the general ETA experience. Our memories of Korea will eventually grow faint, but I’d like to think you could slip a zarf into your jacket pocket, fly back to America, and later look back on that piece of cardboard with some degree of fondness.

So what I’m saying is, if any of these catches your eye, take one because my jacket pockets aren’t big enough for them all.


This was a strange but fun project that I was excited to have featured on the Infusion website and make a cameo on another Fulbright-affiliated site. But in this post I’ll walk you through my process and highlight a few of my favorites.



I might not have done this piece at all if it hadn’t been for a little encouragement from a friend. I was sitting with Hillary at a cafe in Seoul called Zoo Coffee, a cozy second-floor location in Hongdae, cutely decorated with stuffed animals and fairy lights.

I remarked offhandedly that I bet I could do a cool art project with coffee cup sleeves, and Hillary said why not? I took the Zoo Coffee sleeve home after her urging – after all when would I be back at this cafe in Seoul?

Of course I dedicated a coffee cozy to Hillary for her influence, featuring her rapper stage name HillaVanillaThrilla and her brilliant smile.


Gathering Materials

I don’t know if coffee sleeves in Korea are prettier or there are more cafes, resulting in a greater variety of coffee sleeves. Maybe I just frequented a wider variety of cafes. Regardless, I’d been visually interested in them for a while. Collecting coffee cozies became a lot of fun.

This one was beautiful as is, so I kept my addition small.

I’d see an especially nicely designed sleeve on the street or in the trash and resist the temptation to pick it up. Walking around with my friend Arria, we’d notice people holding cups with standout coffee cozies and we’d squint to see the logo or examine the cafes we passed more carefully in the hopes of adding to my collection. I actually owe Arria credit for many of the coffee cozies I acquired; she’d visit me from Seoul and surprise me with donations, even though I still didn’t know what I’d be doing with these pieces of cardboard.

Some particularly adorable ones from Arria:

I also learned a bit about my cafe beverage consumption habits. I ended up with multiple cozies from GongCha, a bubble tea cafe, who also happened to be doing a collaboration with an artist known as Puuung. I chose to do collage with these pieces:


Coming up with Ideas

I collected java jackets for a long time. I started around January or February and was still collecting new cozies in May. But although I had built up an impressive collection, I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do with these coffee sleeves.

I toyed with a lot of ideas. Sculpture isn’t my strong suit, but I was working with a 3D material.  I had to make good use of it. I racked my brain for ways to use the material in a smart and interesting way. I turned down ideas I thought seemed cheesy or like too much a stretch for the material. My sketchbooks accumulated many unhelpful sketches of zarfs. On one page I repeatedly wrote “zarf zarf zarf,” this being my favorite name for them.

Finally I decided on the theme “Pieces of a Grant Year,” with each piece depicting a memory, even a mundane one, that other ETAs could take home – but you’ve already read the artist statement. I aimed to finish in time to display the pieces at Fulbright Korea’s annual Final Dinner in June, the last chance I’d have to catch our entire cohort of ETAs all in one place.

I forced myself to stop collecting and start drawing.


The Art-Making Itself

Regretfully, I didn’t use all the zarfs I’d collected. It was more work than I’d anticipated to do a different piece on every single coffee cozy.

This project forced me to both exercise my artist and reflect on my two years in Korea. What were the most significant moments? What would be the most relatable? It required taking a step back from the culture into which I’d been immersed and remembering what was different or had been initially surprising.

And then there was the material. What image would best match a particular coffee sleeve? Which coffee sleeve would be best for a drawing of an octopus in the fish market? Some zarfs were easy to match: my first one was a pen drawing of a cardboard collector’s cart, drawn upon a Starbucks sleeve to juxtapose poverty and a wealthy, international corporation.


While I’d decided to draw on top of the coffee sleeves, there was still media to consider. I started off with pen and ink, but found the cardboard brown (and some select colors) were perfectly suited for colored pencils. I realized 24 set of colored pencils I’d bought at popcorn was only 5,000 won ($5) for a reason. But the colored pencil zarfs were some of my favorites.



