Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview: Sculptural Objects to Color Everyday Life

There are many colorful narrative threads one could pull from the artistic practice of Los Angeles born-and-raised visual artist Bailey Hikawa. With a formal background in painting and a storied history with performance, Hikawa is deftly capable of interfacing with many disciplines. Her latest pursuits? Objects.
Hikawa is a self-described “maker” — a title which is perhaps best illustrated by her recent undertakings, which include a series of highly-customized origami facemasks and an ever-growing line of ergonomic, sculptural phone cases. The former began as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic; the latter is very much an happy accident that Hikawa stumbled upon while tinkering in her art studio years ago. Both are playful spins on the mundane, offering style and substance to goods that everyday consumers might take for granted.

Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview
Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview

Gradual Growth

I’ve known Hikawa since 2018 — around the time she first began experimenting with her custom phone cases. She had been hand-pouring plastic resin into molds, with very little idea what she was doing, and these early attempts resulted frequently in failure. Now, years later, Hikawa has unwittingly become accustomed to the world of materials science and polymers; she has finally reached a point where the production of the goods feels somewhat sustainable.

“It’s been very gradual,” Hikawa admits. “I think a lot of people think you start something, and it has to blow up immediately. That’s the myth of creative projects — [that] if it’s good, it’ll just be wildly successful, because everybody will just recognize it or something. And I just realized that’s not how it works.”

At least, not when you’re creating a a custom object that has never been created before. While it might be one thing to fabricate a new puzzle or new book — products that have relatively known supply chains — creating an unconventionally-shaped phone case simply breaks the mold of many commercial fabricators.

“The materials have been the biggest, craziest… real hard part about this process,” explains Hikawa. “I didn’t start a clothing company, where materials people have years and years of experience with making dresses and forming corduroy in a certain way, and making it work for a jacket. People have figured that out. This was different.”

For starters, the materials that she now uses for her products didn’t even exist back in 2019. They’re brand new developments from the polymer company technology she works with, who happen to be growing just as her own product line grows.

“I’m making covers for an object that is relatively new in the human condition,” Hikawa continues. “If we really think about it, we haven’t had cell phones for thousands of years or hundreds; we’ve had them for like, seven. So that in itself was another challenge… people are experiencing technology in such different ways, and it’s constantly changing, so finding something that’s compatible with people’s uses — whether it’s drop-resistant, UV-protectant, you can take your phone case off and put it back on — a million factors go into the material, which has been frustrating.”

Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview
Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview
Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview

Experimentation to Expansion

This frustration stems in part from the fact that, from the outset, Hikawa had no idea how difficult the fabrication process would eventually be. After all, the phone case grew out of humble roots. Very humble. Hikawa can pinpoint a number of pivotal moments in the object’s origin story.

“I had a point where I would just go to my studio, and I didn’t know what I was doing, so I would just do anything, you know?” she recalls. “One day, I just bought these pieces of wood that I got from a thrift store… I started gluing it to things with epoxy, and I glued it to this phone case… when I came back [to the studio], I realized that it was standing up. All of a sudden, I saw it differently because it was dry, and it was standing.”

“And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of fun!’ so I put it on my phone,” she continues. “I was walking around with this giant piece of wood that was epoxied to my phone, in a totally ridiculous way that wasn’t that ergonomic. But everywhere I went — people: their whole body had a reaction. They were just like, ‘What is that? Whaaat?'”

After the “phone case” elicited that type of visceral reaction from those who Hikawa describes as “very unsuspecting people… who weren’t artists,” she realized that she had an idea which needed to be more fully explored. At the time, she and her partner, Scotty Wagner, were doing a number of experimental performance art shows entitled 100 Year Plan, but Hikawa’s intuition gave her a conviction to more deeply pursue the phone cases.

“In the back of my mind, a very, very loud voice was saying to me, ‘If you don’t do this phone case thing, you will regret it. You can’t not,” Hikawa shares. “So it was clear to me that I just had to figure out how to stop doing the performance stuff. Because I knew. That was the only thing that was clear. The only thing that was clear was that I had to follow this idea.”

Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview
Bailey Hikawa and Scotty Wagner performing 100 Year Plan at Northwest Film Forum, 2019. Photo by Svetlana Aynurina.

Hikawa’s phone cases have since gotten notable visibility in select creative circles. For artistic, creative, and influencer types, it may seem that she has achieved great success with her homegrown operation — yet her practice up until recently has not been sustainable.

“The real truth is, I can’t make these by hand forever…” she says. “In order for the concept to live on, the only way is to manufacture overseas. And I can still make very special, high-end, small batch ones that I get to really have fun with and design and have them be really, really special…”

Initially, Hikawa attempted to mass produce her phone cases in the United States, because she liked the idea of keeping her craft local and visiting the factory in-person. Yet she describes it as a true “nightmare” to manufacture in Los Angeles. By contrast, working with factories in China has resulted in high-quality products that are delivered on-time. These learnings have given her complex views into the global texture of manufacturing, as well as consumption culture and capitalism.

