Meeting Cath Love, Jeliboo's mama

Illustrator, graffiti artist and graphic designer Cath Love didn’t set out to be a feminist, but the moniker is hard to stay away from with a calling card like Jeliboo. Her signature cartoon, a big boned, bouncy and charming woman with sweeping black hair, is a far cry from the toned bodies plastered across Hong Kong. Love handles spill over her waistlines and arms burst from sleeves, all combined with a unapologetic grin and an array of bold outfit choices. Sitting across from Love in a crowded coffee shop who adjusts her oversized vintage glasses, it’s not hard to see glimmers of Jeliboo in her slimmer Swiss-Thai creator.

Love, whose real name is Catherine Grossrieder, talks about Jeliboo as though she’s a real person who just happens to be running late for our interview. While Love has been a fixture on the Hong Kong art scene for some time now, it wasn’t until a gruelling yoga session and some therapeutic doodling that Jeliboo  —  a combination of jelly and booty  —  came to life in a series of comical yoga illustrations. She knew she’d hit dynamite when people began really responding to her full figured creation on social media, who coyly hides behind a sweeping ebony fringe and is rarely seen without a rabbit named Fluffy Bee. The message came later.

“You go into the [train station] and you see all these ads for beauty centres that promise slimming without exercise (which is ludicrous). Even my younger sister was really affected by that. She’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t like my baby fat.’ So I’m hoping that with Jeliboo, girls will be like ‘Hey, I've got even more baby fat! Deal with it!’,” she tells me.

She recounts how her manicurist hung a pack of Jeliboo stickers in her store and the backlash that followed. However, one day a client walked in and instantly recognised the body positive message behind the illustrations. Even if the woman may have been one in twenty, Love’s willing to take the little victory.

“I think it’s also a language thing — there’s no word for curvy in Asian culture. Like in Thai, it’s just uan. It’s just fat. But that can encompass many things like curvacious. It’s a more limited language.”
— she says.

As with many in Hong Kong, she identifies as a third culture child and owes a great deal of her culturally ambiguous art style to that. Up to the age of seven, Love lived in Bangkok before her Swiss father took on a job with Cathay Pacific and they relocated to Hong Kong. In a city that doubles as a melting pot of cultures, Love credits watching Saturday shows that were a mix of anime, American and European cartoons as integral to forming her artistic sensibilities as a child. However, it wasn’t until she started spending her teenage years in 90s Switzerland that her love for hip hop culture and graffiti was born and she began her foray into street art.

“I’m grateful when I get to paint because walls aren’t easy to come by. Even when I go and like try and convince someone to let me paint their wall, there’s always like ten people above them that they need to negotiate with. It’s like let me paint your damn wall! I’m not even asking for money,” she says, growing visibly frustrated.

It seems like there’s enough people out there who want to work with her. Her collaborations include projects with big name brands like Vans, Jimmy Choo and luxury department store Lane Crawford and she’s even competed in Secret Walls, a graffiti battle hosted by street art organisation HKwalls. More recently, she was a guest speaker at TEDxHongKong earlier this April and part of a larger conversation about creativity and artistic value.

While there’s been a lot of controversy about whether certain graffiti artists like Banksy have been selling out by working with corporates (“street art has a lot of salty people”), she admits that if she was in her twenties she’d probably be more indignant. Now that she’s older, she’s become indifferent to the criticism — everybody needs to make a living. Her approach to commercialisation isn’t the only thing that’s changed with age.

“The older you get, the faster you just wanna do stuff. And with Jeliboo, I don’t wanna spend like three weeks on it. I wanna spend three hours on it and make someone happy. That’s my philosophy right now, fast, little nuggets of happiness.”
— she says.

She flips open her sketchbook to show me a Halloween drawing of Jeliboo, dressed like a vampire and squeezed into a comically huge coffin as Fluffy Bee watches on in alarm. It’s impossible not to smile.