Hiki Plaguelabs Plaguemon

Interview with Michele ‘Hiki’ Falcone

20 February 2021 di ejan

This post is also available in: Italiano

Hi Hiki! Seriously, it’s an honor to be able to talk with the most mainstream Italian exponent nowadays (can we say it?) of the pixel art scene, and partly the creator of the hype that continues to attract thousands of new followers to arcade titles and “obsolete” platforms.

In the past you have passed through different platforms: we obviously remember the GameBoy (with Plaguemon), NES (the first game for NES based on Neon Genesis Evangelion) and even in super niche environments such as the Sony PocketStation, which you totally transformed with a work of re-skin that gave life to BREEDER, a counterfeit and ‘tormented’ version of the Tamagothci pet that claims food and attention.

(WIRED talks about it here → https://www.wired.it/gadget/videogiochi/2019/09/30/tamagotchi-maledetto-plaguemon-breeder/?refresh_ce=)

1_ Plaguemon Breeder: the latest updates about it date back to the end of 2019, seeing this single project made in 10 copies and stalled for future revisions. Did you then continue or did it run aground in order to leave time and space for the other (many) projects you carried out?

If I were Guzzanti with ‘Quelo’ in hand, I would answer “The second you said.” So let’s say yes, the ‘Breeder’ project has been stalled for about a year.
Artistically I have always been very ‘multi-polar’, I can’t hold back the most disparate enthusiasms and sometimes it seems that a single life is not enough to produce all the projects that come to mind in a suitable way. I am very fond of the Breeder, perhaps too much. I developed a form of hysterical perfectionism, and maybe it got stuck for that. Those famous ten copies have never been distributed, it is such a meticulous work that it deserves an artistic path in itself, and certainly a wider distribution. For the work behind it, and for the few copies expected, I realized that distributing it for “only 100 euros” would have been a theft, to myself. So at the moment he’s on hiatus, but stealing the line from a movie I’ve seen lately: “I think about it, but not every day.”
Also, it has some very interesting features that I would like to learn more about over time, so I’m not in a hurry, I just hope to be in the universe where this project, at some point, also exists outside my laboratory.

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Hiki, Plaguemon Breeder on SONY PocketStation

2_ Always in line with the retro videogame taste you’re developing, in recent months on your Instagram profile, you have published through links available on stories and posts some DanMakus, which means bullet barrier in japanese, that represents the main challenge of these “minigames” also known as bullet hells. We are now on the seventh.

Are there any particular titles of this scene that you are fond of that have encouraged you to carry out your own version? What fascinates you about them?

Artistically, I love the limits. If you look at all my production, it is always something that can fit into pre-established canons and goes from there.
If I love making games for Nes, for example, it is because the only limit is not the imagination (but an antiquated hardware that does not forgive the slightest mistake) that I often cannot keep in check and therefore I end up not getting anything done.
I love the limits of ‘shmup’, the genre is that: ship, boss, bullets.
So few elements, that the possibilities are truly endless, if we think of colors, with three shades and a little light, you make millions.
Then for my part there is a spasmodic search towards the ‘future of gaming’, how can there be an authorial videogames market that can have the same timing as the illustrators and tattoo artists on Instagram, or the producers on Soundcloud, who keep their audience always on the verge of satiety, when it takes years to make just one video game.
The first experiment on the search for this immediacy was the “Kusoge” series. The ‘Instant DanMaku’ are their direct progeny, as I preferred as I wrote above, to still hold an already very small container, and make them even more immediate. To access a DanMaku just a ‘swipe up’ and you are already playing, I’d wish for an Instagram where the post is directly a game, eliminating even that single click away, so that an artistic profile can turn into a virtual arcade. A version of Facebook’s ‘block gif at the right time’ style, but on steroids. If we talk about titles that have fascinated me I really like the patterns of the ‘TouHou’ series but I’m not a great of that kind of Moe. Galshell certainly impressed me a lot, but in the ‘Instant DanMaku’ project in particular, where Instant emphasizes this post-modernist desire, I tend to be inspired by the ever-changing cauldron of sub-pop culture.

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Hiki, Danmaku no. 6

3_ If you had to ‘imagine it big’ how would you see the PlagueLabs project from now to the next future? The most intense imagery you want to give yourself.

The most extreme imagery of all is certainly the one that sees me as a sort of “Kaws of Pokemon”.
The path of this New Yorker artist, now of universal fame, has been, for the most part, rather linear. He started by bootleging the Simpsons (the Kimpsons), up to the official collab in large scale (among other things, a triple collab, Kaws x Simpson x Vans). Practically becoming, “the original fake”, the “official tarot” of the Simpsons themselves.

