Meet Christopher Torres, The Dallas Artist Behind The Internet Sensation That Is Still Nyan Cat.
On Saturday, May 14, a computer program is going to headline The Bomb Factory.
Hatsune Miku is a Japanese program created for the purpose of synthesizing music, complete with a built-in singer in the form of an animated, holographically projected 16-year-old girl with turquoise hair, who performs in front of a live band.
Never heard of her? Well, you’ve probably heard her music.
Most people heard her music for the first time almost five years ago when that absurdly viral Nyan Cat video took the Internet by storm. The catchy music, combined with the cute, pixelated drawing of this pastry-cat combination was everywhere in those day. For a time, it was the fifth most viewed video on YouTube. It quickly became an all-out phenomenon: An entire webpage dedicated to Nyan Cat was built where multiple different version of the character were created, and a shop was opened up, providing fans a chance to buy everything from plushies and stickers to keychains and wallets.
This, folks, is memery at its most capitalistic.
And the man behind this meme empire (meme-pire?) just so happens to be a rather unassuming Dallas artist named Christopher Torres, who got his start with his LiveJournal page LOL Comics and has been working on evolving has Nyan Cat brand ever since it first caught the world’s eye.
With the voice behind the video that made Nyan Cat such a smash coming to town, we sat down with Torres to learn about how Nyan Cat first came to be, when he realized it was huge and what it’s like to make a living on meme culture.
Alright, let’s just start at the beginning. How’d you get into drawing and starting your LOL Comics site?
Creating art has always been something I’ve enjoyed. I remember making little comics in middle school about friends or situations I’ve been in, and trading them with other friends who also made comics in the hallways in between classes. The comics were awful and nothing but inside jokes, but since my friends and I were often separated in different classes, it was the only way to communicate with them sometimes. In the early 2000s, I decided to take them online, and eventually created a small site named LOL Comics as a hobby. It got surprisingly popular, and a lot of my old drawings actually still circulate the web as reaction meme images. The comics center around real events in my life, some so bizarre that nobody believes them to be true until I show photographic evidence. They’ve always just been a way for me to vent or express what’s going on or on my mind. I update them whenever I feel like it; there’s no set schedule. Sometimes it’ll be a year before I update again. But when I do, it’s awesome that a lot of people from the beginning of it all still follow what I do.
And then you created what became known as Nyan Cat, which, through a series of events, became this massive meme in 2011. Can you tell me how you created it?
I was doing, like, this charity drive a long time ago back when it started, and I really wasn’t trying to make anything of it. I was just drawing stuff for people, and then I was just like “Hey, give me some suggestions,” ’cause it was kind of at an off time. So a lot of people started pouring in different requests, and it became, like, too many. So I was just putting stuff together at a certain point, just mixing up stuff. And then somebody suggested a toaster pastry and then somebody suggested a cat, and since I love drawing cats, I was like, “OK, I’m just gonna put them both together and just see how it works out.” Then, that night, I decided to kind of try some pixel art, because I was starting to get into it at that time. So then I spent all night making that image and I just put it on my Twitter and on my blog, and that’s kind of it. I wasn’t really expecting anything of it at all. It’s just something fun. But, yeah, it just blew up.
When did you first realize that it was turning into a big Internet phenomenon?
I didn’t realize it until maybe two weeks later or something like that. I was actually starting my first day at a desk job that day, and I just checked my e-mail and I was getting like hundreds of e-mails just from people inquiring about it. I was just like, “What’s going on?” It was very new to me. But, yeah, it took about a week or so for me to catch on that it was becoming a huge meme. A lot of news sites picked it up, and I started seeing it everywhere now, and the messages were overwhelming.
And you were able to turn it into a business, right? How did you get into that?
Well, I had so many people messaging me, sending me e-mails saying like, “Hey, we wanna work with you,” and this and that. That’s kind of when it got started. But I’m always very picky about who I let do stuff with my work. But it never originally was a monetizing thing; that’s just the way it is nowadays. Like, with memes nowadays, everything gets turned into something and people love to wear it. So, I figured “Why not?” Y’know? And then I had several big companies actually contact me around that time — like Sprint, they wanted to do it for a commercial. Google. Facebook. Just lots of people. And I figured, “OK, cool.” And then, actually, my manager Ben, he contacted me around that time, and he was just like “Hey, man, if you need any help, I’ll help you out.” And that was a good decision, because ever since then it just keeps getting better with his contacts and stuff, and it’s gotten pretty big.
Like your manager at your job?
No, no. He’s, like, an Internet manager. He does lots of other memes right now.
I didn’t know that job even existed. That’s crazy.
Yeah, it’s pretty crazy, the world we live in now. But, yeah, we work together now. I get an e-mail and I’ll send it to him and we’ll talk about it. And then we’ll proceed from there, depending on the person.
That leads into what I was going to ask you — and I don’t mean this negatively at all — but are you aware of, like, how absurd it is that you’re making money off of just this joke that you made, basically?
I think it’s pretty great. I think a lot of people do the same kind of stuff. It’s kind of like Mickey Mouse, y’know? Mickey Mouse is just a mouse, but it’s got a brand behind it. I didn’t go in wanting it to become a thing, but it’s become a successful thing by the Internet wanting it. I don’t think it’s absurd at all. The Internet nowadays, everybody’s doing stuff like this. That’s just the way it is.
