Phone emoji will now have a home in the main collection of the Museum of Modern Art—next to Monet and Picasso.
MoMA has acquired the original set of 176 emoji created in 1999 by Japanese phone company NTT DoCoMo as part of its revolutionary “i-mode” mobile Internet software.
These pictographs, developed in Japan under the supervision of Shigetaka Kurita, marked the beginning of a new visual language that a decade later exploded into a quirky form of global communication.
And now the emoji are also officially a work of digital art. The museum also acquired the “@” symbol, which evolved from Latin ancient scriptures, in 2010.
As mobile phones became standard and text messaging took off, emoji added a human dimension to these text snippets, injecting both emotion and tone. They filled in for body language, and in some cases even became a language in their own right.
The first set of emoji developed by Kurita drew on sources of manga, Japanese graphic comics, and on commonly used emoticons. The 176 original emoji were only 12 pixels wide and 12 pixels long and were rendered in rudimentary line drawing that included illustrations of facial expressions, weather, hearts and zodiac signs.
Emoji remained a popular Japanese phenomenon until 2006 when they were incorporated into Unicode, a computer industry standard, which then allowed people to send and receive these pictographs across countries. Google also included emoji in its Gmail in 2006. But it wasn’t until Apple added emoji functionality to its 2011 iPhones that the web symbols that the pictographs became a whole new form of interaction.
Now there are nearly 1,800 standardized emoji.