WHEN I WAS in kindergarten, I had a Hello Kitty coin purse. I thought the feline-faced logo, with its red bow and black beady eyes, was cute and, well, that was it. This was the extent of the hold Hello Kitty had over me. But for others, both then and now, once you stare into those black pools of darkness, she’s got you — for life.
For millions of Hello Kitty and Sanrio Co., Ltd. fans all over the world — of all ages and backgrounds, mind you — Hello Kitty is the goddess of gosh-darn cute. A massive chunk of these fans gathered together to worship at the altar of the Kitty Kween herself when The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles held the first-ever Hello Kitty Con this past weekend in honor of her 40th year. It was like a Hello Kitty piñata, filled with bows and whiskers, exploded onto the streets of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.
Hello Kitty was “born” on November 1st, 1974, created by Yuko Shimizu. Coincidentally, the first product to be blessed with her countenance was the coin purse, which hit U.S. markets in 1976. Since its inception, the brand has exploded over the years, and today grosses $7 billion a year — that’s some serious coin being raked in by a 40-year-old cat that doesn’t advertise. I mean, how could she? She doesn’t even have a mouth.
And today there seems to be nothing that Kitty’s face doesn’t grace. Anything that can be experienced by the five senses, and has the possibility to be branded and labeled, is fair game for Hello Kitty. Posters, apparel, art installations, stuffed animals, makeup, tea cups, golf bags, a food truck, 3D-printed figurines, MMA sports equipment, Legos, Beanie Babies, phone accessories, and a SPAM take-home sushi kit, which is a big hit in Hawaii (SPAM is king in Hawaii, FYI). And eating your SPAM musubi with Hello Kitty’s vacant gaze staring you down is the only way to eat like royalty, apparently.
And forget about contraptions designed to make your mystery meat more palatable — there are plenty adult-only products too. There’s a Hello Kitty Airbus, pregnancy tests, toilet seats, urinal cakes, toilet paper, cigarettes, handguns, sewing machines, among countless other objects that will have you blinking in surprise — which is more than Hello Kitty does herself — does she even have eyelids? Doubtless, we’ll never know. There are even Hello Kitty condoms — which is baffling, because I’m pretty sure the number of men wanting their partners fawning over their penises with an “aaaawww, how cute!” when things start getting steamy is zero.
The most intense fanaticism by far on display at the conference was at the Hello Kitty Ink Shop. On a first-come-first-served basis, people were branded with their favorite incarnation of the logo by world-renowned tattoo artists. The tattoos were for free — not to mention forever. Sherry, a 46-year-old SoCal native, was nervously standing in the long line to get her first-ever tattoo. She chose the “nerd” HK logo, explaining: “I grew up with her, she’s part of my childhood.” She’s not the only one, either. Katy Perry (why is this not surprising?) was one of the many enthusiasts lining up like calves at the branding table, getting inked with a HK tattoo on her middle finger — a sort of ironic and playful f**k- you.
Witnessing the obsession of the die-hard fans felt surreal, almost creepy. It was like crashing a party that I wasn’t invited to and inside jokes were happening all around me that I just couldn’t wrap my mind around. Maybe to fully understand the hysteria, the symbol and the culture had to have been more embedded into my childhood. All I had was a coin purse, for Kitty’s sake, and one that I stopped using when I got over it. I obviously had no right even being there. And, as I saw firsthand, Hello Kitty clearly isn’t a phase that you just grow out of. It’s a lifestyle. Full-grown women and men (ostensibly there as good partners and/or dads, but probably closet Kitty fans — let’s be real) were completely smitten and frolicking like happy-go-lucky adolescents. Hello Kitty is forever — tattoo or not.
But even for those not mesmerized by this particular kitty, the loyalty and commitment to the brand are quite admirable. You start to get a better sense of the magic and appeal after being in the fray for a couple of hours; it’s that certain kind of magic that lets you look back at that phase in your childhood, the one filled with rainbows and unicorns and tiny doodled hearts, with a sense of nostalgia and not embarrassment. It has a serum-like effect, one that maybe makes life seem a little more pleasant, more playful, filled with endless possibilities and non-judgment for those who believe. The way you felt when you were a kid playing dress up or filling your coin purse with quarters from the tooth fairy. Some people go to yoga, eat candy, or even do drugs to create this magical feeling. But who needs coke when you have Hello Kitty? She’s the cleanest drug on the market.
That is, as long as you’re not a dog person.