I read you were involved in a lawsuit because Warner Bros. used the Nyan Cat in their game Scribblenauts without permission. Is that something that happens often?
It happens quite a bit, actually. I try to keep stuff personal, and if I see somebody using my work, I’ll always contact them first and ask them to take it down. But sometimes things get a little more heated than that. They’ll come back and say that I don’t own it at all, that it belongs to the Internet and that it’s free domain. But I copyrighted the image when I immediately started seeing it getting huge. And, actually, it’s funny; I noticed a lot of people try to copyright my art also, and trademark the name. So it’s kind of been like that since day one. Just fighting lots of people trying to steal my art. The Internet’s kind of turning into that. People think that they can just slap something for free on a shirt and make some money off of it, but that’s not really how it works. It’s kind of like a daily thing. We try to just be nice about it, but sometimes some people don’t agree with us.
So how much does Nyan Cat supplement your income?
It’s been pretty good. It’s been enough to make me happy and I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted to do.
But do you still have a job?
This is my job, full-time. From the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed, it’s answering e-mails, drawing stuff for people, getting stuff sent to companies that want my work and reading contracts. It’s not like I just sit down and all the money comes to me; there’s a lot of work to it. It’s just like any other artist trying to sell anything in this world.
With the constant evolution of Internet culture and humor, how do you maintain relevancy?
I just kind of sit back and keep things cool. That’s always been my number one rule — like, don’t try too hard. ‘Cause when you do, people notice, and then they’ll call out your bullshit. I really haven’t done much lately. I just kind of sit back. All the viral stuff, that’s how it gets around. Everybody else kind of shares it and posts it everywhere. I’ve kinda changed my website a little bit just to make it easier for people to share it, but aside from that, I haven’t really done much. Every day, I’ll post pictures on the Facebook page that I own.
The Nyan Cat page?
Nyan Cat World, yeah. It’s got almost 5 million followers right now, which is pretty awesome. But that’s kind of the basis of it. I try not to go too hard; I’ll just share fan art now and then, and whenever I work out a deal with someone, I’ll advertise it for a few days, but I just try to keep it cool. I try not to oversaturate everybody.
So part of what made Nyan Cat such a viral sensation was the video that kind of blew up with it. Do you work in tandem with those creators at all?
Which video? The Hatsune Miku version?
Yeah, we actually do work together, and we’ve been working together since the start. I have to make sure to do it legitimately, because I don’t wanna piss anybody off. So I first contacted daniwellp — that’s the guy who owns the song — and then we worked out something. And then I contacted this girl named Sarah; she’s the one that actually made the YouTube video, the one that got huge, and then I worked with her on licensing and stuff. She keeps the video up and she keeps any links that I put up there, and in turn we work with her. It’s pretty good. I got to meet her, actually, a few years ago. She was super nice.
How did you first figure out about Hatsune Miku? Was that your first introduction, when you saw the video?
I knew about it a little bit beforehand, ’cause it was just starting to get popular around that time in places like 4chan. But I wasn’t really into it until the mix-up for Nyan Cat. I think it’s pretty cool. I’ve seen the holograms before. I’ve seen the concerts, at least the YouTube video versions of it. I think it’s great. And the Hatsune Miku brand is huge in Japan. It’s always weird to hear that it’s coming to the States for something — especially Dallas, of all places. But, I know Dallas is home to A-Kon, which is one of the biggest anime conventions, so I think there’s a big crowd that definitely wants to see that here.
Have you always been pretty big into Internet culture?
Yes, ever since the late ’90s. I had a LiveJournal, different communities on LiveJournal. I had my own website. Once Tumblr got started, I jumped on that, and Twitter. I’m always aware of Internet stuff. Like with [my business partner] David, I’m like “Hey, David, this is the meme for the day. You better learn it, because it’s gonna be on the Internet and everyone’s gonna know about it next week.” But that’s also kind of part of the job now, which works perfectly for me. I’m just noticing trends and going with them. And it’s funny: I’ll see something and then, months later, it gets big. Like, “Oh really? I saw this so long ago!”
Are you working on anything right now that you can tell us about?
I’m actually working right now with Microsoft. The HoloLens is coming out and we’re gonna have some apps for that with Nyan Cat.
Wait, what’s coming out?
The HoloLens. It’s like VR — a virtual reality headset sort of thing. I actually just got a good deal with that. I think it’s gonna be really awesome. And we’ve got some other stuff in the works right now, but I can’t really talk about that right now.
What more can you tell me about the HoloLens stuff?
It’s gonna be like an app. It’s gonna be like a virtual pet kind of thing. We’ve worked with Microsoft before, like with Xbox. We had avatars with Nyan Cat on them and stuff like that, and they’re really cool people to work with. I’m excited about that; we just did that recently. Everything’s been pretty good otherwise. Just keeping it steady.
And what does that entail?
Like, answering e-mails all day. I feel like people are expecting a lot from me now, but I’m just like, “Whatever. I’ll put out art whenever I feel like it.” And it works for me, y’know? It makes me happy. That’s all I want.