What started as a play on words has grown into a global art challenge loved by countless illustrators.
This is MerMay, the month-long art challenge where artists are invited to create a work each day that depicts a mermaid and then post it online with the hashtag #mermay.
In 2016, Tom Bancroft, a former Disney animator, drew two lounging mermaids looking at their “shell phones,” a scene inspired by his own daughters. When he posted the image to social media, it went viral, he told NPR.
“And I realized that ‘Oh, wow, people really like mermaids.’ And there’s no one using that field of fantasy,” he said.
The popularity of the statue inspired Bancroft. He came up with the idea of trying to post a mermaid drawing every day – with weekends optional – for the whole family month of May 2016. Bancroft invited fellow creators to join him. He already had a significant online following thanks to his work with Disney, so it caught on quickly.
Hundreds of thousands of people took part in MerMay’s first year, Bancroft said. To help inspire artists every year since then, he comes up with a list of daily cues to include in their works.
Bancroft said many people like this aspect of the challenge, especially since they can check out the hashtag of the day, where they can see how other artists have approached the prompt.
People can also now tag their work to enter the MerMay 2022 art competition, which offers prizes such as a Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet.
Part of MerMay’s success may be due to its subject matter. Disney’s The little Mermaid was a commercial hit when it was released in 1989. Some kids who saw it in theaters grew up to be performers who now participate in MerMay.
“I’ve been drawing mermaids since I was a very little girl, probably since I was four years old, because then Little Mermaid came out for me,” character designer and illustrator Liana Hee told NPR. “I just fell in love with their design.”
Hee, who is based in Los Angeles, has done MerMay every year since its inception. This year she was brought in to help judge the competition.
She doesn’t follow MerMay’s daily cues, but she finds other ways to challenge herself. Sometimes Hee draws mermaids based on real fish species or the pattern of her clothing. This year she makes all her works as mini gouache paintings; each piece is only 2 by 3 inches.
“It’s really nice to connect with strangers like that over the internet,” Hee said. “It’s really artists who support artists. And I think we have such a small community, that’s really special.”
For artists like Felix d’Eon, MerMay is an opportunity to show that mermaids don’t look a certain way. The Mexico City-based artist celebrates queer, trans and overweight bodies in his work.
“I think when people usually look at mermaids, there’s a lot of the same, which is sexy white ladies. And mine isn’t,” d’Eon told NPR.
It’s not uncommon to see partial nudity mermaid art during MerMay. Usually the mermaid is thin and based on western beauty standards.
D’Eon said he deactivated his Instagram account after he posted a painting of a fat mermaid. He said he still hasn’t recovered as his income has fallen by 60%. He sees this as censorship of institutions that are not accepted by society.
He considers it a double standard that his piece was reported when so many others are not. He said it’s great that others can post their mermaids, but “when I post strange mermaids, when I post mermaids kissing…when I post fat mermaids, trans mermaids – I get in trouble.”
Mythological creatures like mermaids are of interest to queer people who feel they don’t fit into the culture they live in, d’Eon said.
“You kind of see yourself reflected there, you know,” he said. “If these people who are, you know, both and neither at the same time… they encapsulate these really beautiful fantasies to be people who are in between.”
MerMay has had a mascot for two years now. Artist and toy designer Whitney Pollett, who is helping Bancroft meet the challenge this year, designed both.
Pollett incorporated elements of toy design into her mermaid mascot concept: fun, fashion, friendship. She drew the mermaid with starfish friends all over her body, each with different personalities.
“This one is like a tough guy. And this one is an explorer. And this one is really sweet and quiet,” Pollett said. “The more I started drawing new starfish, the more I giggled to myself, like I was having a lot of fun.”
This year the mermaid is called Harmony.
“Because we felt like the world needed a little more harmony now,” Bancroft said.