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.

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.

While deciding what to write about for this week, I kept thinking about the emoji characters from Kakao Talk, a popular messaging app in Korea similar to WhatsApp or Line.

Although it’s been nearly a year since my Fulbright grant ended and I left Korea, I think of Kakao emojis often. Only because my laptop is covered in Kakao character stickers.

Laptop with several Kakao Friends stickers and a few others

My personal favorite is Tube, the duck in the center, but we’ll get to that later.

Line might be more widely used, but Kakao is king in Korea. It’s pronounced a bit like cacao, with more emphasis on the first “ka.” Better yet, just listen to Obama pronounce it in the “Obama Talk” alert. This audio clip was pulled from a real speech and you can still use this alert today.

But the thing that distinguishes Kakao from Line is not its “Obama Talk” or its bright yellow color scheme. It’s the emojis.

Kakao Talk has the BEST emojis.

(And in case you get the two confused, we’re talking emojis here, not emoticons, which look like this: : ) or : – ( or ^_^. Emojis vs. emoticons is one of those things I look up, and then immediately forget. So this is just as much for my benefit as yours: An emoticon is text; and an emoji is a picture. It’s all explained here.)

Having awesome emojis is probably why everyone in Korea seemed to have such a strong emoji game. You can’t help but want to use the adorable Kakao Friends emojis. On top of that, these little characters each come with distinct personalities. We’ll go through them, and then you tell me what’s not to love?


Kakao Friends and Their Elaborate Backstories

Kakao friends characters standing in a line: Ryan, Apeach, Tube, Con & Muzi, Frodo, Neo, Jay-G

Since I first learned about Kakao friends – they were included in a workshop during my Fulbright Korea orientation – the company has revamped the character descriptions and added a new Kakao friend. I’ll include both versions for each.



Kakao Friends Tube

Kakao Friends Tube The cowardly duck with an angry altar ego

Yes he’s first because I’m biased. I don’t want to sway you too much, but Tube is the best. He has two main traits: his foot insecurity and his alter ego. Tube wears flippers to hide his small feet – in the first image you can see that one has fallen off. How adorable is that?

Kakao Friends Tube duck emoji falling backwards and losing one flipper

He also has a hulk-like alter ego: a green duck that breathes fire and destroys things. As a result, he gets the table flipping emoji.

Kakao Friends Angry Green Tube flipping a table with rice, soup and silverware

Muzi and Con

Kakao Friends Muzi and Con Kakao Friends Muzi and Con

Muzi is a definitely second favorite for me. He (or possibly she) is usually paired with Con, a tiny, alligator-like creature.

Kakao Friends Con sitting in office chair throwing paper airplanes

Muzi is by far the most creative character. At first glance, Muzi seems like a rabbit, but it’s actually a picked daikon  radish or damuji in Korean. Con is some sort of evil scientist who brought Muzi to life. Makes sense.

Kakao Friends Muzi and Con celebrating

When I used a Kakao Friends review game in class one day, my students were shocked to hear me use a male pronoun for Muzi. I always default to my students’ expertise on matters of Korean pop culture, so I conceded that I wasn’t sure about Muzi’s gender. In Muzi’s original bio above, the creator uses “he,” but in the updated version, the writers are careful to avoid any gendered pronouns and only use “it.”

Kakao friends Muzi with sparkly eyes holding Con



Frodo and Neo

Kakao Friends Frodo and Neo

Another pair usually grouped together, largely defined by their relationship, if you ask me. But in the revamp, they receive separate descriptions. Yay for progress!Kakao Friends Neo Bio

The Kakao Friends designers created each characters with different segments of the population in mind. And they were definitely spot on with “the couple.” Couples in Korea are a big deal, from couple outfits to the common 100-day anniversary gifts.

Kakao Friends Frodo and Neo crying and hugging Kakao Friends Frodo and Neo taking a selfie

Neo is a stylish, high-end cat. Honestly I don’t have much to say about Neo. She’s a stereotypical girly-girl But her emojis are fun.

Kakao Friends Neo doing a hair flip Kakao Friends Neo Posing in Compact Mirror

Also this Dragon Ball Z reference is excellent.

Kakao Friends Neo Super Saiyan mode


Kakao Friends Frodo

Frodo doesn’t have a lot going for him either; he just looks good. His emoticons cover stereotypical boyfriend stuff. Kakao Friends Frodo with bouquet of roses

Although it’s not in this description, people have also said that Frodo is a mixed breed, and therefore very sensitive to matters of birth and status. Perhaps this little detail is relatable in a society where most can trace their family history back to specific clans and regions.

Kakao Friends Frodo with heart eyes and forming heart shape with arms

Kakao Friends Frodo wearing sunglasses and trench coat in a fall breeze


Kakao Friends Jay-G

Woah, is this allowed? And/or racist? Jay-G seems to be a walking stereotype and his name is just too obvious of a rip-off. Fortunately in the update, designers have drawn out features besides “loves hip-hop” in the one character clearly coded as black.

Kakao Friends Jay-G

Jay-G used to be the boring wannabe rapper. He was a mole, which was interesting, but that was it. Now designers seem to be focusing more on his identity as a secret agent (who still loves hip-hop).  Kakao Friends JayG break dance

He’s the one who has interesting emojis that I never really use. I wonder if they’ll do more with this character.

Kakao Friends JayG bathtub



Kakao Friends Apeach Kakao Friends ApeachHere’s a fun one. Apeach is a sassy peach who’s “not afraid to show off its backside.” And its name is literally “a peach.” Coincidentally, Apeach is another character who seemed to have gone from male to gender neutral.

Kakao Friends Apeach smiling with hearts Kakao Friends Apeach showing off backside



And finally the last character is Ryan, the Kakao newbie. Ryan is the lion. The almost-rhyme/assonance is fun.

Kakao Friends Ryan

I can’t find the old version of Ryan’s backstory anywhere, so here’s this instead:

Kakao Friends Ryan King

Ryan came out sometime during my second year in Korea, so between late 2015 to early 2016. I still haven’t fully accepted him as Kakao canon. He also looks a lot like a Line emoticon character, which is questionable.

Brown Line vs Ryan Kakao

But I guess he has an okay backstory. Ryan the Lion – even though he looks more like a bear – is from Africa. Go figure. He’s insecure about not having a mane, which is kind of cute, but has already been done with Tube and his small feet.

Regardless, Ryan seems to be popular now.

Ryan cheering with glow sticks gif

Next week: A part 2 on Kakao emojis that actually ties them to my artwork.