With a new worldwide study detailing which emojis are the most popular in every country, and a whole range of ethnically diverse emojis available to download now, you might think you’ve heard everything you could ever need to hear about the world’s universal pictorial tongue. But there’s one emoji that possesses a more mysterious air than even those blue and orange diamonds. The Pile of Poop emoji, as it’s affectionately known, has its own rendering in each smartphone operating system, but is most famously portrayed by Apple with wide eyes and a dazzling grin. When it comes to what the little guy could actually mean, interpretations vary – like most emoji usage, it’s more about implementing the vaguely ridiculous at just the right moment rather than knowing the right definition. A quick search on Instagram’s new emoji-enabled search brings up anything from humdrum selfies to fan art to homemade stinky emoji birthday cakes. And no interpretation is wrong – unless you’re one of those people who thinks it represents chocolate ice cream, that is (sorry Mum). To mark an eventful month in the world of emoji, we dissected the potential meaning hidden in everybody’s favourite stinky guy (we say everybody, but Canadians sure do love him the most).
It begins with a pun
Emoji began in Japan back in 1999, but to understand the inclusion of poop in its trailblazing series of graphics one has to go somewhat further back. In Japanese, the word for poop (unko) starts, coincidentally, with the same “oon” sound as the word for “luck.” Moreover, there has always existed a long tradition of poo-centric worship in the country. Before the digital age, it was still fairly common in Japan to look to deities known as banjo-gami, or privy gods, by keeping figures on top of or underneath the loo. Gold poop charms are popular good luck tokens in Japan, as are sweets that resemble that Smiling Pile of Poop emoji. Kawaii.
The practice of annotating your messages with cartoon images was around well before the rise of emoji. In medieval times, the margins of handmade devotional books are surrounded by all kinds of illustrated commentary ranging from the insightful to the downright strange. Known as marginalia, surviving examples run the whole gamut of emoji-dom: cats acting like humans, thoughtful monkeys and, most relevant here, a good dose of scatological humour all put in an appearance throughout illuminated manuscript collections. Just like emoji, scholars still scratch their heads as to the symbolism behind the absurd doodlings. Who knows – we might have bored monks to thank for inheriting a national addiction to emoji.
Move over smiley poop – this emoji’s a Google original
While the piles of poop of Apple and Twitter are known for their wide grins, that particular aesthetic was a later addition for the iPhone. It was originally Google who, deciding to adopt Japanese emoji for Gmail in 2007, brought the pile of poop to American soil. Gmail’s version was somewhat less appealing, with animated flies buzzing around a faceless design. But, as the Google Doodle team behind the design said of those tiny circling flies in an interview last year: “It brings it to life. It’s timeless. You could smell it. It’s in this moment.”
When the poop emoji is smiling back at you, however, it also claims a lineage in a certain manga series. Dr Slump was a Japanese manga series in the early 80s that was filled with puns and bathroom jokes. In it, living poops come in pastel colours and can walk, talk and of course grin.
In David Foster Wallace’s novella-length short story, The Suffering Channel, he tells the inexplicable story of an artist who has the ability to shit out intricate shit-sculptures. As absurd as Wallace’s premise is, whether piles of poop make good art has been a recurrent feature in contemporary art. In 1961, Italian artist Piero Manzoni filled 90 tin cans with his own excrement, labelling them “Artist’s Shit.” For Manzoni, it was a middle finger to the art world, imbued with so many levels of irony that it is surely a true precursor to our own usage of the smiley poop. Were they even his faeces? How did he get away with valuing them on a par with gold? As he wrote in 1961: “If collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit.”
Zuckerberg’s crappy emoji alternative
In a neat cross-over between the world of bodily fluid artwork and technology, New York street artist KATSU recently painted a portrait with what he termed an “overlooked resource.” The subject was Mark Zuckerberg, and the likeness is entirely rendered from the artist’s own poo. For anyone icked out by these examples, just think of the likeness between your favourite emoji’s friendly smile and the grinning mug of a Facebook billionaire.
Follow Claire Marie Healy on Twitter here @clairehly