Story: Liz Ohanesian
Photos: Shannon Cottrell
Take a minute to think back to the late 1990s. SHAG’s paintings of mid-20th century scenes were all the rage and a new hit cartoon called The Powerpuff Girls brought an unusual retro-modern style to the small screen. Sanrio was now popular with more than just little girls and Paul Frank’s character, Julius the Monkey, was popping up on wallets across the country. Clean designs and cute characters were everywhere from CD covers to make-up packaging.
It was Paul Frank, in particular, whose work influenced a teenager in the Southern California city of Temecula. Michelle Romo wanted to do what he did, create adorable characters that could mark all sorts of products. “But,” she points out in the living room of her Eagle Rock home, “I didn’t know anything about anything because I was 18.”
Romo had an advantage in that her mom, a graphic designer, was making the transition from working by hand to working with a computer. As her mom learned programs like Illustrator, so did teenage Romo.
These day, Romo is the woman behind the popular brand Crowded Teeth. Her designs cover handbags, notebooks, even the t-shirts for Flaming Lips’ recent 24-hour tour. She shows in an average of 12 art shows a year. Back at the turn of the new century, though, she was just trying to figure out what she was doing, while she was doing it. Romo decided to make t-shirts. “Even though they sucked, I still put them out into the universe,” she says with a laugh.
She learned HTML, built a website, hopped on Live Journal and started a brand called Yellow Toothpick, which eventually evolved into Crowded Teeth.
Romo has created a slew of characters. There are the rosy-cheeked animals with little bows and fuzzy scarves. There are also the monsters who are too adorable to be scary, houses that make music and a donut too sweet to eat. Her unusual style falls somewhere between Japanese stationary mascots and mid-20th century American advertising art.
Much of Romo’s influences come from her grandparents. When she was a child, one set of grandparents would travel from Japan every other summer to visit her and the would always bring cute Japanese goods with them. Her other grandparents had a house full of ’50s-style items. “It’s like I melded my family together,” she says.
There’s an intriguing sense of nostalgia in Romo’s Crowded Teeth projects. “It’s all about recapturing my youth in a way,” she explains. However, this isn’t the sort of nostalgia you would expect from someone who was a child in the 1980s. There are no Jem and the Holograms hairstyles, Masters of the Universe muscles or Voltron robotics. Instead, she’s influenced by the amount of reruns that played on television during the decade, particularly shows like I Love Lucy and The Flintstones.
Crowded Teeth has grown a lot since Romo started it in 2004, so much so that she actually had to scale down her workload. Thanks to a job she had as a designer for Loungefly, she learned about trade shows and manufacturing. She began making all of her own goods and taking them to craft shows, trade shows and conventions.
“My studio apartment was filled to the ceiling with t-shirts,” says Romo. “I was doing all the shipping and the production and going insane.”
Now, she licenses her art to companies who make Crowded Teeth items. There’s a trade-off here though. “Do you want to make 10% as a licensee or make all the money by producing it yourself?” Romo asks.
“I’m still in that stage where I’m catching up on the money from when I was doing it myself,” says Romo. But there are benefits. Now, she has time to work on her art pieces, using wood and paper cutting to help transform her digital art into one-of-a-kind pieces. She shows her art a lot. In fact, throughout the month of September, she will be the Artist in Residence at Downtown Disney’ WonderGround Gallery, appearing on weekend evenings.
She also has some large-scale projects in the works. Back in January, Romo embarked on six months of drawing a single piece. She did a small amount of work on it daily and, after six months, she ended up with Super Mini Universe, a “giant drawing” filled with tons of Crowded Teeth characters traveling through different environments. She wants to create a traveling art show based on the drawing, complete with large plush figures based on the characters inside Super Mini Universe.
Where Romo used to bring Crowded Teeth goods to tons of events, she’s scaled back on that too. She’s down to two conventions a year. She’ll be at Stan Lee’s Comikaze– her art is actually featured on some of their billboards– next weekend. Further on into the fall, she’ll make an appearance at DesignerCon.
For Romo, learning her craft and building it into a business was a long process of trial and error that began when she was a teenager. More than 10 years later, though, she has found the balance that works best for her.