Since the beginning, the Pokémon franchise has been defined by its unique character designs and some of the most innovative artwork the Trading Card Game (TCG) world has to offer. At the creative helm of these cards are renowned artists Ken Sugimori and Mitsuhiro Arita. They are among the few illustrators who have been with the franchise since the very first release and are still contributing to the most current sets of today. To salute the achievements of these artists, the PSA Set Registry has created two Pokémon Artist Sampler Sets based on the most iconic cards from both men’s body of work.
When the Pokémon franchise first started, creator Satoshi Tajiri enlisted Sugimori to provide illustrations for the initial 151 Pokémon, based on character designs by a team of talented minds including Atsuko Nishida, who famously designed the Pokémon mascot Pikachu. These illustrations were used across several product releases, including the 1995 Japanese Topsun cards, the 1996 Japanese Base Set, the Pokémon video games, and the English-language releases produced by Wizards of the Coast. Ken Sugimori’s work featured simplistic shading, a wide spectrum of colors, and a whimsical aesthetic that established Pokémon as exuberant, kid-friendly creatures. His creativity set the standard for Pokémon creature designs that has carried through to today.
Mitsuhiro Arita was also recruited to the team of artists to provide illustrations for the 1996 Japanese Base Set. His illustrations included iconic first-generation Pokémon, such as Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle, all depicted in their natural habitats, which imbued these creatures with a sense of realism and vitality. Undoubtedly, Arita’s most notable work from this set is his now-immortal illustration of Charizard breathing a bright orange fireball. In the 1990s, this image represented the pinnacle of Pokémon card collecting, and it still does in the present day.
Both Sugimori and Arita went on to became famous among collectors worldwide as their artwork was curated into not only the Base Set, but the Jungle, Fossil, Neo series, and countless other sets. Since gaining TCG celebrity status, signatures from these artists have also been highly sought-after by the Pokémon community. When signing for fans, both artists implement a mixture of English letters and Japanese kanji into their signatures.
Perhaps the most treasured signed items from either artist are those with a one-of-a-kind sketch. In only certain instances, Sugimori has personalized his signature with an image of Pikachu, and similarly, Arita has also been known to draw Pokémon corresponding to the card he is signing. These personalized autographs add a serious bump to any card’s value on the secondary market when authenticated and graded by PSA.
Although both artists are synonymous with old-school Pokémon, they still contribute a massive amount to modern day creature designs, marketing, trading card products and other Pokémon merchandise. The iconic video game covers that usher in new Pokémon eras still feature illustrations by Sugimori, who also illustrates every new roster of Pokémon when new generations are revealed.
Arita recently made a splash with modern Pokémon card collectors by producing the beautiful “tag team” cards seen in the 2019 Team Up, Unbroken Bonds, Unified Minds, Hidden Fates and Cosmic Eclipse sets. These cards depict both new and classic Pokémon appearing on the same card, in many cases, for the very first time, and are some of the most sought-after cards from those releases.
There are countless artists who deserve recognition for building the Pokémon TCG empire into what it is today: Atsuko Nishida, Kagemaru Himeno, Naoyo Kimura, Midori Harada, Kouki Saitou, Masakazu Fukuda and so many others. Ken Sugimori and Mitsuhiro Arita, however, share a special place in Pokémon’s legacy as they are artists who have been involved from the very beginning and are still contributing a massive amount to most current sets. Their contributions, and those of all Pokémon TCG artists, have inspired young artists and collectors around the world and pioneered the imaginative Pokémon card aesthetic as we know it today.