the first-ever emoji cats and fist-bumps are going on display at the moma

The 176 retro renditions were a gift to the museum from the phone company Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, which created them for pagers in 1999.

by Hannah Ongley
27 October 2016, 4:23pm

Inside New York's Museum of Modern Art you can currently find Nan Goldin's groundbreaking visual diary The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Tony Oursler's immersive "5-D" experience Imponderable, and a few cute flower paintings by some dude named Claude Monet. Before the end of the year, these artists will be joined by a collective that's currently causing quite the art world commotion: Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. The Japanese phone company has gifted the MoMA the entire set of the world's first-ever emoji designed (and named) by Shigetaka Kurita. The 176 digital cats, trains, and smiley faces were created in 1999. That's over a decade before Apple launched the first iPhone emoji in 2011, but seems like even longer. The cellphone itself looks more like a gas station fuel dispenser than a cellphone. Users were also limited to only one train emoji as opposed to the 12 that we clearly need today. 

While the emoji seem limited from a 2016 perspective, they also make some fascinating and prophetic assumptions about a culture on the verge of a communication revolution. Cats, junk food, and birthday celebration symbols were correctly predicted to be very important. The earliest attempt at a fist-bump emoji also warrants being admired and analyzed. Now that 90% of us use pictures to replace or modify our everyday language, the time couldn't be better to do so. They might even provide MoMA viewers with more of a time trip than the Monets housed upstairs. 

"These 12x12 pixel humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language," Paul Galloway, a collection specialist in MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design, wrote in a blog post yesterday. "Shigetaka Kurita's emoji are powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behavior."

Check out the works in the MoMA's main lobby from December through March. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Image courtesy of MoMA