Pixel perfect: the story of eBoy

the 8-bit revolution started here

Amar Toor

Wedding, despite what its name may suggest, is not a very pretty part of Berlin. It’s drab, seedy, and has long been among the city’s poorest areas. Today, it’s home to a large immigrant population, mostly Turks, as evidenced by the kebab houses and hookah bars that line its gray streets.

But the twin forces of change and gentrification are slowly seeping into Wedding, as they have across much of post-Cold War Berlin. The squat houses and calling-card stores are still there, though they’re interspersed now with galleries, remodeled apartment buildings, and artist studios.

"That used to be a gang house," says Steffen Sauerteig, pointing across a sleepy street at what appears to be a renovated theater. "They had a big street fight with another gang a while ago. Now I think it’s an art space."

Sauerteig is no stranger to change. A tall, angular man with well-coiffed blonde hair, he grew up in East Berlin and entered adulthood just as the Wall began to crack. As a child, he dreamt about the culture and freedom that lay on the other side, and as a teenager, he was among the first to participate in demonstrations that would reunify Germany. As an adult, he helped create eBoy: the successful graphic design firm whose three co-founders and sole members — Sauerteig, Kai Vermehr, and Svend Smital — are widely regarded as the "godfathers" of pixel art.

The trio came together here in Berlin during the mid-’90s, and have spent the last two decades honing their craft in meticulous detail, building elaborate cityscapes, portraits, and designer toys, one pixel at a time. Everything they create is governed by the same 8-bit style — a seemingly limited medium whose aesthetic arose from early video game culture — but what happens within those parameters is a mix of exuberance, geekiness, and boyish imagination: robots battle monsters, topless women dangle from street poles, zombies storm an Arby’s.

"When you grow up in a divided city like Berlin was at that time, it’s always in front of you, the fact that you live a restricted life."

Svend Smital

As professionals, the "eBoys" seem to have found the holy grail of graphic design. Their work is instantly recognizable and consistently relevant. It’s paid off, too; the group’s client list reads like a primer in 21st-century consumerism: Coca-Cola, the New York Times, Paul Smith, MTV. When I met them for the first time in Berlin last fall, they were working on a campaign for Xbox.

In the world of digital design, their mark has been indelible. "eBoy are the originals," says Jürgen Siebert, CEO of FontShop, a Berlin-based typography company that the eBoy founders collaborated with in the early 1990s. "Of course there are some more pixel wizards, and there had been before eBoy. But eBoy developed that discipline to perfection."

Yet to most, the men behind the pixels remain anonymous. They’ve done only a few interviews over the years, preferring to focus attention on their work rather than their personal lives. Their paths have been circuitous and at times tumultuous, but they found a unique equilibrium as eBoy, creating an 8-bit universe where ordered linearity coexists with joy and imagination. Outside their studio, things are gray and uncertain. Inside their world, they’re pretty close to perfect.

One

It’s mid-October, and we’re strolling near the central borough of Mitte, along the yellow painted line that runs where the Berlin Wall once stood. There’s a distinct elegance to Sauerteig’s movements. He punctuates his sentences with slow twirls of the wrist, and has a tendency to push back his hair between thoughts. Smital, shorter and soft spoken with plaintive eyes, is walking alongside in a denim shirt and blue beanie, interjecting occasionally with anecdotes.

Both men grew up in the same area of East Berlin, just a few blocks from one another, and became friends after meeting at a party as teenagers. They remained close after the wall came down in 1989 and eventually enrolled in art school together on the west side of the city. Today, they spend most of their waking lives sitting across from one another at their studio in Wedding, interacting with a wordless familiarity.

Growing up, their primary exposure to Western culture came through John Peel’s radio shows, and as teenagers, they went to punk rock concerts held in darkened churches. They knew nothing of video games, and had never touched a computer. But they had hints of what was on the other side of the wall, and they knew it was always out of reach.

"When you grow up in a divided city like Berlin was at that time, it’s always in front of you, the fact that you live a restricted life," Smital said. "It was normal for me back then because it was never different. But when I think about it now it’s very scary."

The son of a general in the East German army, Sauerteig became politically active in his teenage years, protesting against fraudulent elections at the early Leipzig demonstrations that would put the first cracks in the wall. After high school he worked as an electrician for East German television, but quit after a year because he grew tired of producing state propaganda. For a while, he made ends meet by selling hand-knit backpacks at markets with his wife.

Smital wasn’t as politically active, though he shared Sauerteig’s desire to move west. He wanted to go to college, but didn’t want to serve the mandatory three years in the military beforehand. So he ended up working odd jobs, assisting photographers and taking tickets at horse races. When the wall came down in 1989, everything suddenly changed.

"The first time when I went to West Berlin, it was very colorful," Smital said. "It sounds sort of cliché but it was really like that. You didn’t have all this advertising in the East. That could be seen as annoying now, but back then it was something completely new and nice."

Sauerteig was 21 when Germany reunified, and his first child had just been born. His earliest recollections of West Berlin involve wandering up and down the aisles of a supermarket, mesmerized by the labeling and packaging of all the products.