Surely in my most perverse dreams, there is that of being able to be recognized as the official “scar-pokemon”. At the moment I don’t think there is one, I don’t even take Arsham‘s work into consideration.
Maybe still too much Gore for the global chara elite, but then I think of characters like Gloomy Bear and I think it’s still possible.
I will be dazzled by the love I have for my characters, but some designs like “Treror”, “Twomew” or “Eyebally”, in my opinion, have all the potential you need.

I believe that your approach to submerged strands often only in specific corners of the internet or known by a few aficionados does more towards the latter than can do conferences, discussions and debates on ad hoc channels and even physical venues.

The power of your work lies precisely in the sincere admiration and self-denial that you place in taking care of every single detail of the poetics that you carry forward, at the same time extremely personal but shared by many, especially in an environment so strongly influenced by gore and metal visions that are going in recent times.

Do you find yourself in this interpretation? There seems to be no subtle marketing or communication strategy behind your works, little interested in popular reaction and more true, “alive”.

If we talk about the internet, I think I have three parents, Mom Dad and a yellowed 56k.
I had the opportunity to get lost in the cyber currents very early, and in that already very dilapidated world of blogs on geocities and illegal Chinese Roma exchange boards, I immediately felt at home. Everything mixed with my changing child conscience, the surrounding world became more and more present, intrusive, and when I sometimes ran away from the fears of everyday life, I took refuge on the internet, which like a Neutral God, clearly answered every question , if I knew what to ask.
The environment to which I bonded the most was that of retrogaming, which at the time was retro only partially, but paradoxically, that exact portion of the web has remained almost identical, but now I am 30 years old and I have arrogance to feel a bit like a keeper of that world there. It’s definitely not a marketing move, it’s just that that’s all I have. That it manages to be personal but shareable, is because this is partly the concept of my work.
Synthesizing nostalgic synaesthesia.
The memories, more and more dulled by the passage of time, and times when the boundaries were quite clear, ended up merging inside me, in a portal of pirated vintage games, hosted by Rotten.com.
Like a child who discovers death every day, I kill my imaginary friends in virtual worlds. As if you decide that death is a game, and games cannot be scary.


4_ Can you reveal us some secrets? Something that people don’t know or might not expect, personal or professional, free to decide.

I’ve had a turbulent psychological past during my existence, which sometimes, I assume, is observable in my works, in a more or less veiled way.
The slogan that describes the captions of my profiles is not a simple marketing construct (referring to the previous question) but a description, almost a warning, aimed at hastily describing my path, in part to playfully justify the impossibility of giving an imprint clear to my experiments.
Stigma is often still so strong, in this apparently inclusive future, that it almost never speaks openly. The risk of being misunderstood, or in art, connecting any inspiration to this so intimate and personal discomfort, which I like to affectionately call, a simple “thought disorder”, is a risk that I definitely cannot run.
Precisely because, like drugs, rather than being erroneously elevated to elixirs of infinite creativity and inspiration, they are a further difficulty in managing a career as a designer, otherwise perhaps less visceral, but probably more linear, serene and objectively productive.
The product of my concepts, often confused as apologies for madness, are more often medals for military valor, trophies of battles with mythological dragons that never existed.

5_ Talking instead of pixel art, which distinguishes your style along with other fundamentals such as splatter aesthetics and references to the East and a certain type of feminine / erotic.

Lately a lot of your pixel art has focused on making another step in the Pokémon world. This time it is Pokémon TCG. Can you tell us a little about it? How do the various hacks proceed (graphics, music, gameplay etc)?

Well, the TCG was, perhaps even more than Pokémon Red, the Game Boy game that most stimulated my visual curiosity, even more related to the pixels and limits I was talking about.
I loved seeing the digital transpositions of the cards that I could buy in the playroom, at the time I got supplies from a shop called ‘Grendel’. His disappearance has a bit of that flavor that I connect to the end of childhood and the beginning of very young adulthood, hence puberty.
Having first of all downloaded it in its original language, in japanese, years before its release on italian shelves and having immediately reconnected that the illustrations were the binary transliteration of the printer cards, every time I saw a new graphic, perhaps not yet printed on paper in Italy, I felt the standard bearer of this new discovery, almost like a very personal bestiary-almanac of back to the future. Then I discovered the world of scans, of Gyarados with a triple star of rarity, for a long period of time in the afternoons at my grandmother’s house (for younger readers: I already had internet at home, but I could use my grandparents for the first time of a flat contract, I downloaded EVERYTHING, before the internet was paid by the minute!) had become a place of worship for the discovery of these designs so mysterious and far from the more mainstream skimming proposed by Italia Uno.
So, Plaguemon Kado カ ー ド, my version of the TCG, I wish I could recreate in the players that feeling that gave me playing the Japanese version of one but above all of two (never released beyond the rising sun). Basically it proceeds, sometimes very slowly, but I think it needs further attention because it is much more of a niche than the main series, but even more full of that dreamlike mysticism that reunites simple kawaii with the abysses of the cosmos, both interior and exterior.