Colored pencils seemed to lend themselves naturally to food; either that or I simply gravitated toward food as a subject matter. But isn’t food often the thing we remember most about a place?


Pen and ink was another common medium I used, useful for zarfs with a plastic-like coating. The pieces below feature Korean skincare products (all owned by me incidentally),  Gamcheon village, and students sleeping during their “self study” time.

As for the coffee cozies with black backgrounds, I had to pick up a white pen and marker. Featured are Jungwon University, where our orientation was held, and a roll of kimbap.


In Memory…

During this time though, the Orlando shooting at Pulse took place, leaving 49 victims. Horrific details first leaked, then poured in over social media. The event shook me, especially having just attended Seoul’s Pride Fest the previous weekend.

I was stuck with that helplessness felt after a major tragedy, coupled with the desire to create something just to process or give voice to these terrible emotions. But I couldn’t. I stopped creating instead.

I gave up trying to create something beautiful to honor the dead and instead left these, two largely unnoticed coffee sleeves covered with the names of victims. I shook when I realized it took two to fit in 49 names.

EDGE Gallery Exhibit

I was lucky to have three pieces in this show, my first exhibit! Eventually I’ll have all three in my gallery.


Collage, watercolor


“Campus Climate”
Oil on canvas
Located under Gallery > Painting with an artist statement



“White Lines and Black Shapes”
Scratchboard installation

Cut & Paste, Part 2

It’s finally part 2…and less than one month later. Not too bad.


We left off at my break-through moment about creating art intuitively…and then came winter break.

I don’t think I lifted a paintbrush once the entire time. Or a pencil that wasn’t mechanical. And we all know artists never work with mechanical pencils.

When I got back to school in January, it felt like I had to break through a wall. Kind of when you’re trying to work out after weeks of just sitting at home. (Not that I’ve experienced this, but I thought, you know, some people might be able to relate.) That quarter I was only taking one studio class that was mostly self-directed. Sometimes assignments are obnoxious, but they do force you to create. It’s like easing back in. Like going to Zumba classes and being able to just follow the crowd instead of having to plan your whole workout. (I halfheartedly apologize for all these gym metaphors. I promise I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone here.)

Anyway, my first piece in January was a collage. I did it because we were cutting and pasting paper in another class, and because I didn’t have to come into the studio to work on it. The amount of physical effort and technique that goes into a collage is almost nothing! Which was just what I needed when the assignment was due at the end of the week and I hadn’t started! Unfortunately there’s a lot of mental back-story to a collage.
One problem was that I had no baseline to work from. What makes a “good” collage, exactly? I didn’t know. But I was good at being analytical, remember? So I used a weird combination of intuition and analysis. I cut out images that interested me, just going off of the visual. It didn’t matter that pigs and swimmers’ legs and whipped cream off the top of a milkshake ad didn’t seem to relate. Except that they sort of did. Spread out on my couch and coffee table, I surrounded myself with cut-up bits of paper. A tip to aspiring collage-ists: Don’t make any sudden movements or else everything will blow away.

After I got into the swing of things – not letting my cut-out eyes and hamburgers and lips fly away – I tried to group them. Some configurations were awkward and ugly – even I could see that – but others might be good? I couldn’t tell.

I based these first few collages loosely on gender – something I’ve been exploring lately. Plus a Buddha, since I just liked the picture. In a sense, I had to throw any conceptual intent out the window. I didn’t try to communicate any specific message. As a result, these collages felt completely random, but I hoped that visually they could work.

Here are my first two:



Pretty rough. But the bodybuilder image, titled “Goal!” ended up in my first exhibition. And it did look a little better in a frame.

From here I didn’t expect to be doing more collage, but to my surprise, I just felt like doing more. And so I did. While that sounds pretty simple, for me it was strange. How often do you get to act on your random impulses? Well, maybe you do this a lot, but I don’t. I’m type A, tightly organized, trying to keep my distractions at a minimum, but also an artist. Which is a pretty good excuse to do what I want. So I cautiously followed my artistic urges.

But I couldn’t start from scratch, nor did I need to. There have been plenty of artists who have done collage, but I hadn’t really been exposed to them. Time for research.

