A [Reality TV] Star is Born

Illustrator Sarah Hiraki, ’12, lands plum role at Seattle dot-com empire

Written by Caitlin King
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
May 7, 2013

It’s hard to imagine a camera crew filming your first “real world” job, post-graduation. Even harder yet is to find yourself as a main player in a reality TV show cast. But Sarah Hiraki, a 2012 graduate of Seattle University’s digital design program, can add both unique experiences to her growing resume.

Following graduation Hiraki was hired as an art director and Photoshop-“nerd”-in-residence for the wildly popular Seattle-based dot com, I Can Has Cheezburger, the humor-driven startup centered on the cultural phenomenon LOLcats. While at its core, Cheezburger caters to everyday cat comedy for pet lovers—a cat lying in a copying machine tray chronicled by the caption “copy cat” is just one of the site’s many gems—it also boasts a number of notable Internet sites including FAIL blog , a comedic recount of numerous mishaps made by mankind, And Know Your Meme, a website committed to identifying cultural memes, among others.

The company behind these touchstones of popular culture garnered enough attention to warrant a Bravo reality TV series, appropriately titled LOLwork, which gave Hiraki plenty of time on the small screen.

Likened to shows such as The Office or Workaholics, LOLwork—which ended its run late last year—offers a close-up look at the desk job drama at Cheezburger’s Queen Anne offices, where a film crew shadowed the Cheezburger staff as they took on day-to-day workplace tasks and encountered awkward office scenarios created by the cast’s distinctive personalities. Toss in team dynamics that can generate moments of high drama and you’ve got the formula for reality TV gold.

For Hiraki, the youngest member of the staff, a normal day at the office ranges from illustrating web pages to finding the funniest cat video to feature on the site’s homepage.

These days Cheezburger contracts her for the Know Your Meme site and she freelances full-time. When Hiraki’s developing a new design project, she’s likely listening to her favorite music. Her eclectic playlist—she’s into Chillwave, Toro y Moi and anything that Kanye West touches—plays in the background while she works. And since 90 percent of her time is spent designing and cartooning, she also spends a lot of time in front of a TV. More often than not, she’s watching another reality TV show—Lifetime’s Dance Moms.

Participating on LOLwork gave Hiraki the chance to marry her love of reality TV with her chosen career as an illustrator. When asked about appearing on a TV show for the first time, Hiraki says the experience was overall enjoyable. The filming took place over eight weeks and it was up to the “cast” to do their own hair and makeup to be camera ready.

While being a reality TV star was by accident, the 22-year-old Hiraki’s main focus is on her day job as an illustrator. 

As a teenager, Hiraki spent hundreds of hours illustrating online, but just as a hobby.

“I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I’d get on LiveJournal, a website for angst-y teenage girls and publish avatars,” says Hiraki, a West Seattle native.

Using screenshots from different TV shows and movies, she’d design 100x100 pixel LiveJournal icons. She began to compete in online contests with her designs, but just for fun.

She later enrolled at Seattle University—her older sister Emily, who also attended SU, inspired her to do so—as an English major. But her dislike for reading or writing anything longer than 140 characters led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Arts—specifically, digital design.

As soon as she got to SU, she landed a job designing for the student newspaper The Spectator and became a resident assistant in the arts community Campion 9, where she sprung onto the art scene at SU. She took on a graphic design internship at the Washington State History Museum and as a visual intern at retailer Anthropologie. She even wrote a book, My Mother was a Fox, 
My Father was a Rabbit about bi-racial families told through forest animals. Inspired by fan art, and the intersection of pop art and design, Hiraki looks up to artists including Oliver Voss, a German pop art cartoonist and sculptor, and likens her aesthetic to Eric Carle, a children's book author and illustrator.

If one thing’s clear, Hiraki’s time at SU was absolutely essential to her career development and in keeping her grounded. “I'm really glad I had to opportunity to study as much history and literature as I did [through the Core requirements],” says Hiraki. “I work almost completely digitally, but having perspective on my art roots is indispensable.”

The road from Seattle University to I Can Has a Cheezburger started simply enough: Hiraki, like most graduating seniors, began to scour the help wanted ads for a job. She discovered the opening at I Can Has a Cheezburger through Craigslist. After seeing that her cute-art aesthetic was a natural fit, she applied and scored a job interview with Cheezburger, where she was filled in on the plans for the TV show that was about to shoot there.

That was an added bonus for Hiraki, with her love of all things reality TV. Soon after interviewing with Cheezburger, she was hired on as the site’s art director, responsible for creating original content and helping to build the site’s visual experience.

“It was a bizarre process because as soon as I got there, they were like, ‘OK, we’re ready to film,’” she says. “They were asking me, how do you feel about [colleague] Tori? And I was saying, can you remind me who that is?”

To an outsider, Hiraki may appear relatively reserved and not an obvious candidate to share a portion of her life on a national television show.

“At the first sight, she seemed very quiet and proper in many ways; however, I discovered that she has such a character,” says Naomi Kasumi, associate professor in the department of Fine Arts, who taught Hiraki in the digital design program. “With Sarah, her sense of humor is brilliant and witty.”

Once the show wrapped, Hiraki had enough experience to build a successful freelance career, which she now pursues full time.

While having her work featured on a major cable network gave her some notoriety, it’s blogging tools like Tumblr that helped her art to go viral.

While some illustrators draw or sketch draft concepts, Hiraki’s process is 100 percent digital, working with a mathematical series of vectors and visualizing on the fly.

“While she was in my design sequence, she grew so fast as a very creative and talented designer,” says Kasumi. “Not only was she talented but also she worked hard to gain technical skills.”

Her technique allows her to work twice as fast, enabling her to keep a steady stream of side projects at all times. Take her role as the lab coat-donning co-host of Know Your Meme, a website dedicated to documenting Internet phenomena or the illustrations she generated for the viral video “Cool Things to Find,” a quirky music video parody on an Australian safety public service announcement that Hiraki and some friends, including former LOLwork castmate Forest Whitaker put together.

“That’s what I really love doing. You build it and you send it out to the world and then you have 2 million views,” Hiraki says of her work that has gone viral.

What lies ahead for the burgeoning online star? She’s currently scripting a new web series of humorous advice for girls. Hiraki hopes her natural sense of humor, which seeps into just about everything she illustrates, will help her as she works to break into comedy.

“I’m already a professional artist, I’ve already been on television,” she says. “At this point, I’ve got nothing to lose.”

And she hasn’t closed the door on a possible return to TV. She’s open to working on screen or behind the scenes.

“I'm ready to sign up for Celebrity Rehab or Rock of Love as soon as I can,” she says. “I only wish I was tall enough for [America’s Next] Top Model.”


Laugh Out Loud
Check out the LOL antics of cats, dogs, critters, humans and more here. Want to see some of Sarah’s designs? Visit her site.

Sarah Hiraki One of Sarah Hiraki's illustrations, featuring her colorful colleagues—in cat form, naturally—at Cheezburger.