Michael Lau is a generous, thoughtful, and overwhelmingly kind individual who also just happens to be one of the most important contemporary artists in the world. Considered the Godfather of art toys, Lau has designed his own path to success and acclaim since the late 1990s. As Lau recalls, his breakthrough and cultural innovation with art toys was the product of need, not planning. A painter by training, Lau failed to gain any critical or commercial traction as a fine artist in the beginning. Combining his interest in street culture and graffiti with his passion for toy collecting, the art toy was born. Since then, Lau has pushed the medium from niche collector’s items to exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world and institutions such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
We talked with the Hong Kong-based artist shortly before the exclusive, limited edition DropX release of his Salvator Michael figure about the genesis of his collaboration with StockX, being thought of as a legend, and bringing his art full circle through increased painting and sculptural work. And no matter what he does, he’s always guided by the maxim: “All art is toys, all toys are art.”
The following interview has been lightly edited.
StockX: What’s exciting about releasing an exclusive art collectible with StockX?
Michael: I’ve known about StockX for some time. My sneakers and some of my figures are already trading on the platform. When StockX Hong Kong launched, they invited me to be a part of the launch event. I also loaned some of my sneakers – collaborations with Nike, Puma, and different brands – to display for a little exhibition for the launch event.
And at that time [of the StockX Hong Kong event], I was developing this new art toy, Salvator Michael, a character I created in collaboration with my exhibition with Christie’s in 2018. I have been working on an art toy from that character for a little while, and I thought it would be cool to do a StockX version. I did a prototype for the Hong Kong event; that’s how everything started.
StockX: Salvador Michael references Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Throughout your career, you’ve mixed high and popular culture in your work. How did you decide to embrace this type of cultural bricolage?
Michael: It actually stems back to my background. I’m known as the Godfather of designer toys, but I started in painting. Back then, my paintings didn’t get much notice. A couple of things came together in the late 1990s: my passion for toy collecting and the boom of street culture, mainly coming from the United States. These two factors inspired me to create the Gardener in 1999, which launched in the Hong Kong Art Center, with 99 handcrafted 12-inch action figures.
This exhibition was a kind of mixing of the high and low because I come from the art world. When I started creating street culture and toys, that’s when I got recognized. But even when I presented the Gardener back in 1999 at the exhibition, I never thought of it as a toy exhibition. I always perceived it as an exhibition of a new art form. For me, it has never been a question of high or low because it’s always been natural how I use and take elements from different cultures and backgrounds and interpret them in my own language.
These days, when you look at street culture, so many luxury brands are taking part in street culture, and many street culture designers have become luxury brand designers. So this mixing has become even more popular now, but I’ve already been doing it for 20 years.
StockX: How do you think about your place in the contemporary art world, specifically being considered the Godfather of vinyl toys and art toys? How do you think your work has influenced and inspired subsequent generations of artists?
Michael: I think a lot about the artists and designers, and influencers from my day. I never really thought about it, like, “Oh, if I do this, am I going to inspire the next generation?” At that time, I did things because it was fun, and I wanted to do it; I wanted to create something for myself. I was trying to break through for myself, not necessarily think about whether I would serve as inspiration for the next generation.
I still hold the same vision for my work throughout all these years: doing something fun and creating for myself. In recent years, I’ve increasingly gone back to painting and sculptural kinds of work. While I’m working in more traditional mediums, I’m still challenging the convention and the definition of contemporary art. My motto has become a personal axiom: “All art is toys, all toys are art.” Because no matter what you like, no matter what you collect – sneakers, handbags, or art – no matter the object, it’s all a form of art to the collector. And to the collector, it’s also a form of toy. I’m constantly pushing this boundary, and if what I’m doing inspires some young people in their thinking, in breaking through with brand new ideas, that’s great.
StockX: Is making art still fun?
Michael: Yes, it’s still fun. But now, I am doing less because I want to do things deeper.
StockX: You’re the Godfather of vinyl figures, and you’ve helped make them a part of the cultural and artistic mainstream at institutions like Christie’s and platforms like StockX. Does your DropX feel like a full circle moment?
Micheal: Yes, indeed, the whole vinyl designer toy industry is already quite mature. And there are platforms like StockX and auction houses auctioning pieces of so-called toys to collectors and audiences. It’s good what is happening right now, but I’m already moving onto the next stage. This is why I’m presenting my form of toys in more of a fine art forum and taking it to another stage. I’m happy with all the developments for art toys, but it’s all about continuing to elevate the medium.
StockX: When you say working to elevate your work and everything, what do you mean by that?
Michael: Elevation has a lot to do with the platform. StockX is like a Christie’s or Sotheby’s for young people, where you trade sneakers, vinyl toys, and collectibles. And when I work with Christie’s and Sotheby’s, it’s elevating platforms, the audiences I talk to, and the works that I present. I’m working with StockX for the Salvator Michael DropX, and I’m introducing an art toy. But when I work with Christie’s or international galleries, I’m presenting paintings and sculptures. All my work across different platforms is art, but I want to reach different audiences on different platforms with different mediums.
StockX: So it’s all about driving home the message that “All art is toys, all toys are art,” no matter the platform or medium?
Michael: I started in fine art, but back then I didn’t get recognized. Toys took me to a level of global recognition, and now I want to have toys elevated across different art platforms. For me, this is coming full circle.
StockX: What is the purpose of art?
Michael: Art gives you an avenue to not necessarily escape from reality but to take yourself outside and look at another dimension through the work, affect different kinds of emotions, and create new connections. Art can give you that emotional connection to another world that exists, maybe outside of reality.
No matter what you like to collect, it’s all very personal. So it’s something that makes you feel joyful, feels happy, and it comforts you emotionally, and that’s what matters. It’s not about what’s hip; it’s all very personal. As I say, “Go crazy for anything that will make you smile.”