I had been looking at a lot of Max Ernst’s collages in my Dada and Surrealism class, and his approach was very different than what I had been doing. Rather than building the piece up from scratch, he used found images – which were often already visually interesting or bizarre – and changed only a few pieces.

He was into birds.

So this became the next stage in my collage-ing. Not the birds, but the use of found images. This is what I made next.

I ended up working in only black and white. I don’t know exactly why, but I liked working within this limit; if I were using color, my source material would be almost endless. I haven’t yet gone to the internet for material yet…that might be too much. And digital collage is completely different story.

At the same time, collage is limiting and requires extra effort. I can’t go to an art store and buy my materials like I would for scratchboard or oil paint. To really get going, I have to collect a lot of material, so there’s a greater range in what I can create.

All the while, I’d also been looking at Keith Haring’s work. While I enjoy his simplified, stylized figures, and see a lot of similarity to my own work, he also tried his hand at collage. The complete opposite of Ernst, Haring incorporated paints, ink and graphite into his collages, while also expressing overtly political messages.

These are his older collages, which are clear critiques. They remind me of a piece I started, but never finished, on media coverage of the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

These are Haring’s later collages, with the messages less overt and an incorporation of other media.


I’d like to try his mixed media approach too, but haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe I’m still not done with black and white, or maybe I just need a break from college.

That, and I don’t know where collage will fit into my gallery categories.


Can you spot all 6 differences?

Cut & Paste, part 1

Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”   -Max Ernst


Recently, I’ve started doing collage. I don’t know about it being a “noble conquest” or “coupling of two realities,” but I suppose my perspective on collage has grown. In the beginning, my philosophy might have been something like this:

Collage is the way in which art class deadlines may be met swiftly, with minimal effort on the part of the student artist.
True, I was only trying to be practical when I started collage. But also true that I had been seeing a lot of Max Ernst collages in my Surrealism and Dada class, which helped get me into this new media.

While I can say that I wanted to get away with doing less work, I also know that I can’t help being sincere in the things that are important to me. Currently those would probably be my majors, art and sociology (among other, non-academic things). So collage also came about as both a new routine of art-making and an attempt to move beyond my artistic comfort zone, a process I had actually (accidentally) begun the previous November.

In my Intro to Oil Painting class, we were asked to create a “forgery” of another artist’s work for our final. Meaning we had to produce a painting in the style of another artist. I love street art, so I chose Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Unfortunately, liking an aesthetic and being able to reproduce it don’t go hand-in-hand.

Street art, and really any abstract art, is really REALLY difficult for me. Yes, it might look like a four-year-old drew it…but my version looks like an awkward adult’s stiff attempts at recreating her childhood. (Obviously she should have just glued popcorn to construction paper and called it a day.) I’m just not as attuned to what makes an abstract piece strong or visually pleasing. Or – yes, I’ll say it – successful.

So the Basquiat piece started out as a disaster. It was a couple days before final critique and I was seriously ready to consider this painting a failure. Then my professor, feeling my pain, swooped in and miraculously guided me in the right direction so that I had an artistic epiphany-breakthrough moment and everything turned out alright. Basically. With some prompting, and new materials, I was able to finish the piece by messing it up. My breakthrough moment was learning to be loose and messy, and so I used oil pastels! On top of my painting!

I scribbled and scratched up the painting – this time being a little less analytical – and it was fun! The piece that had caused me so much misery was turning out to be fun. Plus it was loaded with all kinds of angry messages about my university (very street-like, don’t you think?) – even better! Actually, part of what had been so paralyzing to me was that I had lofty ambitions for the concept of this piece. It was, and still is, a very important message that I want to communicate, and so having it end in failure would have deeply upset me. But the moral of this story is that I got a taste of what it was like to create loose, intuitive art, which is something I see continuing through my collages.

I leave you here, because this post is getting long, and I’m getting tired. And by calling this post part one, I’m trying to trick myself into posting sooner.

Let’s end with a collage:


Max Ernst
Max Ernst

Read Part 2 here.