"Everything was really black and white in the East," he said. "All the buildings were worn down. No billboards, not even that many trees. In the West it was shiny, everything was colorful."

Smital and Sauerteig eventually enrolled together at the Berlin Institute of Design; Sauerteig studied video arts, and Smital gravitated toward typography and magazine designs. Together, they devoured magazines like i-D, Ray Gun, and The Safe, lured by their abstract layouts and experimental typography, and developed an affinity for brand design. For them, the fall of the wall ushered in a new world with new aesthetics. It also introduced them to Vermehr.

Vermehr is technically German, but Germany isn’t really his home. He spent the first years of his life in Venezuela, where his father worked for a pharmaceutical company. His family eventually settled down in Guatemala, where he spent most of his adolescence, and today he lives with his wife and children in Vancouver, working with his colleagues through Google Hangouts.

Unlike his colleagues, Vermehr grew up in a house filled with technology and Western culture — Apple II computers, Frank Zappa — yet growing up in Guatemala left him with a confused sense of cultural identity. He went to a German school, but the kids in his neighborhood were Guatemalan, and he had trouble finding friends who shared his deepening interests in the arts. He wasn’t stuck behind a wall, but he had the same desire to break away.

"I felt alien to Guatemala," he explains. "For me, Guatemala was a bit too tight, too closed. There was not much art, and I was really longing to move away to Europe. I was thirsty for different stuff."

The country was also in the middle of decades-long political strife, with dictators, guerilla groups, and militias vying for power. The unrest never directly affected him or his family, though he has vivid memories of an abduction he witnessed as a teenager.

"There would be five guys with machine guns, always in a Toyota car with tinted windows," he remembered, before describing the scene he saw unfold in his neighborhood. "And this guy that was kidnapped was working for the unions, I guess. But he was kidnapped and he looked at us as they were taking him away and said, ‘Help me, help me.’ Things like that, you pick up as a teenager and it was not… I don’t know, it was really bad."

As an adult, both his life and work have been driven by a fierce sense of restlessness, sending him zig-zagging across the globe.

"I like to move forward," he said. "I’m not a guy who goes back too often. I have not gone back to Guatemala for 15 years or so."

Vermehr moved to Berlin after high school, where he took drawing classes and snuck into art-school lectures. He eventually enrolled at the Essen design school in Cologne, Germany, and, after a cross-country US trip in a Volkswagen van with his wife, returned to the capital to work at MetaDesign, a graphic design firm.

It was there, in 1994, that he met Sauerteig, a student intern at the time who was still learning his way around a desktop computer. The two first met when they were assigned to work on an exhibition in Berlin and immediately hit it off, bonding over their shared interests in music and science fiction. Sauerteig also showed a keen interest in Vermehr’s vision of screen-based design, and quickly caught on to the meticulous digital block-building that pixel art demanded. They began publishing pixel designs to their website after Sauerteig graduated from art school in 1996, and eventually brought Smital into the fold. Months later, eBoy was born.

Two

Sauerteig, 46, is sitting cross-legged in a lounge chair in the new eBoy office in Wedding, next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that span the length of the space. The ground-floor, single-room studio is largely sparse, save for a small sitting area, and a desk with two hulking iMac displays. It’s an appropriately clutter-free space for a company founded on the promise of non-physical media.

"I think we were maybe the first among the artists we related to to say, you don’t have to print it, you can have it on your computer."

Kai Vermehr

"Back then the conversation among designers always was, ‘How can you print it? How can you print it?’" Vermehr had told me in an earlier conversation. "I think we were maybe the first among the artists we related to to say, you don’t have to print it, you can have it on your computer."

It was Vermehr — the unofficial nucleus of eBoy — who began experimenting with pixel-based art in the mid 1990s. Lean and lanky with deep-set eyes, he speaks in jolts when discussing his passions — art, music, family — hopscotching from one sentence to the next with contagious excitement. What drew him to pixels, he said, was the promise of perfection.

"I was always very interested in reproduction, the concepts of reproduction," Vermehr explained. "When I first started working with digital, it fit just perfectly, because I was able to work with a medium which created things that could be reproduced at exactly the same quality I wanted… Before, you could maybe make reproductions of a painting, but they always looked terrible. And that was not the case with digital art. It was just another perfect copy of the original, and that was amazing. In a way it was a personal obsession of mine."

He wasn’t the only one drawn to the style. As more advanced technology rendered Atari and Nintendo consoles obsolete, artists began returning to pixels, creating illustrations, videos, and music from video game graphics and hardware.

"Pixel art signifies a return to a simple time, when all the elements of a picture and style were individually identifiable," Jesper Juul, a theorist in video game studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, said in an email.

It’s a visual form rooted in the same nostalgia that pervades so much of the internet’s aesthetic today — a fondness for the Reagan-era simplicity of Duck Hunt and Super Mario, an ongoing homage to the days of DIY computing and Apple IIs. Online, it’s become ubiquitous. Tumblr is full of artists, both amateur and professional, posting 8-bit GIFs and graphics, and a lot of it looks the same. But eBoy has somehow managed to set themselves apart, earning both commercial success and critical acclaim.

