Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Brief History of Decoden

Oh yes, there are phones under there.
As I was sitting on my floor attaching cute three-dimensional Japanese cabochons shaped like stars and bears and handmade Fimo clay frosting to a small container with epoxy, I started to wonder how decoden came about, and when. Decoden stands for "deco denwa", or "decorated phone".

The Japanese are pretty obsessed with crafting hobbies, but I haven't been able to find any solid facts about this particular one; maybe I'll be able to find a book about it when I finally make it over there.

At any rate, small cellular phones first came into widespread use in the late 1990's and early 2000's, so if I had to guess, I'd say that girls started decorating their phones around 2000, or almost immediately.

Nearly every young girl in America has Bedazzled something, painted a cassette player with nail polish, stuck stickers to CD players and binders. It's the same concept. Leave it to the Japanese to ratchet the cuteness level up to over 9,000 and make it and every other little thing so competitive among fast-moving high fashion cliques that you can't even tell the spectacular glowing Hello Kitty disco ball candy sundae you're holding is a phone anymore.

A close-up of the maki-e part of the process
of making Nakaya urushi pens.
Everyone's seen mobile phone charms, too. You know, the ones that are like keychains? That's where it all began, It didn't take long after the advent of cell phones for the Japanese to start marketing maki-e style stickers to young girls who wanted to further customise their new gadgets.

Maki-e or "sprinkle pictures" (sometimes hints of 'cult of cute' culture seem to show up even in medieval times) are a time of lacquerware art that was first developed during the Heian period (94 - 1185) and consists of sprinkling gold or silver powders made of various metals onto lacquer to create traditional designs. Some of them are extremely elaborate; all are delicate and beautiful. Artists would often recreate entire scenes from classic tales, tiny intricate patterns, flowers and landscapes.Objects decorated using these techniques became highly desirable status symbols collected by nobles and lords as a more modern mercantile society was emerging during the Edo period (1638 - 1868) and have remained popular to this day. In the West inexpensive replicas of these lacquerware trays, tea sets, bento and trinket boxes are pretty common, too.

Made at Pika Pika
Purikura - or Japanese photo booth pictures - are another popular deco item, as they're small, colourful, super cute and can be printed out and stuck anywhere. Who wouldn't love some of those? Unlike your standard boring photo booths, Japanese ones have all kinds of bright happy rainbow options: you can give yourself doll eyes, write on the screen with your finger, add clip art images, sparkles, et cetera, ad nauseum. It's great. The first of these booths were sold in the mid-1990's.

Some dated floral nail art.
You may have noticed that some of the first nail art stickers and designs that were marketed resemble maki-e designs. Of course, it's kind of hard to get battle scenes from epic poems or an image of the Buddha riding a space tiger onto your nails, but the point is that the floral mobile phone and nail decorations of the late 90's are similar.

You may also have noticed that Japanese girls started getting pretty crazy with their nails around the time in question, too. After cell phones, I think decoden spread to the fingernails. Because, you know, deco'ing your phone didn't already make it hard enough to text without losing several tiny rhinestones in the process.

A couple of decora nail sets I made a few years ago.

A deco'd DS Lite.
Over the last decade, deco has spread to digital cameras, handheld video game systems, flash drives and other small electronics. I even have a tiny clip-on black light for hunting scorpions that I deco'd with black and purple rhinestones and gothic lolita Hello Kitty tape. Seriously! When I call this a crafting "hobby" in and of itself I mean it; it's very time consuming and tedious, addictive and therapeutic all at the same time. It also takes skill to make these items look good. I found out the hard way, for example, that super glue turns most plastics a milky white when it dries, so deco'ing with it isn't always the best option.

My own Gameboy Advance SP
Part of the reason that deco'ing phones, cameras, MP3 players and Nintendo's is so popular is that you're constantly taking them out to use them and holding them in plain view, so everyone will see them; it's an easy thing to show off to your friends. 

The other key reason is that kits can be sold for decorating these things, because they can be made in standardised shapes and sizes. There are all kinds of adhesive rhinestone sheets that will cover whatever it is you want to be fabulous in one fell swoop. Of course, those don't beat the custom jobs, but gluing 4,387 individual rhinestones to something would be exhausting even for the most adorable gyaru caricature with too much free time on her hands, so they can also provide a base on top of which more can be added.

Deco'ing has become popular just about everywhere, and just about anything can be deco'ed. You don't necessarily need to go to the trouble of making clay or acrylic frosting or getting fancy Japanese cabochons, either; it's fun using all kinds of found objects and trinkets you don't know what else to do with, like cute buttons, beads and small toys. So, go forth and decorate!

(Originally published 3.8.12)

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