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27 Questions: Michael Lau, artist and “Godfather of Designer Toys”

Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. In our weekly 27 Questions column, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims and aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same amount of time it takes to sit through a casual speed date. This week, we speak to artist-extraordinaire Michael Lau, coinciding with the launch of his Woaw Gallery exhibition entitled MAXX HEADROOM which runs from 29 September to 23 October.

Toys, as it turns out, are not child’s play. Just ask anyone who’s ever lined up for a BE@RBRICK; anyone who’s ever set up Google Alerts for limited-edition KAWS.

Or, ask artist Michael Lau, earnestly dubbed “Godfather of Designer Toys.”

Michael Lau artist artoy

Lau was cited and name-checked in a 2008 Forbes article titled “20 Trends Sweeping the Globe” as the artist that “launched the [urban vinyl toy] trend in the 90’s.” An “urban vinyl toy,” for the uninitiated, is the act of deconstructing, then drawing on and decorating, an off-the-shelf action figure. Action figures as blank canvases, essentially.

Appetite for vinyl toys, figurines — “collectibles,” as they’re tabbed under on StockX — has since only sky-rocketed in stride alongside the proliferation of street culture; of skate culture; of hype-beast culture. Today, vinyl toys mean big, big business.

“All art are toys, all toys are art,” says Lau, an oft-repeated maxim that has defined his modus operandi, alongside his coined concept of “ARTOY” — toys seen not as low-cost, throwaway objects, but as objet d’art; of things of value — as his North Star.

And it’s served him well. His laundry list of collaborators — including StockX, Puma, Nike, Fendi, Bathing Ape, among others — reads like any artist’s if-only pipe dream.

Maxx, the spiky-haired protagonist of Lau’s original 1999 Gardener series, is, as it so often is, a self-portrait. A mirror held up to Lau’s own reflection on youth; of perseverance. Maxx’s earliest appearance in 1998 was first realised as a comic-strip character; then, evolved into three-dimensional figurines inspired by Lau’s love of G.I. Joe toys. His debut exhibition merely a year later in 1999 showcased 99 original 12-inch Gardener figurines at the Hong Kong Art Centre, thereby changing the course of Lau’s own life, his career trajectory and, beyond that, public opinion about the merit of “toys” one might gloss over as playthings a short year ago.

MAXX HEADROOM is a deeply personal collection of works and every piece of work is a culmination of art and toy as witness of our past and present,” says Lau, of his brand-new exhibition. Accompanying the show are remnants of the original paintings, sketches and comics that have given birth to present-day Maxx, alongside more recent renderings.

Installation shot of Michael Lau’s MAXX HEADROOM exhibition at Woaw Gallery (Courtesy of Kitmin Lee and artist)

Name: Michael Lau
Age: 51
Neighbourhood: Kwun Tong
Occupation: Artist

1. What is your life motto?

Go crazy for anything that will make you smile. 

2. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?

At The Chairman.

3. Who is your role model?

Myself.

4. What was your first job?

Restoring paintings.

5. What is your drink of choice?

Champagne.

6. When was the last time you drove a car?

Yesterday.

7. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Rice.

8. What do you hate most about living in Hong Kong?

The humidity.

9. When did you last ride the Star Ferry? What were you doing/where did you go?

Six months ago, to shoot a video for Hong Kong Tourism Board.

10. What is one movie everyone should see?

All of Stephen Chow’s movies.

11. What is your typical Sunday like?

Zzzzzzzzzzzz rest.

12. Which moment in your life would you most like to relive?

I’d like to return to my youth.

13. What makes someone a real Hongkonger?

Always busy and on the go.

14. What is one song you know all the lyrics to?

Happy Birthday.

15. Where do you go when you want to be alone?

My studio.

All art are toys, all toys are art.
Michael Lau

16. If you had to describe Hong Kong in one word, what would it be?

Crazy.

17. What is your favourite scent in the whole world?

My wife’s.

18. What would you do if you won the lottery?

I’d keep working.

19. What was the best gift you ever received?

My first Motorola cell phone from my wife, she was my girlfriend back then.

20. When did you feel that you ‘made it’?

When I created the Gardener series back in 1999.

21. What energises you about your work?

I always want to be better.

22. If you were a TV show character, who would you be and why?

Eric Cartman from South Park, because I am also very naughty.

23. What’s a relationship deal breaker for you?

A bad heart.

24. If you could snap your fingers and fix one thing about the world, what would it be?

To fix the negativity in people 

25. Do you believe in astrology? Why or why not?

Yes, because it is data.

26. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done, and why?

To sing (more specifically, to rap) and perform on stage in a concert.

27. A genie gives you three wishes — what are they?

I’d ask the genie to give me three more wishes.

Michael Lau’s MAXX HEADROOM exhibition runs from 29 September through 23 October at Woaw Gallery’s Central outpost. G07, 9 Queen’s Road Central, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2765 2799

Joey Wong
Editor
Constantly in pursuit of a multi-hyphenated career, Joey has written her way through fashion trends, youth culture and luxury retail in New York and Hong Kong. Beyond internet adventures tracking down the perfect vintage find, you can probably catch her sipping on her third oat milk latte of the day in the city’s newest café. She’s currently mourning the loss of TikTok in Hong Kong.