You hardly even need a smartphone these days to know that the world has been overrun by emojis. The whimsical digital pictograms have certainly been all over the news lately, as academics and journalists alike continue advancing the perfectly plausible theory that emojis represent nothing short of the next step in written human communication.
Look no further than our own Houston Rockets, who fired their Director of Social Media last month after he tweeted a gun emoji next to a horse’s head to celebrate vanquishing the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. In the past week alone, emojis have been cited for helping abused children seek help, perform Shakespeare and express one’s love of bacon.
So it was just a matter of time until someone came up with the brilliant idea of collecting a bunch of instantly recognizable Lone Star images into one glorious Texas-specific set of emojis. And as it turns out, that someone is Rich O’Toole, 32-year-old Texas country singer and Stratford High School grad now living in L.A.
O’Toole, who talked to us last week from his tour bus while waiting to load into a gig in San Angelo, is currently on tour behind his latest single, “Talk About the Weather,” and shopping for a new record deal. Already a big social-media user to promote his gigs, he and a buddy would meet up for drinks and discuss T-shirt designs, when the idea of Texas emojis all but fell into their lap.
“I was like, 'We really need to make Texas's first emoticons,'" O'Toole says. "'That's what's hot right now. People would love that. Let's do it.'”
O’Toole and his friend Sean Compton, proprietor of the popular Twitter and Facebook accounts “Sorry I’m Texan,” brought in another friend of theirs, Houston artist Ted Burrell, and began brainstorming. Their app idea, which the trio dubbed “TexMojis,” is scheduled to launch next month with an original set O’Toole says is close to 100 different textable Texas symbols, all of which O’Toole, Compton and Burrell have drawn out by hand. Soon after will follow updates to the tune of about 20 emojis per set, O’Toole adds. So far the TexMoji Facebook page has almost 6,200 likes.
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The trio’s set of emojis so far includes icons for a taco, armadillo, speed limit sign (reading 85, of course), the state flag, cowboy hat and boots, jalapeño pepper, football helmet, a dancehall, the "Come and Take It" flag, a state historical marker and the symbol of O’Toole’s 17 Army clothing line, among others. However, representing other Texas institutions that are someone’s actual intellectual property is proving more challenging. O’Toole says he and his friends have been asked to removed their Alamo emoji by representatives of the state-owned Cradle of Texas Liberty, but found a way to represent Whataburger by including one of the numbered markers placed on customers’ trays until their food appears; another emoji is a yellow-and-brown longneck that suspiciously resembles a bottle of Shiner Bock beer. Still another features an instantly recognizable headband and pigtails.
“We haven't contacted Willie yet,” says O’Toole, whose fifth full-length LP, Jaded, came out last year. “I’m sure we'll get a phone call soon. But all it is is the headband and braids. But we're hoping they get on board too, and if they don't like it we can always take it down. He represents Texas so well."
A little surprisingly, O’Toole says the TexMoji entrepreneurs aren’t that interested in co-opting some of the most famous Texas images, like the logos of the University of Texas or Texas A&M.
“We don't want this to turn into a corporate thing,” he explains. “It’s one of those things that are cool with kids who use it because it's not companies' logos. I would hate to be asked to just turn it into everyone's logo to where it's just like advertising and it turns into this weird phone book. We don't that. We want something that's unique that kind of looks like things around Texas.”
However, O’Toole says he would like to invite some famous Houston rappers to design their own emojis, and in fact a cup of purple drank is already in the TexMoji collection. He’s already started drafting licensing agreements for some of his Texas country colleagues like Kyle Park, Aaron Watson, and Josh Abbott to feature their logos as well as some lyrical hallmarks like bluebonnets.
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Since news of the TexMojis has gotten out, O’Toole says he’s been congratulated by people from high school “who didn’t even like me.” He’s also had to add conversations with attorneys on top of everything else that goes into being a hard-touring independent musician — the tour he’s on now sees him playing 22 shows in 28 days. His life lately, O’Toole admits, is “a complete mush.” But he also figures all the publicity from the app is hopefully helping to win him some new fans, and says he’s definitely excited to find out what will happen once the TexMojis go on sale to the public.
“I mean, it could change my life; I don't know,” says O’Toole, who plays the Firehouse Saloon tonight with Dean Seltzer and Steven James and the Jaded. “You never want to count your chickens before they hatch. I just hope everyone in Texas jumps on board and they start using it to text their friends with icons of Texas. I never set out to be some powerful app guy. I write records and I write songs and I'm from Texas, so the idea made sense to me.”
Rich O'Toole, with special guests Dean Seltzer and Steven James and the Jaded, performs at 9 p.m. tonight at the Firehouse Saloon, 5930 Southwest Fwy.