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Crowds, cuteness overwhelm first Hello Kitty Con

  • Hello Kitty fans posed for photos in a giant tea cup at the Hello Kitty Con, the first-ever Hello Kitty fan convention, held at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Thursday, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

LOS ANGELES » Hello Kitty cuteness is taking over Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles as the city hosts the first Hello Kitty fan convention.

Hello Kitty Con is expected to draw some 25,000 fans over four days.

Long lines snaked through the sold-out event Thursday at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where conventioneers could pose for photos with Hello Kitty, get permanently inked with her image, hear lectures about her popularity and shop for exclusive products created for the mouthless cat character’s 40th birthday, which falls on Nov. 1.

"I grew up collecting Hello Kitty and being in love with her," said 30-year-old Grisel Esquivel, who was having a Hello Kitty face etched onto her wrist.

Chicago tattoo artist Mario Desa created about 100 Hello Kitty-inspired designs for ink-friendly fans. Organizers expect that about 50 conventioneers a day will receive free tattoos from the five artists at "HK Ink."

Frank Clow, a 51-year-old collector, spent hours waiting in line to get a Hello Kitty mermaid tattoo while his wife shopped for limited-edition collectibles.

"I like tattoos in general," he said, adding that he took the day off from work to come to the convention.

Elena Ramirez and Janet Tongtip also took vacation days to come to Hello Kitty Con, where they were dazzled by the cuteness — and the crowds.

"Since we were little, we’ve been big fans," said Ramirez, 29. "We’re getting sentimental looking at all the old bags and things we used to have."

"The lines are pretty bad," Tongtip said, "but they’re moving quickly."

Though Hello Kitty is popular around the world, Sanrio spokesman Dave Marchi said the Los Angeles convention celebrating her 40th anniversary is "the only one happening anywhere in the world."

Scores of fans came in costume, wearing Hello Kitty dresses, cat ears and the character’s signature red bow. Among them was 23-year-old Ana Sanchez, who was decked out head-to-toe in Kitty attire, from the whiskers painted on her face down to her printed Hello Kitty sneakers.

"There’s just something about this cat that I just love," she said, adding that she is actually allergic to cats. Her dutiful boyfriend, who bought the couple’s tickets, stood by her side with a camera hanging from his neck.

Photo possibilities abound: There are couture fashion creations inspired by Hello Kitty, an entire home outfitted in licensed products, and many vintage items, including the Hello Kitty coin purse issued in Japan in 1975 that launched her popularity.

For its first U.S. appearance, the tiny, original vinyl purse is displayed with all the pomp of the Hope diamond. It sits atop a pile of blue velvet inside a glass case rimmed with red ropes, all alone in a room manned by security guards.

Lectures, panel discussions and hands-on craft workshops are offered throughout the convention, along with ample shopping opportunities. Companies such as Sephora and Spam created special products for Hello Kitty Con, including a $450 crystal-encrusted makeup-brush set and Spam shaped like a Kitty face.

Another pop-up shop carries convention souvenirs and 40th anniversary limited-edition items, while a "Vintage Shoppe" offers authentic antique pieces, including a Hello Kitty plush doll that cost $14.50 in 1976 and now sells for $150.

Hello Kitty helps generate $8 billion a year for Sanrio, Marchi said.

Conventioneers are invited to play Kitty-themed games in the free Target arcade, where they can collect points redeemable for keepsake merchandise. The neighboring Japanese American National Museum is showing an associated exhibit, "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty," through April that features a breadth of Hello Kitty products as well as creative interpretations of the character from 40 international artists.

Yuko Yamaguchi, Sanrio’s lead Hello Kitty designer since 1980, provided the most priceless souvenirs: personalized sketches for fans.

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