Lucky cats

Original oldest lucky cat depiction

Legendary origins

Origin stories of the maneki-neko 招き猫 ("beckoning cat" in Japanese) are many. But the earliest known depiction of a lucky cat dates back to 1852, in the later part of the Edo period, on a ukiyo-e painting depicting a merchant selling lucky cat statuettes. We can presume from this historical discovery that lucky cats were introduced before and popular enough to warrant appearing in

The name "beckoning cat" is thought to refer to the similarity between a cat cleaning its ears with its paw resembling the beckoning gesture employed in Japan, with your palm and fingers down rather than up.

Perhaps the most fascinating lucky cat origin story is one dating from the 17th century. It is said that a poverty stricken monk and his faithful white cat resided at Gotokuji temple. However, the temple was falling in disrepair due to a lack of funds and the monk told his cat to consider switching careers. The cat decided to stay, sitting at the gates of the temple. One stormy day, a passing daimyo (feudal lord) sought refuge under a nearby tree, until he saw the white cat beckoning him to come closer. The lord stepped away from under the tree to see the cat, just in time to avoid a bolt of lightning which struck the tree he had been sheltering under. Grateful to the cat for saving his life, he saved the temple from ruin.

Today, you can find a portion of the temple dedicated to the maneki-neko that saved the day, including thousands of hand painted lucky cat statues! There's also a lovely instagram account where you can follow the adventures of Tama-san, their resident temple cat.

Gotokuji temple cats

Beckoning Good Fortune

There are many variations of lucky cats. The most common colors are white / calico (good luck), black (protection), red (good health), and gold (good fortune). Lucky cats are traditionally thought to be bobtails, though nowadays several variations with a tail also exist. Maneki-nekos are often depicted holding a gold koban 小判 coin, equivalent to one ryo, a gold currency unit in use until the mid-1800s when it was replaced by the yen.

Lucky cats will have either their right (good luck and happiness) or left (prosperity in business, especially bars and entertainment) paw up, or both in some cases (bonzai!). Sometimes, they will even hold charms instead of a coin, such as a Chinese ingot, a carp (considered prosperous), or some other object indicating good luck and prosperity.

But one thing is sure: All lucky cats bring good luck, no matter the type!

If you want to learn more about the different varieties of lucky cats as well as the history of the maneki-neko, I highly recommend reading Lucky Cat by Mio Yamada, published by Quadrille.

Artistic process

Why AI art works

What AI does well

All lucky cats in the gallery are a combination of AI and man-made art. I use Midjourney to create various lucky cat depictions which I then proceed to modify, correct and fine-tune until they look just the way I want them to!

AI, when used responsibly, is a wonderful creative tool that enables artists to create drafts or nearly finished artworks in a fraction of the time. I have found Midjourney to be a great tool to brainstorm concepts, to get inspired, and discover new compositions I might not have considered otherwise. AI is great at combining styles and mimicking that which already exists. It bridges the gap between ideas and concept art.

Why AI won't steal my job

Why we still need humans

That being said, as of 2023 when this text is being written, AI still struggles with some crucial things.

For starters, this technology is still limited to what it knows. It operates from a bank of images, and is programmed to recognize patterns. Therefore, it cannot come up with something truly new or revolutionary. The artist must direct the AI to blend elements, styles or images together, sifting through hundreds or options and variations before the AI gets it right. This can sometimes be tedious as the artificial intelligence does not truly understand what we want - it merely guesses.

AI art generators like Midjourney are also not very good at understanding purpose, text and hands, among other things. It will scramble letters, regardless of languages, recognizing only shapes and, unable to distinguish the meaning of the words. It will also often struggle with hands, rendering limbs with too many or too few appendages. It is not very precise when it comes to anatomy, taking wild guesses, unable to weigh in the importance of what should never be change (i.e. the range of motion of a human arm or leg) versus what is negotiable (i.e. how many blades of grass it takes to create the impression of a healthy green turf).

Having worked with AI for quite some time, I can say that I am not worried at all about it stealing my job as a creative any time soon! It cannot generate truly new ideas nor differentiate between what is useful and what is not. It's got a long way to go.

The artist

Tina Mailhot-Roberge | Artist behind Lucky Cat Lady

Hey, I'm Tina

I'm a Canadian-American Creative Director who likes to do yoga, read, meditate, travel and draw during her free time. Originally from Québec, Canada, I moved to Texas, USA with my two cats and husband in 2016. We've since added two dogs to our family.

Oh, and I've got two lucky cat tattoos. Yes, I really love lucky cats! The way I see it, it can't get luckier than etching it on your own skin. I'm the Lucky Cat Lady.

I started the Lucky Cat Lady art project in early 2023 after having a discussion with my husband while eating at a sushi restaurant on how cool it would be to spread some good luck around in the form of lucky cat art. Having experimented with Midjourney before, the idea hatched in my brain to use AI technology in combination with my digital art skills to bring to life various lucky cats for all to enjoy.

I hope you like the result and that the maneki-nekos in my gallery bring you as much good luck and joy as I had while creating them!

Other art projects - Rainbow Girls

Other Projects

Seldom idle and easily inspired, I'm always juggling several projects simultaneously. You can learn more about my other creative projects on this page.