Since July 2022, Karen Tran has been hiding needle-felted animal tchotchkes around Boston. The creatures are made by stabbing wool roving into the small, gumball-size rotund shape of a koala or a Shiba Inu, then enclosed in clear plastic capsules. Tran conceals the capsules in local businesses and, having filmed the whole process into a montage, posts a video announcing her latest challenge on TikTok.
“People find it within minutes,” Tran, a 27-year-old Burlington native who works in social media marketing, said.
She shares the project through a TikTok account called @tinyfeltedjoy and sums up its mission in the video thumbnails as “hiding cute and tiny animals around boston until i go viral.” The project originated from trying to find a source of motivation during a depressive episode in the spring of 2022.
“I had two deaths in the family, and I was really stressed out about my sales job,” Tran said. “I turned to art.”
Tran had experimented with various crafts before, including making earrings that look like tiny hands which she sold through Etsy. As a person with bipolar disorder, her affinity for art was often fueled by manic episodes which caused her to fixate on new hobbies. Now, it’s a stabilizing anchor, which she is open about on TikTok.
The project came from a desire to pay that feeling of fulfillment — and joy — forward. For Tran, making art always leads to giving the end product to her loved ones. “I’ve been like that since I was a kid. Every time I would make creative stuff, it would be a gift for someone,” she said.
Each animal is an exclusive design that she doesn’t repeat between videos, and she hides the animals almost every week, with no plans of stopping. Her definition of “going viral” is intentionally vague, as Tran uses the elusive goal of virality as a way to enforce the project’s consistency. Her videos get thousands of views, with one reaching almost 150,000. Some TikTok users have used the app’s Duet function on her montages to add their own videos showing that they found the animals.
The project is inherently positive, Tran said. Her username represents how the felted animals are like modules of goodwill transported around Greater Boston. Hiding an animal in a small business, with the store’s permission, also allows her to share local spots, like Double Chin and Knight Moves Board Games Cafe, with her viewers.
“Even if you don’t find [the felted animal], I want there to be something there for you,” Tran said.
She has had unexpected encounters because of the project, making friends with people who hunt after the animals and occasionally getting recognized around Boston. The project’s traction has inspired Tran to start planning meetups with viewers as well as eventually expand the project into a brand and sell ceramics, stickers, and prints that feature the designs of her animal characters.
Tran, a Northeastern University alumna, grew up in a Chinese-Vietnamese household with parents who are supportive of her art but have feared for her financial stability in the past. The fact that her artwork and stories about her mental health struggles connect with people is valuable to her, she said.
“That is something that I cherish so deeply, and I have never regretted,” Tran said.
Abigail Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.