What started out as a pun has become a worldwide art challenge beloved by countless illustrators.

This is MerMay, the monthlong art challenge in which artists are invited to create a work depicting a mermaid every day 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 on social media, it went viral, he told NPR.

"And I realized that 'Oh, wow, people really like mermaids.' And there's nobody kind of tapping that area of fantasy," he said.

The image's popularity inspired Bancroft. He came up with the idea to try posting a mermaid drawing every day – with weekends being optional – for the entire 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 participated in the first year of MerMay, Bancroft said. To help inspire artists every year since, he comes up with a list of daily prompts to incorporate into their works.

Bancroft said a lot of people enjoy this aspect of the challenge, especially since they can check the day's hashtag, where they can see how other artists approached the prompt.

People can now also tag their works to be entered into the MerMay 2022 art contest, which offers prizes like a Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet.

Part of MerMay's success might be on account of its subject matter. Disney's The Little Mermaid was a commercial hit when it was released in 1989. Some of the kids who saw it in theaters grew up to be artists who now participate in MerMay.

"I've drawn mermaids since I was a very little girl, probably since I was four years old, because that's when 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 it started. This year, she was brought on to help judge the contest.

She doesn't follow MerMay's daily prompts, but she finds other ways to challenge herself. Sometimes Hee draws mermaids based on real types of fish or the pattern of her clothing. This year, she's doing all of her works as mini gouache paintings; each piece is just 2 ½ by 3 inches.

"It's really neat to be able to bond with strangers over the internet like this," Hee said. "It really is artists supporting artists. And I think for us to have such a small community – it's really special."

For artists like Felix d'Eon, MerMay is a chance to show that mermaids don't look a certain way. The Mexico City-based artist celebrates queer, trans and fat bodies in his work.

"I think that when people usually look at mermaids, there's a lot of the same thing, which is like sexy white ladies. And mine are not," d'Eon told NPR.

It's not uncommon to see mermaid art with partial nudity during MerMay. Usually, the mermaid is thin and based on Western beauty standards.

D'Eon said he had his Instagram account deactivated after posting a painting of a fat mermaid. He said he still hasn't recovered as his income has dropped by 60%. He sees this as censorship of bodies that aren't accepted by society.

He considers it a double standard that his piece was reported when so many others aren't. He said its great that others can post their mermaids, but "when I post queer mermaids, when I post mermaids who are kissing ... when I post fat mermaids, trans mermaids — I get in trouble."

Mythological beings like mermaids hold significance for queer people who feel they don't fit within the culture in which they live, d'Eon said.

"You kind of see yourself reflected there, you know," he said. "As these people who are, you know, both and neither at the same time ... they encapsulate these really beautiful fantasies of being people who are in between."

For the last two years, MerMay has had a mascot. Artist and toy designer Whitney Pollett, who is helping Bancroft run the challenge this year, designed both.

Pollett incorporated elements of toy design in her concept for the mermaid mascot: fun, fashion, friendship. She drew the mermaid wearing starfish friends all over her body, each with different personalities.

"This one's like a tough guy. And this one's an explorer. And this one's really sweet and quiet," Pollett said. "The more I started drawing new starfish, the more I was kind of giggling to myself, like having a lot of fun."

This year, the mermaid's name is Harmony.

"Because we felt like the world needed a little more harmony, right now," Bancroft said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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