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16 Artist Interpretations of Amabie, a Mythical Japanese Creature Said to Ward Off Disease

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May 21 2020

In the fight against COVID-19, a sea spirit monster called Amabie (Ah-mah-bee-yay) has emerged from 19th-century Japanese folklore as a symbol of hope, a public health mascot, and an internet meme. According to legend, Amabie appeared to a government official in 1846, predicting six years of good harvests followed by a wave of diseases. In order to stave off disease, Amabie left instructions that people should draw its image and share it far and wide. The creature's common features include a beak, long hair, and fin-like legs. The rest is up to the artist.

As COVID-19 spreads across the world, Amabie has gone viral, with interpretations shared by cartoonists, students, illustrators, craftsmen, even chefs.

Deeply inspired by this act of creative resilience, optimism, and solidarity, we asked IDEO designers across the globe to share their interpretations of the protective creature. If you feel the same, join us in creating your own interpretation of Amabie—and tag @IDEO on Instagram or Twitter.

Felicia Chiao is a San Francisco-based industrial designer by day and illustrator by night.

"My Amabie was drawn traditionally on brown toned paper and colored with Copic Sketch Markers. It was such a strange creature to draw, I just tried not to think too hard about it and have some fun."

Gemma Lord (London, UK) is a designer and occasional color-inner. She really wants a dog.

"I wanted to capture a darker side of Amabie—a Borgesian-like creature, who for centuries lurked in the lesser-known crevices of folklore, and who has suddenly been recast into the uncomfortably bright light of our imaginations in the hope of warding off COVID-19."

Lauren Ito (San Francisco, CA) is a design researcher and community organizer. She can almost always be found by the sea.

"I was inspired by Amabie creating ripples of growth and resilience. As a plant enthusiast and forager, I made an altar collage of natural materials—including many plants propagating in my home as I shelter in place. I hope my amabie interpretation prompts a pause of reflection to honor our collective strength in the face of adversity."

May Kodama (San Francisco, CA) is a graphic designer who likes to doodle a lot.

"This is the self-care Amabie! I wanted to depict an Amabie who was taking good care of herself while sheltering in place, and hopefully encourage others to do the same. Drawn on Procreate and animated in Photoshop."

Tracee Worley (Oakland, CA) is a systems designer at IDEO San Francisco. She finds much design inspiration in ritual, spirituality, and mysticism.

"My Amabie appeared to me in a meditation and told me to visualize her in psychedelic splendor, emerging from a vat of molten gold floating upon the sea. She also told me to set this collage on my bedside table for five days and five nights, so that’s what I’m going to do!"

Luca Ponticelli (London, UK) is a commucation designer and serial doodler. On an average day, you'll find him dissecting the latest political news while sipping on a dark espresso.

"Mythology says she’s the entity announcing epidemics, so I wanted to compare the intensity of the crisis to the power of a sea storm, which she impersonates. The toilet rolls and the face masks, hiding her beak, are pinning this image down to our present day, making it undeniably 2020."

Meagan Durlak (Brooklyn, NY) is a designer director who believes that making is not just about thinking, but about exploring.

"With a symmetrical body, a neutral yet whimsical expression, and textural strokes throughout her bulbous hair, I hoped to capture the essence of the Amabie as a welcoming and warm creature who symbolizes the hope we all need during these uncertain times. She is an imaginary being whose spirit allows us to pin our future dreams and desires onto her elusive existence."

Michelle Lee (San Francisco, CA) leads IDEO’s Design for Play team and is proud mom to 2 budding artists—Neve, who has a full-time gig as a 3rd grader/soccer star, and Ren, who makes his living as a 1st grader/skateboarder.

Michelle’s Amabie (left) embraces her superhero powers, screeching away the coronavirus through acrylic paint and ink atop a collage of today’s newspaper headlines. Neve’s (top right) is a cerebral Amabie, choosing love over sickness, and is conceived through colored pencil and black ink. Ren (bottom right) opts for Amabie’s hairier cousin, bringing him to life with markers on construction paper.

Koko Takatori (Tokyo, Japan) is a design researcher at IDEO Tokyo. She is also a certified scientific illustrator and a cat lover.

"The Amabie illustration from the Edo period depicts it having three fin-like legs. “Three-legged” seems to be a common motif for divine creatures in Japan (like Yatagarasu), so I wanted to emphasize the legs and express its divinity through pen and ink strokes. I also wondered and researched how Amabie could’ve walked with its fin-like legs, resulting in legs that resemble those of pinnipeds. The four Kanji characters mean “warding off disease” and the little red seal says Amabie."

Tiffany Chen and Allison Press (San Francisco, CA and Pittsboro, NC respectively)

Tiffany loves to draw. Allison loves to collage. They combined their favorite artistic flavors into a yummy swirl. Allison collaged a flowery nest, then Tiffany drew an Amabie newly hatched into the scene.

Allison Press (Pittsboro, NC) is a former theater kid pursuing design-powered public service.

"I was inspired by Kirie, the Japanese art of papercutting. I love paper cut art because of its mystery. It creates a scene using only light and shadow. A viewer’s imagination fills in the rest. It felt like a ripe medium to depict a mythical, centuries-old creature like Amabie."

AJ Mapes (Oakland, CA) is a designer in IDEO's learning studio.

"I'm interested in exploring contrasts, so for my interpretation I wanted to see what Amabie might look like if drawn with clean geometry and organic textures."

Mark Dingo Francisco (Tokyo, Japan) is a visual communication designer at IDEO Tokyo. With a background in illustration, graphic design, branding and identity, Dingo aims to provide clear, effective, and emotive storytelling.

"My interpretation of Amabie aims to convey the surrealness of the COVID-19 situation along with the phenomenon of drawing Amabie’s portrait as a ripple effect, while maintaining an aquatic vibe to harken back to its yokai roots."

  • Mark Dingo Francisco

    Communication Designer, IDEO Tokyo
    With a background in illustration, graphic design, and branding and identity, Dingo aims to provide clear, effective, and emotive storytelling with a focus on visual craft.
  • Lauren Ito

    Design Researcher, IDEO San Francisco
    Former digital nomad turned design researcher for IDEO's learning studio, Lauren believes in the power of design to advance equity across communities. She is fueled by explorations of identity, poetry, and creative agency. Lauren is currently designing an art exhibition exploring political participation through art.
  • Tracee Worley

    Senior Design Lead, IDEO San Francisco
    Tracee Worley is a systems designer in IDEO’s learning studio. She's been keeping a dream journal since the age of 13 and believes that dreams are a powerful method of personalized learning.
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