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Hiki, TCG Splash Screen

6_ Lately, however, both in your pixel art and in the “traditional” illustrative drawing a new trend has appeared, definable as a sort of “pink blood period”.

I try to be a complete designer, there is not a day when I don’t ask myself what I can do to improve myself on this path, I often create “packages”, in which I can move, creating at least a feeling of seriality, even if ranging in media. The ‘pink blood’ allows me to do this, to personalize what surrounds me with a pattern that is, at least in my opinion, good on everything.
Having also linked it to a basic concept, it takes on an even deeper and less purely visual meaning. I like to see this pink fluid oscillate between eros and thanatos, love and death, blood, a typical outline of tragic situations, in some cases it is the red carpet aimed at welcoming a new life, or even an amniotic violet in even more embryonic situations. The duality of this plot lies in the fact that it is not clear whether one observes a situation of birth or bequest, but they are there when one observes them, present in the present moment.

In clothing it can also reach a new existentialist note, since few things like the desire to wear personalized clothes, the liveliest vanity, can make us say that we are here and now.

Style that you have transposed, together with other iconic symbols of your production, also in the clothing sector, which you have never pumped like in the past year. A union of streetwear and love for your very personal brand, which sees practically every item sold-out in a very short time.

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7_ A characteristic that is often found in your mutated Pokémon is the malformation, the genetic intervention, on the DNA of non-human species but which are in some way humanized in a before and after your transformation, creating a sort of affective approach to these creatures, like what many scifi literature and films have tried to do with cyborgs and being Evangelion’s humanoid Hybrid machines.

This further leap is interesting because it projects feelings of affection towards totally imaginary characters, without particular technological or transhumanist implications. Wanted, spontaneous?

Information, data, are energies that we trivially differentiate with simplicity from when we are born, we know what is real and what is not because we have been taught, but it is possible to humanize everything. “palpable, it is because they actually live. If we go to dissect the archetypes of the unconscious, if we look for the boundary with quantum precision of what is alive and what is not, we probably won’t be able to say exactly what vitality consists of. Yet we are mere clusters of consciousness controlling a complex organic technological structure. Perhaps defining life as consciousness only when enveloped in substance could be reductive. On the other hand, the characters, the ideas, continue to live even after the death of the physical body.
Something is alive when our relating to it somehow changes us and accompanies us in our existence, and if my characters can do it with me, I trust that they can do it with others.

8_ How influential do you think Pokémon has been as well as your life, in pop culture? It is recent news, of this never empty of surprises 2020, that the magician Uri Geller, famous for the performances in which he bends spoons with the thought, has withdrawn his accusations of plagiarism against Kadabra, a Pokémon inspired by him. These are hallucinating news, to be told at dinners with friends to laugh over a beer, but at the same time impressive. Geller an exaggerated paranoid or the Pokémon universe much more influential than one might think?

Here I will not dwell much, I consider Pokémon the new mythology, I imagine an even more confused future in which it will be difficult to discern Charon from Dragonite. Basically we talk about symbolizations of contemporary historical periods, as were Godzilla, Batman and who for them. Whether we loved them or hated them, mine is the Pokémon generation, and this, from clothing to urban planning, is undeniably linked to our way of doing, to a legacy that is impossible to ignore.

9_ How would you describe the work you do? (subjects, style, techniques) and how would you relate it to the inspiration and imagination you had when you were younger?

Well, I think I’m a designer. And I believe I always have been.
I consider that of childhood almost as an unconscious period of research, which then resulted in the clearer awareness of wanting to do this, not only for work, but precisely to have it as a key to interpretation for my entire earthly experience. I just think I’m still the same person, but with much more experience, precision and awareness.

Probably my child would not only be entranced by the results achieved, but he just did not believe them possible.
I remain a provincial kid in southern Italy who dreams of Tokyo from a room in Cosenza, who with the power of his imagination has created such a large bridge, that then, in the sensory chaos of Akihabara’s trends, he really ended up, but always considering the sincere possibility that, at any moment, my mother will come to wake me up to hastily rearrange the notebooks with Pikachu drawn on them, put them in the backpack and go to school.

Thanks Hiki for this entertaining discussion!

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