It’s one of the simplest images in the world: two dots and a curved line in a circle, the easiest way to convey humanity and emotion. The smiley has been a pop cultural icon since the 1960’s, with roots in earlier artworks – the scrawl of Hogarth caricatures, the etched graffiti on Brassai’s Paris. The yellow face we know today first featured on American kids’ TV shows, yet in 1963 when Harvey Ball created a graphic version for the State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, a star was born.

This round blob of yellow perfection with it’s black oval eyes and perma-happy grin is one of the most recognised symbols of the past 50 years. In the 1970s it was applied to novelty items from mugs to bumper stickers published by brothers Murray and Bernard Spain, often with the slogan “have a happy day”. In 1972 some 50 million smiley badges were produced. It was a adopted by the psychedelic movement and became a recognisable device in graphic art. It starred on the cover of Mad magazine, the UK cover of Talking Head’s “Pyscho Killer” album, and mutated into something Dystopic in Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel “The Watchmen”.

The Smiley’s current visibility coincided with the emergence of acid house in the UK in 1988. It featured on flyers for the iconic club Shoom and Bomb The Bass’s hit single “Beat Dis”. while tabloid newspaper The Sun used the smiley on it’s anti-acid house covers. Nirvana’s cross-eyed smiley articulated the disaffection of the grunge generation.

The Smiley never went away, but why is it featuring in the work of so many artists now? There is a contemporary sense of nostalgia around the image — the smiley representing a moment of collective hedonism before a more regimented, controlled world, and smileys have become shorthand for a kind of post-pop mentality. It brings with it references of social and political rebellion, and it carries an unnerving and sometimes genuine facade of happiness — a surface graphic hinting at a hollowness beneath.

The smiley’s use in technology is also partly why the symbol resonates so much today. Emoticons were first used in online message boards by computer research professor Scott Fahlman in 1982, and they have made the smiley ubiquitous in digital life. Colons, parentheses and dashes transformed into fast notation for feeling in a text world without emotion.

Artists have grabbed hold of the smiley and transformed it in a range of fascinating ways. Warping the symbol and pulling apart it’s eyes as James Joyce does, or recreating it with objects like bananas and cigarettes in Aurel Schmidt’s work. Many contemporary reworked smileys brim with a simple glee, such as those by Antti Uotila and Alex Trochut. Alistair Frost has made the winking emoticon a central motif in his current work.

That the smiley is once again culturally potent perhaps reflects Western society’s yearning for a happiness that has faded in a post 9/11 world. Manuals to finding joy litter the internet and are often emblazoned with sunshine-yellow covers. Yet it would be wrong only to interpret the smiley as an icon with a dark heart. Sometimes we want to look at something and just grin.

Text by Francesca Gavin.

The original article appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Sleek Magazine.