With over 10 million followers across his social media, Danny Casale, the self-proclaimed "bad animator" better known as @coolmancoffeedan on Instagram, brings his adorably witty and iconic characters to life in his first-ever solo exhibition at K11 Shanghai, open now until October 7 2023.
Titled “Dumb Dreams and Messy Hands,” the exhibition looks back at Casale’s artistic journey — from his younger years doodling in sketchbooks, through the creation of his first viral video SNAKES HAVE LEGS in 2017, to the birth of his own cast of blobby figures that bring calm, uplifting messages to the masses.
Featuring Casale’s signature animations, life-sized figurines, mementoes (like the sketchbooks that, according to the artist, “never saw the light of day”), and more, the exhibition is an exuberant celebration of fun and all that is good in the world, in spite of all the bad.
Sitting down with Casale, we discuss his iconic characters, what it means to connect with fans, and the future of digital art and his role as a digital creator.
Can you briefly introduce us to your characters Spesh and Blue Dude, your first solo exhibition at K11 Shanghai, and what significance it has to you as an artist?
Spesh is a character I created back in 2017 just a few months after I started my animation journey. Spesh’s motto is “Ur special,” and his goal is to remind everybody how special they truly are, because I just don’t think people are reminded of that enough.
Blue Dude is this blobby blue character who is similar to Spesh but different in the sense that Blue Dude is more about the mantras in life, reminding you that everything will be ok, and acknowledging that there’s bad things that happen in the world, but ultimately the world is a good place, and you should feel okay about that.
People call these characters their therapists, and over the years I've learned why these characters mean so much. Many people just don’t have people in their lives that tell them it’s going to be ok, and remind them that they’re special and that they’re loved. Especially for a lot of young people, these characters are the only time they get to hear these things.
And so, Blue Dude, Spesh, a few other characters, these are all prominent figures at my show in K11 Shanghai. It’s the first time these characters are brought into the real world — there are these beautiful large-scale figurines, and it’s never been done before. While I was over there, it was so heartwarming that people got to meet their heroes and take photos with them.
What goes into making a timeless character that brings countless joy like Spesh? In your point of view, other than a core message like one Spesh has (“Ur Spesh”, “Ur Loved”), what other characteristics or components are necessary for art to resonate with the masses?
It all comes down to being real, authentic, and raw. It’s not supposed to be a Hallmark card or some cheesy thing that you read but can’t relate to. There’s a thing such as toxic positivity, and I think a lot of people have a hard time relating to that, especially Gen Z kids. The whole “Hey, it’ll be ok” doesn’t really resonate anymore like it once did.
Blue Dude was created after a mass shooting happened in Las Vegas, USA, in 2017. That was me just being so saddened by that event where I felt the need to have one of my characters say something about how the world is. The world can be a bad place with bad people, but you have to realize the good and all its day to day niceties that we just don’t pay attention to, and that really resonated with people. The more we talk about those things, the better.
With a following of over 10M+ across your socials, what is one thing you’ve learned from meeting your fans in person in Hong Kong and Shanghai?
It’s so easy to fall into the mindset that, sure, there’s millions of viewers commenting and liking these videos, but it’s very hard for my brain to actually recognise these are actual humans. When I actually get to meet someone from Hong Kong, for example, and it’s this 20-year-old girl who’s been watching my videos for a crucial half a decade in their life, to know that my art and my characters have been there for them, and to finally meet them... It's an indescribable feeling.
I guess I was just so surprised that in such a foreign land I never would have been in [if not for my art and my videos], I get to meet all these people that were just so touched by the stuff I made in my bedroom here in New York. That’s the power of art and social media.
You mentioned in an interview last year that “digital art is having its moment” — given the recent rise of A.I., what’s your stance on the future of digital art, or the art industry in general?
[Digital art] is just a new form of telling a story, it’s nothing to shy away from. There was even this moment where I was like, “Oh wow, this is freaky. This is really good and powerful… Should I be nervous?” And [it does] make people very nervous, and for the first time in a long time it’s making artists very nervous. I took a step back from my instinctual reaction and thought of all the ways I can use A.I. and benefit from it and make my work more powerful.
Of course, it’s always going to be compared to the last thing that’s been around longer but it does the same thing regardless. It tells a story, its goal is to inspire and create discussion. And hopefully get you feeling something so strong you want to have it hanging in your home or in your digital wallet or on your screen, it’s just a new way of having artists express themselves.
Lastly, as a globally recognised artist yourself knowing what you know now, what piece of advice would you give to the next generation of artists?
I would say figuring out exactly what makes you so unique is crucial. The ones that separate themselves from the rest are the ones that bring their special sauce to their work, have it shine through and inspire people and have people resonate with it. I know there’s a lot of people who may not know what your unique take is yet and that’s fine — it just takes experimenting. I had to do the same. The beautiful thing is, as you continue with this life you understand more of what makes you so unique, and to me, baking that into your work is absolutely everything.
“Dumb Dreams and Messy Hands” By Danny Casale
July 7 – October 7, 2023