“Having a small business is wild in a lot of ways, because most people don’t care where it’s made…” Hikawa reflects. “People want it to be a quality product that they can afford, and the truth is, China is amazing at making things.”

Hikawa began making the shift to overseas manufacturing in 2021, which is a move she believes will help grow her business. It has taken her an entire year to work out the kinks, but she has also been challenged to elevate her craft. Production required that she learn learn computer-aided design (CAD) software, so that she could redesign all her phone cases from the ground-up — rather than literally cutting up pieces of wood, as she once had been.

“I finally got into a design stage; now I just fully understand what this phone case needs to be. I know that the thickness is 3mm, because if it’s 2mm, it’s too thin…” Hikawa shares. “These details which have taken me years to comprehend, so now, finally, year three, or whatever it is, I’m in the design phase where I understand the materials; I understand how the design works, and something has clicked where I’ve been able to make a better product.”

“The technicalities of it have been all-consuming [for years]…” she admits. “I’m finally having a little more fun because I’ve figured it out to a certain point. When you have a formula, you can finally start branching out from it, and maybe that’s where new concepts come from, too.”

Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview

Comfortability Yields Custom-Ability

Recently, Hikawa has begun hand-crafting high-end, limited edition phone cases which cannot be mass-produced in China. The commercial injection molding process Hikawa uses for most of her phone cases does not allow for random objects to be inserted into them — but she gets enough requests for custom orders that she embraces the challenge. Some of her new phone cases are bold — embedded with Cheetos, flowers, fake eyelashes, and gummy worms — though it is to be noted that the citric acid in the gummy worms caused them to completely explode out of the cases. These experimental failures and victories allow Hikawa to embrace play once again.

“It’s allowing myself to break the rules now that I’ve established the rules,” she says. “That has taken me so long. I wouldn’t have cared about putting Cheetos in something two years ago; are you kidding me? I’m just trying to get this one thing to work.”

At this point in Hikawa’s career, where she’s finally able to sit back and hopefully let mass manufacturing free up some of her time and mental capacity, she hopes to explore other playful experiments as well. In the works are some larger custom-molded objects she is demoing in private and has yet to announce. Much of her time since 2020 has also been devoted to creating face masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and that project is finally coming to a close.

“[The masks] felt like survival mode. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I just jumped right in,” shares Hikawa, who was alerted to the mask shortages relatively early on because Wagner had been working on political videos and editing interviews with doctors who were stressed over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“There was a week in the pandemic when I thought, ‘I don’t have a business anymore. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself. Nobody cares about luxury goods!'” says Hikawa. “So I started volunteering in these underground mask uprisings, and you would collect masks and whatever masks you could find, and bring them to hospitals… From there, it made sense for me to just make masks, because I’m a maker.”

Hilariously, Hikawa admits she was not particularly adept at sewing when she first began the project — but the mask-making scene was still nascent, and the consumer capitalist world had yet to catch up. There was a clear need, so she donated masks, did giveaways to essential workers, and began focusing on what she’s good at: iterating upon a simple product to make it better. One of the main things that brought her joy was tailoring masks to every potential kind of face.

“I was like, ‘How do we get it to be comfortable? How do we get a new design? How is it ten different sizes?'” Hikawa inquires. “By the end, I had size XS through 2XL and head straps, ear straps. I just got into the design element of it, which felt really fun — like, ‘Okay, let’s solve design problems.’ That felt exciting to me.”

Considerations on Capitalism

Seeing and hearing Hikawa work over the years, I can’t help but be fascinated by how she navigates the intersecting world of products, creation, and capitalism. While she acknowledges that the way the capitalist system presently works can be flawed — creating systems of inequity where workers get paid little and have a low quality of life while those on top make an unfair share of money — she believes that there are positive ways in which a capital could be restructured to hypothetically lift people up instead.

“It’s funny because I had a realization the other day about capitalism…” Hikawa shares. “I find true joy in getting capital for a product and trading it and giving it back, and there’s an exchange… when I get paid, when I get money, I love buying from other people. I love giving back. I love being able to pay employees. To me, there’s real connection in ‘capital.'”

These perspectives may sound silly coming from some creators, but Hikawa’s innovation around facemasks shows that there’s more than meets the eye. Approached with intention, products can solve societal problems, manifest joy, or create community.

“I think there should be another term for someone who believes in capital — or an equal exchange of capital…” she says. “Because do I believe that everyone who works for me should be happy and relaxed and have mental health available to them? [Yes.] Would I rather that than make X amount more money just because I can? No, I definitely don’t want that.”

“But I do know that selling products feels good, because I can give something to someone, and they can give me something that I can then go use,” Hikawa continues. “It’s complicated, but it’s actually become more clear to me. The more I can make money, the more I can become like, ‘Now I want to give to this charity, and I have the power to give to a charity that means something to me.’ That’s pretty powerful.”


Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview
Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview
Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview
Bailey Hikawa Artist Interview

Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/she) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

In 2017, Vee released the narrative short film, Searching Skies — which touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States — and co-organized The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. 2022 sees the release of their next short film, Reckless Spirits, which is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature film.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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Written by Vee Hua 華婷婷
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