"Irony is the biggest factor," said Steven Heller, a design critic and journalist who co-chairs the design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. "They are to 8-bit what Roy Lichtenstein was to Ben-Day dots and comics. The variations of their limited medium are very impressive."

Heller came across eBoy’s work a few years ago at a studio, where he saw a blown-up version of one of their pixoramas — a series of comically dystopian, "Where’s Waldo"-like cityscapes that have become their trademark. Although their style is pixel-based and rife with videogame-like imagery, they say they never intended to make explicitly retro art.

"That’s a very common misconception about eBoy — that we are a retro-inspired company," Vermehr said. "Maybe we use some elements so the result looks like old games, but it’s not intentional. Our roots are really more in the technology we use nowadays and started to use back then. We didn’t pick out pixel art because it looked pretty but because it was technically logical to use for the work we wanted to do, and it’s actually very enjoyable."

Sauerteig is a little more blunt about it. When I ask how he feels about being labeled as one of the "godfathers of pixel," he smiles and sits up in his chair.

"I don’t really know where that came from, I think it was from an interview and it just stuck," he says. "I really think most pixel art is boring. I get tired when I hear that term."

Three

"Everything just seems bigger," Vermehr says, gazing out of his studio window. It’s late March, and the autumnal dour of Wedding’s side streets has given way to the first signs of spring. Vermehr is in Germany for the first time in nearly five years, and Berlin seems vastly different from the city he knew during eBoy’s early days.

"It was a huge playground for things that you wanted to do," he says of the old Berlin. "There was not so much control."

There are bohemian relics of that city, to be sure — a vibrant art scene, enormous open-air markets, never-ending basslines — but there are also more upscale apartment buildings, more corporate logos, and a little less dynamism. "That made Berlin very special," he says. "It felt almost unfinished." Their early work was similarly untamed.

"The stuff that we posted on our website back then was not about the jobs we had to do for a living but more about the things we really liked," Vermehr says. Their days were spent working at a warehouse space above a biergarten, and their nights playing shoot-em-up games at Vermehr’s apartment. Vermehr eventually left MetaDesign — "He was too crazy for them," Sauerteig laughs — and the three soon devoted all of their time to eBoy.

Their first big break came in 1998, when they were commissioned to do an online video game for MTV’s Spring Break website. The final result was a Pac-Man-like game starring a pixelated Carson Daly — a far cry from the work they do now, but enough to get their foot in the door.

Other jobs came pouring in — magazine layouts, ad campaigns, and t-shirts — and their portfolio soon expanded. They began constructing a series of "jerk portraits," pixelated faces of celebrities and public figures (including the 9/11 bombers), and ventured into 3D work to create a series of toys for Kidrobot. They cataloged everything along the way, amassing an enormous yet fluid database that has become the backbone of their company.

"Pixels are just a tool just like a camera. The technique doesn’t really matter."

Steffen Sauerteig

"So this is our library," Sauerteig tells me. We’re seated in front of his iMac in the studio, and he’s walking me through the eBoy workflow. Their 15 years of work — more than 5,000 cars, characters, faces, and logos, everything they’ve ever designed — is all here in this one folder.

"In a way it’s really like we have a big playing room with shelves of toys and we build our toys ourselves," Vermehr says of their library, which they constantly harvest and modulate with each new project. "We create the toys for ourselves and then we play and create things with them."

He drags a car into an empty Photoshop page, and zooms in to the pixel level. He pulls out a stylus, leans forward, and begins creating a person out of pixels. It gets very quiet.

Vermehr and Sauerteig moved with their families to Vancouver four years ago, but Sauerteig returned to Berlin one year later. ("It didn’t feel like home.") The move has put nine hours of distance between Vermehr and his friends, though it guarantees that at least one person is working at any hour of the day, picking up the pixels left behind overnight, as Sauerteig is now.

Watching him create a character on-screen is like an exercise in hypnosis therapy. Forms come to life with each click, each pixel adding a new wrinkle of personality. There’s clear intent behind it, but Sauerteig seems to be in a sort of fugue state throughout.

"You don’t really think about it, you just do it," Sauerteig says. "It’s more meditation than work."

It’s a painstaking, methodical process, and one that stands in stark contrast to the changes swirling outside their office right now, and the upheaval that swept across their lives decades ago. There’s a fine line between meditation and tedium, and they admit that it’s sometimes difficult to toe. But for eBoy, the ordered linearity of pixel art seems to have more of a palliative effect — a bedrock of stability that keeps them grounded, without tying them down.

"That’s always the first question people ask: ‘Don’t you get bored?’" Sauerteig says, his eyes widening. "I never really got that. You would never ask a photographer if he gets bored taking photos. Pixels are just a tool just like a camera. The technique doesn’t really matter."

At its most basic level, eBoy is about indulgence — indulgence in whims, curiosities, and an imagination that’s as insatiable as it is hyperactive. And although they’ve grown up and settled down over the past decade, their friends say their work remains as energetic as it ever was.

"Just look at the name," says Peter Stemmler, a German-born artist who goes by the name QuickHoney, and a longtime friend of the designers. "Boys will be boys."

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