Back to Kakao Friends: A History of Emojis in Art

Last week I gave you an introduction to the Kakao Friends emojis. You’re welcome.

This week, after you’ve processed the cuteness that is Tube, Muzi, Con, Neo, Frodo, Jay-G, Apeach, and Ryan, let’s get into art.

To find inspiration in Kakao emojis might seem pedestrian to some. Silly. Or worse, kitschy.

An upperclassman I worked with in college was always condescendingly declaring things “kitsch.” I didn’t know even know what that meant. Kitsch or not, artists find inspiration in all sorts of strange places.

Hung Liu – a famous middle-aged Chinese-American artist – was really interested in selfies back in 2014. When she visited my university, she took a selfie with every group or class she spoke with. (I was there three of those times.) The concept fascinated her. I wonder what she’s into now.

A History of Emojis in Art

You probably didn’t know it, but several artists have turned their attention to emojis. Emojis have a history with art. Well, a short one, seeing as they were only created in 1999 and didn’t make it to the US until 2007. Emojis came with the first iPhone but were somewhat hidden.

Since then, emojis have made their mark on the art world:


Emoji Dick – Fred Benenson

I wonder about the choice of title, but Emoji Dick is a translation of Moby Dick made entirely out of emojis. The project began as early as 2009 when creator Fred Benenson began a Kickstarter to fund the program.

Benenson crowd sourced the project through Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace where people can sell all sorts of skills. Benenson hired two rounds of workers. First, three different people translated each line. Then another set of people voted on the “best” emoji translations.

Emoji art-Emoji Dick-text-me-ishmael

You can find the book here, or read more about Benenson’s motivation on his Kickstarter page. I like this line best on motivation best:

“I also really like the whale emoji, so that seemed like a good fit, too.”


Boring Angel Music Video

A music video released in 2013 tells a story entirely with emoji. It’s clearer than Emoji Dick, flashing between narrated emoji choices repeatedly to ensure you get the message.

The video is a collaboration between experimental electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never and internet artist John Michael Boling. It’s a simple story line enhanced by the music, a mix of orchestral, techno, and technology sounds.

The rapid flashing between emojis creates a gif-like effect, but fair warning, it’s a bit dizzying to watch.


Book from the Ground – by Xu Bing

Book from the Ground, the second emoji book in existence, is like a sequel for Chinese artist Xu Bing. He says, “Twenty years ago I made Book from the Sky, a book of illegible Chinese characters that no one could read. Now I have created Book from the Ground, a book that anyone can read. “

His first book project was composed entirely of made-up, unreadable Chinese characters. Book from the Ground crosses all language barriers by using emoji-style pictures. Bing tells the story with regular emojis and common symbols like traffic signs and logos.

Book from the Ground is a story about a White collar worker named Mr. Black. It took seven years to make and was finally published in 2014.

You can find the book here.


Garden of Emoji Delights by Carla Gannis

Garden of Emoji Delights is an animated collage of emojis layered over the Hieronymous Bosch Renaissance painting, “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The painting is already bizarre, depicting hell and a human fall from grace, but Carla Gannis just makes it ridiculous.

Her piece is outlandish and irreverent, but also completely fascinating. I could spend hours looking at all the minuscule details created with emoji gifs. But I’ll let you take a look for yourself. See the full video animation here, or check out this Buzzfeed article, which includes some pretty great close-ups.

Carla Gannis does other ridiculous emoji art too, which you can see more of on her website.


Emoji Portraits – Yung Jake

Yung Jake creates intricate emoji portraits, usually of celebrities, using a paint-like program. These portraits have a strange 3D look from the layering.

But I won’t say too much about Yung Jake because I’ve dedicated an entire post to his work and his app that you can read here:


Bonus: The Book Written Entirely Out of Emojis

Although it’s not well-known, and maybe not even considered “art,” the third known emoji book in existence is The Book Written Entirely Out of Emojis by a user who goes by “YarnStore” on Wattpad. Wattpad is a platform to share stories – usually regular stories that involve words. But in 2015, YarnStore decided to write a story entirely out of emojis.

It hasn’t been published or printed on paper, but users can comment on the story and have left some of their own thoughts in emoji. The potential for audience interaction is new, even if the idea of an emoji story is not.

Check out the book here; its readability lies somewhere in between Emoji Dick and Book from the Ground.


Emojis Entering the MoMA

Finally, perhaps the crowning artistic achievement of emojis was their inclusion in the MoMA October 2016. The MoMA now displays all 176 original emoji.

What do you think of all this? Is it ridiculous? Amusing? Perfectly normal? With emojis playing such a big role in our communications today, it only seems natural that they’ve made their way into the art world, in this artist’s opinion.