Hong Kong artist Cath Love on body image, graffiti as art and her TEDx Salon talk

The Swiss-Thai creator of curvaceous cartoon character Jeliboo talks about the subversive nature of her work and rebelling against the Asian perception of beauty

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 11:48am

The Hong Kong-raised child of Swiss and Thai parents whose work mashes up Asian illustration with hip hop-influenced street art, Cath Love captures our city’s East-West zeitgeist pretty much perfectly. The artist, real name Catherine Grossrieder, yokes together two apparently incompatible elements, one Eastern and one Western, one cute and one gritty, in work that is bold, graphical and accessible but also spiked with a subversive surrealism.

Love first made her name as a street artist, and is now an in-demand artist and illustrator, whose most famous creation, curvaceous cartoon icon Jeliboo, is starting to take on a life of her own. Jeliboo is classic Love: originally drawn doing yoga poses, she is cute and whimsical, but is also a vehicle for challenging stereotypes of female representation: specifically, skinniness. Hiding the character’s eyes behind a lengthy fringe only increases the emphasis on her body, which is a thing of contrast, with very curvy thighs and rear (her name is a combination of the words “jelly” and “booty”) alongside tiny, delicate feet and hands.

The artist says that Jeliboo’s shape is in part a reflection of hip-hop culture’s emphasis on the merits of a fuller female body shape. “But I’m also rebelling against the Asian perception of beauty. She’s cute, bouncy, fun,” she says, as ever talking about her creation as if she’s a real person.

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“She skips through life happily with her body shape. In some ways she’s my alter ego: we didn’t start out perfect but we can grow into it. She surfs, she skates, she swims: your booty shouldn’t stop you from doing anything – you can still be happy.” She says she’s been asked by women whether she’s turned Jeliboo into a sex object, to which she reacts with incredulity. “She doesn’t even have a boyfriend. She’s oblivious to these things.”

Rather than being deliberately contrarian, she adds, the subversive nature of her work is more just a reflection of how she is, something that happens without her consciously thinking about it. “Growing up as a third-culture kid, I was exposed to a lot of nuances”, naturally becoming an instinctive cultural relativist.

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Grossrieder moved to Hong Kong aged seven because her father, a chef who had been catering manager for Thai Airways, got a job offer from Cathay Pacific. She acquired her love of hip-hop culture, both music and graffiti, on trips to Europe as a teenager, while her hip-hop-influenced nom de canvas was born while she was at art school in Australia (“My surname’s really long,” she says). She might revert to her birth name, however, for the more highbrow art pieces she’s moving into, reserving the Cath Love name for her cartoon and graffiti work.

After returning to Hong Kong from Australia, she did three entry-level jobs in a year before going stir-crazy and moving to London, living there from 2008 to 2010. On coming back, she says, “I felt a bit lost – I went through a year of unresolved goals.” She ended up going back into full-time work, doing three different jobs in two years, “but I felt kind of wasted, like I wanted to do something that was my own. I thought about the freelance thing for a long time, but it was never the right moment.” After one argument with her boss too many, however, she finally took the plunge.

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“Needless to say, it was intimidating. I was very lucky to get a kind of lubricant into the freelance world when a friend hired me for a [British hat maker, much loved in the hip-hop community] Kangol campaign.” Other work to establish her commercially has included her painted horse statue for Lane Crawford and her graffiti mural for Jimmy Choo, both in 2014.

Graffiti was her first artistic love. She made her debut aged 16: the first place she painted was the foundations of Lower Baguio Villa in Pok Fu Lam. “It was very nerve-racking,” she says. “I painted, I threw the can away and I ran off.”

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She soon gained confidence, however, and quickly made a name for herself. Differentiating herself from the crowd wasn’t a problem – for a start, the crowd wasn’t very large, and secondly, she was the only female member.

“I’m so fortunate to live in Hong Kong, where graffiti artists aren’t a dime a dozen,” she says. “It also really helps being female.”

In 2013 she reached the final of the inaugural Hong Kong edition of rap battle-like illustration showdown Secret Walls, losing out to her friend and fellow street artist Mark Goss (“We’re still mates,” she says). Love credits Secret Walls, and the HKwalls street-art festival, with helping to culturally normalise street art in Hong Kong, so that it is seen as a legitimate mode of artistic expression rather than a form of criminal damage.

“I’m glad that people are more willing to integrate spray paint into the artistic world. Before, it used to be seen as a weapon of vandalism.”

The problem, she says, comes in reconciling the underground nature of graffiti with any form of commercial success. “Every graffiti artist wants to be known and make a living from it, but if they reach that point they get called a sell-out. But as you get older you realise: if I can get paid for this, great. A lot of graffiti people are uncomfortable with the term street art, but if people call me a street artist, I’m fine with that.”

So respectable has her work become, in fact, that she’s the star of the show at two TEDxHongKong events at AsiaWorld-Expo, introducing Jeliboo to the world, after she was invited by TEDxHongKong co-curator and Jeliboo fan Jong Lee: a formal TED talk on May 13 and a less formal introductory presentation and question-and-answer session on April 30.

“TED is a big deal,” she says. “I thought I could talk in front of people, but I’m pretty scared to talk in front of 500 – it’s so intimidating. But I think Jeliboo deserves to be introduced to the world.

“It will be very breezy – I don’t want to overthink it. I started off doing this with not a lot of thought – I just wanted her to be cute. But then I moulded her with positive messages.”