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The term "emoji" was spawned from the social network Mojizu, a site Ali Sabet created. He mentions this to me in passing, as if it's not a big deal that he's the reason we have a word for those adorable icons that adorn our emails and text messages. But the 37-year-old pop artist is humble like that. Sitting by the window at Peet's Coffee, Sabet casually paints a picture of Stitch Bunny, a blue rabbit with giant stitched eyes.
"About a year and a half ago, I asked myself, 'What would happen if I focused on doing the stuff I love?'" he says.
What he loves is drawing a world of adorable characters—along with Stitch Bunny, there's Draco the Dragon, Pishi the Cat, Bearoo the Bear and others. He's the skilled hand behind Pixopop, an Irvine-based brand that has made its mark on T-shirts, iPhone cases, restaurant walls (check out Mokkoji Shabu in Irvine and the Iron Press in Costa Mesa!), plush dolls and coloring-book apps.
For Sabet, drawing has been an obsession since he was a kid. He had moved to the United States from Iran, and "it helped me cope through all the transitions in my life," he recalls. He studied communications at Cal State Fullerton, then worked at major ad agency FCB, designing for companies such as Taco Bell. As a creative release, he drew characters such as the Tanashoii Twins, a martial-arts duo. In 2005, Sabet started Mojizu, an online community in which more than 50,000 character designers around the world shared their characters, or "mojis."
While he enjoyed leading the forums, what Sabet really just wanted to do was create. He tried to get his work out there, he says, but went about it the wrong way. "I would go into a store with Pishi the Cat T-shirts, and people would say, 'I'd rather go with Paul Frank. I don't know who Pishi the Cat is.' In the art world, I wasn't taken seriously because I would come across as a pitchman, a salesman. You can't do that."
Instead, he began creating a following by drawing for himself and documenting his work on social media. He now has 33,000 followers on Instagram. Companies have been paying attention, too. Pixopop was recently signed by Uncommon, which creates and markets iPhone and iPad cases for pop brands Uglydolls, Paul Frank and the Public Zoo.
"I'd been so focused on the destination, but this past year, I've really experienced the journey," Sabet says. "The art itself is speaking for me now."