Right on the dot: pixel art in the 21st century

Pixel art has gained a cult following thanks to three German designers known as eBoy

Young Wang |

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Pixel art brought into the 21st century with an explosion of colour and iconic sights.

Once he had his first experience with personal computers back in the 1980s, Steffen Sauerteig knew that was "the way to go, the computer was the thing you had to explore", he says.

He founded eBoy in 1997, along with two other German designers, Kai Vermehr and Svend Smital. Together, they have come to be known as the Godfathers of pixel. They create what's known as pixel art - the style of art often seen in older video games.

Their pixel art consists of complex illustrations that have been made into posters, T-shirts and souvenirs, and they have gained a cult following for their use of pop culture and commercial icons in their work.

They are arguably most famous for their pixoramas: city and landscape scenes that highlight the iconic points of a city in pixel art form. They have created pixoramas for cities including Berlin, London, New York and Tokyo, and now, they have created one for Hong Kong. Currently on display at Fashion Walk, the pixorama of Causeway Bay is part of eBoy's first exhibition in Hong Kong - Pixelrific Year of the Monkey.

It contains everything from familiar shops and streets to Hong Kong's iconic red taxis. "It's very typical of Hong Kong; at least, what we thought Hong Kong would be like," Sauerteig said, referring to his first impression of Causeway Bay.

It took them almost four weeks to finish this piece, as well as a pixilated monkey, and Fuk, Luk, Sau - the Chinese gods who represent luck, wealth and longevity. Typically it can take them from one month to one year to finish a pixorama.

"We make no drafts in a traditional sense," said Vermehr. They just start a file in Photoshop, choose a size after some "nerdy calculations", and start by moving blocks around without organising the scene, just to see how the boxes of pixels work together. They need to have faith in the process, because it takes a while before it looks presentable. "At first it looks empty, with a lot of space to fill … it's not easy," said Sauerteig.

From left: Steffen Sauerteig, Svend Smital and Kai Vermerhr.
Photo: Edward Wong/SCMP

Vermehr added: "Sometimes it's scary, even when we know eventually we'll finish it. Looking at the empty picture you know there's so much ahead of you."

Before they became eBoy, Sauerteig and Smital grew up in East Berlin and Vermehr was raised in Venezuela. Personal computers were still very new in the 1980s and early 1990s as they grew up, but they stepped into the emerging digital world without hesitation. They wanted their work to been seen digitally because "you get the exactly same thing [as we created]; the data is identical to what we have. It's very exciting", said Vermehr.

The idea of creating art on the computer wasn't very popular back then, and pixel art even less so, but that didn't stop eBoy.

"We started because we wanted to work on the screen, for the screen," said Vermehr.

When eBoy started, people would ask them if pixel art was going to die out as screens got finer. They still get asked that today, even though the art form has become more popular. "Pixel art as a genre has changed. It's now detached from the technical specification. When we started, pixel art was tied to the actual needs of the screen; we did it because screen said we had to do it. But now it's not necessary, it's more of a style," said Vermehr.

"It's a very playful, modular way of working … you just enjoy pixeling, that's why we still stick to it," he added.

Twenty years into their craft, the boys are still fascinated. "[Pixel art makes use of] material that comes with a certain level of abstraction, which makes it very comfortable to work with," said Smital.

Vermehr notes how things have changed so dramatically over time. "Back then, when you made pictures with a digital camera, everyone was like: but can you print it? [Things on] the computer are not real. Suddenly, now it's, 'How do you Instagram it?' It's not real if it's not shared. The world has turned upside down," he said.

Pixelrific Year of the Monkey runs until February 21