Mini pop culture

Craig Robinson underestimated the affectionate response people would have to his diminutive creations.

For those uninitiated into the world of Craig Robinson’s Minipops, here’s an explanation: they’re famous people drawn really small. There’s not much more to it than that. Even if you haven’t seen them, it’s not hard to imagine how these tiny, pixellated portraits might look. They’re rather like characters from a 1980s computer game.

But delve a little deeper into Robinson’s Minipop world, and you begin to see how there’s a bit more sophistication to his craft than you might at first think. Maybe not subtlety, but certainly humour, an eye for characterisation, and more than an eye for spotting how the commercial world might go mad for his quirky illustrations, which have garnered, to use the cliché, quite a cult following.

Not that Robinson himself would admit it. He is softly spoken, unassuming, and somewhat surprised, still, that anyone would be interested in his illustrations, least of all paying clients. Minipops started life about five years ago as a hobby. After studying jewellery design, then deciding it wasn’t for him, Robinson took an office job, taught himself HTML and set up a website – The first minipop – of the Beach Boys – was born.

The URL was published in NME in 2000, which started off a chain of Internet links – a sort of ‘home-grown publicity machine’, as Robinson describes it – and visitor numbers to the site started creeping up, with people suggesting famous names he could draw. A small mention in a creative magazine followed, which led indirectly to his first paid animation project, for Levi’s Europe. At this point, he decided to go freelance.

After moving to Berlin, where he still lives, that year he won some website design work with MTV Germany, and notched up clients such as the Colette store in Paris, Mercedes Benz, The Face, Sleazenation and Time Out, among others. In 2003, Robinson staged two solo exhibitions, in Sapporo, Japan and Amsterdam. He’s also created animated work for video. ‘I haven’t really had to seek out work,’ he says. ‘I think I have someone watching over me.’

In tandem with his other commercial work, Robinson’s Minipops have remained a constant, whether he’s paid for them or not. The list of those who he’s drawn has grown. His Minipops book, a collection of his illustrations just out, features hundreds of singers, a few historical figures, several footballers and an entire page dedicated to the original Star Wars films. With the latter in particular, he’s showing his age.

The appeal lies in recognising the figures without resorting to the highly personal, heavily annotated index. There’s real pleasure to be derived in this: from spotting the Sex and the City girls, in almost identical pixellated black dresses, to noticing Bagpuss, incongruously on the same page as Andy Warhol, Keith Harris and Orville, Pharrell Williams and a Space Invader. The more familiar the people are to you in real life, the more amusing their Minipop.

A Minipop of the film poster for The Graduate, complete with a stockinged, pixellated leg, and Starsky and Hutch sporting extra pixels at their feet to represent their flared trousers, are particularly fun. But there are many, many more. The Royals lend themselves to being pixellated very well, the Queen Mother with a stick, and Henry VIII’s complex Tudor robes, most notably. But small doses of the book are recommended – or overkill can quickly strike.

His largest, most high profile commercial Minipop project to date came from advertising agency Mother earlier this year, which commissioned him to draw Minipops of 26 singers and groups for an ad campaign for Observer Music Monthly. The A-Z featured artists many times larger than his usual Minipops (Maxipops?), which look a bit like Lego men, and led to further work for a promotional CD for the Libertines in September. Robinson’s currently designing a mobile phone game, Pax Athletica, and creating animations for MTV Europe for the European Music Awards. A ‘big high street’ project, to be unveiled soon, is still under wraps.

It’s safe to assume that Robinson will be busy for a while yet, despite his assertion that his recent Observer work ‘made people realise I do [Minipops] for a living’ for the first time. And I doubt he’ll be leaving his Lilliputian world behind for a while yet.

Minipops by Craig Robinson is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £7.99.

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