Interview with Michelle Choi of Choizilla

choizilla - stand“If you looked at it on a timeline, then it would go from quite dark and serious, to quite happy, candy and colourful,” explains Michelle Choi of her art style.

As a web store that specialises in alternative kawaii, Choizilla consists of Michelle Choi as the creator and designer, and Kai as the site’s web and digital officer. Items range from T-Shirts, bags, badges, stickers, cushions and more. Yet it is the colour scheme and artwork that makes Choizilla so distinctive.

Having exhibited at conventions, including MCM Comic Con, Michelle launched a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign producing T-shirts with the slogan, ‘I hope senpai notices me today’. Since then, their T-shirts have also featured in the music video for Klepto Penguin’s cover of Spinning World (piano rock ver.).

As I spoke to Michelle about her work, there were a few humorous diversions (she mentioned she had recently won a “well good” Hello Kitty cup at the Namco Arcade). But it was clear just how much she had devoted to Choizilla as the level of interest and demand began to surprise her. We talked about her experiences when exhibiting at conventions, that Kickstarter campaign, and what it feels like to get noticed by your senpai.

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How did the move to starting Choizilla come about?

Ultimately it was a project that I kinda started off as an illustration brain dump – ‘You know what, these illustrations aren’t half bad. Some of these ideas for T-shirts, badges and stuff, people probably want to buy these.’ So I thought, ‘This is something I want to work on.’ Choizilla became a side-project that I did as well as my full-time job.

It’s actually quite a young project. I only started it in January last year. Before Choizilla existed, I did have a Facebook group, called Choi Illustrations, but that doesn’t sound as strong as a brand. It just transitioned to Choizilla somehow. I don’t really know how, but it just happened (laughs).

How did you get into illustration and design?

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been drawing the whole time. My mum likes to say that she’s the one that influenced me, but I’ve not seen her draw so much before. I did Fine Arts for my GCSE’s and then I went on to do Graphic Design at university. Even as my full time job, I’d be doing graphic design. It’s more of a hobby that kind of turned into a thing.

Choizilla - All Seeing Prince Choizilla - All Seeing Princess

What would you say has been your biggest challenge to overcome to get to where you are now with Choizilla?

I think at the beginning, like everyone else, it’s finding the courage to do it. I’ve been so incredibly lucky that I have loads of talented friends around me. My friends have always been drawing and they’ve become quite Tumblr-famous or Twitter-famous. I don’t know about you, but when you’re surrounded by people constantly doing really awesome things, then you feel like, ‘Hey, I need to step up my game as well.’ If not it feels like I’m going to be left out. It’s that competitiveness.

What have you enjoyed the most since starting Choizilla?

It’s funny you say that because I posted a birthday post. I didn’t even realise before I wrote it, but the things I enjoyed the most were with people. The exhibitions, the Kickstarter last year, they’re all people-orientated.

At the beginning when Choizilla first started, it was a little bit selfish in a way. It was just me dumping all of my illustrations, all of my ideas and seeing if anybody noticed. And they did and I’m incredibly thankful they gave me a chance.

Does that overwhelm you when you see how many people are interested in what you’re doing?

Yeah, it does! It’s amazing! People like and speak to me about things that I’m doing and that’s just baffling (laughs). Only until recently I’ve felt the power of connecting with people emotionally.

People say it quite easily, but when you have to actually go out there and do it yourself, it’s incredibly hard. So the projects with ‘I hope senpai notices me’ T-shirt and badge sets, it’s an idea that loads of people in that kind of group appreciates, they appreciate it as an inside joke. I just like bringing those kind of people together and that makes me really happy.

You launched a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign last year, latching onto a certain meme by producing T-shirts with the slogan, ‘I hope senpai notices me today’. Did this come about because you too have experienced what it feels like, day after day, hoping that senpai will actually acknowledge your existence?

Choizilla - t-shirt(Laughs) I guess… in a way, but… ah, so embarrassing… but my senpai has already noticed me (laughs)!

Most of the people who backed it were from the MCM group. Before the Kickstarter, I exhibited at MCM London in October 2014. I had just the one T-shirt hung up and over the period of three days over 60 people came up to me asking to buy the T-shirt when it wasn’t actually available. So then I thought, ‘This is actually pretty cool. I’m going to make it a Kickstarter so people can get this T-shirt for real.’ Sadly I’m a really poor person, so I couldn’t afford to buy all those T-shirts and sell it properly. But because of the power of Kickstarter where people could back it up first, I could go out there, buy the T-shirt and bring the idea into reality. That was really cool.

I’ve seen T-shirts with similar messages, internet meme sort of things. Not everybody in the general public would understand it. But if you do see it, like if you’re sitting on the tube train, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that dude, I know what he’s talking about.’ It’s kind of cool. It’s like you’re in this gang, and I really like that, I wanted to be a part of that.

How did you react when your Kickstarter, it didn’t just reach its goal, but finished over its initial target?

I was well chuffed. The fact that it reached its target way before [the closing date] (pauses). I don’t even know what to say. I was just so happy.

You say your senpai has noticed you. How does it feel for you when senpai does finally notice you?

(Laughs) It’s so strange (pauses). When it happens… then you’ll know when it happens (laughs). It’s like when someone asks you if you’re in love with someone (pauses) and you just kinda know. I completely understand if not everybody has been that fortunate or lucky to have had that experience. When you find that person, and that person feels the same way then… you just know (laughs). It’s just this gut feeling that says, ‘This is right’, and you’re like ‘Yep’ (laughs).

