Coolman’s latest character antics captured by CASETiFY

Photo: Ada Chan for CASETiFY © 2024

Viral animator sensation collaborates with the designer phone accessories brand and unleashes more of his surreal cartoon illustrations.

Hong Kong has been a centre of trade for centuries. The city’s very foundations are built on commerce, and they surround a rich environment of globalism writ large. It is also a metropolis of extremes, with some of the world’s smallest and unquestionably tallest living conditions. More than 9,000 towers scrape the sky across the wider territory.

The global art world, never shy of significant financial markets (of which Hong Kong is the world’s fourth largest) and ultra-high-net-worth individuals, has become truly embedded in the region over the last decade or so. The art fair Art Basel launched its Hong Kong edition in 2013, and a swathe of blue chip galleries, undeterred by shrinking democratic rights – largely avoidable for the internationally wealthy, have opened outposts in the years since.

It was last year at Art Basel Hong Kong that Danny Casale, a West Coast residing Long Islander better known as Coolman Coffeedan became a sensation. “It was life-changing. It felt like a dream.” Through a hallucinatory bout of jetlag following a twenty-hour flight, the artist hit the city gorilla style and was firmly embraced by Asia’s World City. Catching the attention of local property tycoon, philanthropist and art collector Adrien Cheng at an artists’ dinner, Coolman’s status rapidly escalated. He is 28 years old and has ten million followers on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

Photo: Ada Chan for CASETiFY © 2024

Last week, he returned to the city to launch his collaboration with high-end phone accessory brand CASETiFY almost a year to the day since discussions first began. CASETiFY has cornered the market by creating a brand with international youth appeal – they sell over $100 million of products annually in 80+ countries. The company has achieved a rare coup in making something relatively cheap and universal, a covetable or even collectable essential.

Market saturation means that smartphone uptake is in decline – almost everyone likely to get one has one – making phone accessories more popular. In a nod to sustainability and the inherent capabilities of contemporary phone models (cameras, storage, size), people keep the same handset longer. CASETiFY sells products to customers wanting to refresh their phones without committing to buying a new one. They are choosing this brand because of its association with high-end retail. Physical stores, not a common entity for something as ubiquitous as a phone case, are all unique and more like colourful Apple Stores, sandwiched between international designer labels.

What makes the brand stand out is the near-endless collaborations with other worlds and labels like Marvel, Hello Kitty, K-Pop, the Museum of Modern Art, and The Met in New York, which already benefit from a huge fan base or footfall. Coupled with endless customisation and massive influencer exposure, the brand’s text camera lens frame is immediately recognisable. Like a t-shirt, like a designer t-shirt, the product is a blank canvas that anybody can adopt for anything.

While the big-name partnerships are set to continue, CASETiFY’s Artist Programme is the reason Coolman’s back in Hong Kong. Danny’s art is purposefully simple, universally appealing and overwhelmingly positive. Repeated characters and phrases are focused on promoting self-love and self-worth. Spesh, a character sometimes simplified to a continuous line of a cat-like pair of ears, is short for (you are, shortened further to ‘ur’) special. The Spesh montages are an endlessly repeatable and expansive field: Forever Coolmans are all individually different, like Antony Gormley’s Field For The British Isles reduced to its simplest elements and made feline.

‘Forever Coolman’, Central, Hong Kong © 2024 Creative Boom

The image’s prevalence is still found in Hong Kong on murals and digital screens around the Lan Kwai Fong area in Central, and it is presented as both a mirror and a coloured mirrored phone case in the new collection. Some of his other characters offer wry observations brought to life in ProCreate, Adobe After Effects and Final Cut Pro. Asked about his practice varying from laptop animations to murals, Danny’s keen to express the benefit of straddling different methods and how each can inform the other. What’s important to him across all mediums is his level of complete control – from image to audience.

He never went to art school. His key inspiration was not, as you might imagine, Keith Haring, so much as watching The Three Stooges’ slapstick when he was five or six years old with his grandfather. This and the Cartoon Network informed his school desk doodles and school book sketches kept him awake during an uninspiring education. “No matter how old I get, I like to keep that goofball energy.” Despite working digitally with increasing regularity, feeding the demands of social content, he always returns to pen and paper. The tactile nature of drawing or binning something grounds him. “If you hate an idea, you scrunch up that paper and throw it into the trash can. Timeless”.

Photo: Ada Chan for CASETiFY © 2024

Photo: Ada Chan for CASETiFY © 2024

It’s not merely the immediacy of Danny’s art that appeals to people. The cute characters experience real emotions – depression, anxiety, ennui, sadness – as well as upbeat positivity and sunglasses-wearing bright happiness. It’s been suggested Coolman’s popularity in Hong Kong coincided with the city’s strict Covid-19 response. He talks of validating emotions. “If you don’t cry, the laugh on the other end doesn’t feel so sweet.”

2022 was the worst year of Danny’s life. “I’ve been very blessed most of my life, but I think that was the first time I saw the true ugly sides of reality.” He continues, “My own beliefs were challenged in their truest form.” What did he do? He doubled down on his own philosophy. “I started looking at my own art, my own animations, as a guide.”

Collaboration helps him work with a different perspective, “I collaborated with more creatives during that dark period of my life than ever before because I had such a hunger for how other people see the world – the same world that I was looking at, but maybe see how it would change and influence, add a new dimension to my work.” Exploring new depths and angles when working with others is a lesson for us all.

Photo: Ada Chan for CASETiFY © 2024

Another of CASETiFY’s Artist Programme alumni, Messy Desk, a mural artist and illustrator, spoke about what an incredible platform it is for upcoming artists. It’s not just getting your work out there; it’s making personal connections with thousands of people choosing your art to adorn their ever-present phones.

Before signing off this time around, Danny’s been able to drink in some of his work. M+ only opened in 2021, and last year, it saw 2.8 million visitors, making it the most popular museum in Asia. At a pop-up at its Curator Creative Cafe, his characters, following the latest craze from Korea, have been printed on the milk foam of coffees.

Coolman Coffeedan at Curator Creative Café at M+

A final thought, looking over the stunning tower views of Victoria Harbour, thinking about his beloved characters: “I want to do a giant inflatable on the water.” Maybe next year, he muses. With this much energy and enthusiasm, it’s a good probability.

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