Emoji as an Emerging Artform

Slate’s design blog.
Nov. 6 2013 2:15 PM

The Art of Emoji

131105_EYE_Fred Benenson - Emoji New Yorker
Fred Benenson's Eustace Emoji is an emoji-based reinterpretation of an iconic New Yorker cover.

Image courtesy Fred Benenson

Ever since Apple popularized the Japanese emoticons on known as emoji with the release of i0S5, digital communication once confined to letters, numbers and punctuation has become a cartoonish full-color landscape littered with pictographs designed to help express emotions and ideas.

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Credit: iStock

But as emoji design has developed to include a growing number of icons (from a smiley/sad/angry/confused/insert-emotion-here face to a tube of lipstick to a pile of poop with eyes to a running shoe to a person “deeply bowing,” and much, much more) the pictographs themselves have become more than as a visual aid for verbal communication, evolving into a vehicle for expression in their own right.

Emoji art history memes offer emoji-based homages to famous works of art. Singapore-based design studio VoidWorks has created an iTunes app called Emojify that transforms your photos into emoji-based collages. Emoji art Tumblrs feature a wide range of works whose common language is the miniature pictographs that are no longer just the digital currency of Japanese teenagers, who have been using emoji since they were invented in the 1990s.

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Screen shot of Emojify from iTunes.

Screen shot of Emojify from iTunes.

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Kickstarter data engineer and self-proclaimed “emoji aficionado” Fred Benenson’s emoji-based interpretation of a famous New Yorker cover featuring Eustace Tilley (pictured above) helped showcase the possibilities of using emoji not just as a substitute for words but as a design element in and of themselves. (Benenson also launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to help him use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to translate Moby Dick into Emoji Dick, the first emoji-based novel to be acquired by the Library of Congress.) And he is one of the organizers of what is being called the first emoji-based art and design show dedicated to showcasing the emerging art of emoji.

Forced Meme Productions is accepting original emoji-based art submissions through November 8 for the Emoji Art & Design Show next month at the Eyebeam Art & Technology Center in New York City. Partnering with Mashable, the organizers say that the exhibition is an attempt to survey the spread of emoji through a visually oriented popular culture that increasingly communicates through images rather than text.

“This visual form of communication isn’t necessarily new,” the organizers write. “From cave paintings, to hieroglyphics, to religious and mythological symbols encoded in traditional painting and sculpture, we’ve been communicating through images since the dawn of mankind—but its dominance in culture today, especially among millennials, seems to indicate a greater shift in our approach to self-expression.”

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IJOME by Carolyn and Lizzy Janssen.

Image courtesy of Womanzine

According to the submission guidelines: “If you’re an artist or designer working with emoji, send us your work. We’re looking for a diverse array of interpretations and appropriations of the emoji that exist both on and offline. The show welcomes new and existing works from a variety of mediums ranging from net art, to painting and sculpture, video and performance.”

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