So you can’t really describe it, but you know when it hits you?

Yeah, it’s almost like a fact, but you can’t back it up with anything! It’s such a strange thing, but before I met Kai, I didn’t know what it was, what love was (laughs). But you just know. You know when you know.

Well I still need to wait for my senpai to notice me.

Aww. I think the trick is to not try and find it. It just naturally comes. The more you look, the more you chase… the further it runs away from you. Yeah, it’s a fickle mistress. It’s well worth it though.

What has the feedback been like from people that bought the T-shirt? Has it helped senpai to notice them?

It’s been hella awesome. Especially with the amount of pictures people post back saying, ‘Hey, I bought this. Here it is, me wearing this outside in public.’ And some Asian folk on the Underground have looked at my T-shirt and started giggling. That makes me really happy. It worked to how I wanted it to work.

I can imagine you going, ‘My master plan is coming together!’

Yeah! So, it’s working I guess. Even if they haven’t found their senpai yet, at least it’s making other people happy and I can live with that.

Choizilla - badge-set-2015What has been your most popular item, the one that tends to sell out fast?

The most popular is the Kawaii Badge Set. It’s a set of four badges packaged with an illustration. It includes a limited edition badge, which says ‘You are jealous cos senpai noticed me.’ That’s the bestseller. I’ve sold hundreds of those already. The first batch was actually made by hand. I made 50 packets and then I took it to [the first convention I was exhibiting at] and they just sold out. They disappeared in one go. I was like, ‘Wow, okay, er… I better make more of these!’ But no matter how many I make, or how much time I spent during the evening, putting these packs together, I just couldn’t make enough. So I ended up having to ask a printer to help me do it. I just can’t do it by hand [anymore], because of the demand.

It was painful you know, because badge sets are pointy. You have no idea how many times I had bleeding fingers!

What inspires you and your work? I’ve noticed a J-rock/visual kei style.

There is actually quite a bit of a visual kei and J-rock influence. Almost a decade ago I used to run a J-rock news website with a couple of my peers. That became quite popular. I was such a huge fan of the GazettE, Dir en Grey, Alice Nine and L’Arc~en~Ciel. When the GazettE were in their visual kei period, I took a lot of inspiration from that. I even had the haircut, the make-up and then I drew fan art. So yeah, there is actually a lot of J-rock influence to it. Recently, probably not so much, because I’ve started listening to groups like Shiina Ringo, Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, other more popular colourful things. I just love the bright colours. I really love the stuff they wear and the make up.

I’ve started reading a lot more manga – I read like eight in parallel, and I also play League of Legends, so I do get quite a bit of inspiration from the art there. I finished reading Tokyo Ghoul. It’s actually incredibly dark. I’ve started watching Death Parade. What else is there… oh, Kamisama Hajimemashita.

Choizilla - Kitsune Mask Illustration  Choizilla - Made You Look (2)

You’ve been at MCM London and MCM Birmingham. What does it feel like for you when exhibiting at the event, meeting customers and fans and other artists in person? Do you have any memorable experiences?

There’s so many memories, I can’t really pick out a particular one. But I remember the first time I exhibited, I was incredibly nervous. Even Kai was like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s going on? You’re acting really strange.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I‘m really nervous. Leave me alone’ (laughs).

Wondering if people get why you’re doing something, or if they like what you’re doing, that was really scary.

Everybody that has come up to my stall has been incredibly kind, saying nice things about my stuff, so it’s all been really awesome. Meeting other artists at their stalls is cool as well. They’re in the same situation as I am, so I can talk about my problems and they can give me hints and tips. The second time I exhibited in London, there was this other girl who was sitting next to me and she was telling me, ‘You should have a big bottle of water on Saturday, because it will be so packed.’ It’s just small things like that which make me feel like, ‘This is actually really cool.’ I’ve added a couple of them on Facebook as well, just keeping in touch and constantly motivating each other.

Will we be seeing you at MCM events again in the future?

I’m planning to go to the May one.

What can we expect from Choizilla in the future?

Maybe if I promise that I’ll start producing more T-shirt designs, then it’ll force me to be motivated. I’m hoping to do more badge sets and to draw more, even though I’m kind of in a little dump right now, in terms of actually having inspiration to draw. I think it’s an on and off thing. But, yeah, more T-shirts, more badges, more drawings!

What advice would you give to similar creators out there that are thinking of taking their first step to selling online or at a convention?

(Pauses) I would say, even if you’re 70% happy with what you’ve done, just go ahead and put it out there. It’s such a strange thing, but the hardest thing is to put yourself out there and being almost exposed to criticism. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things to have negative feedback or comments. But then at least you know what you need to fix.

Obviously I’m not saying put something bad out there. As long as it’s decent, put it out there and see what people say. Not family or friends, because they’re always going to be biased. Put it out there on the internet where it’s going to be absolutely ruthless. It’s notorious for being harsh, but if it’s a half decent idea, then people would be quite happy to say, ‘Hey, I like this. I want to share this with my friends.’ Just go for it.

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Michelle also sent us a ‘I hope senpai notices me today’ T-shirt. You can read our review of the T-shirt by clicking here.

A big thank you to Michelle for taking the time out for the interview and for helping people around the world get noticed by their senpai. Be sure to visit Choizilla’s website and check them out at MCM London Comic Con this May.

Pictures provided by Michelle Choi.

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