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Tomopop Interview: robotandspark

3:00 PM on 09.03.2011 // Brian Szabelski

One of the things I really happen to love about designer vinyl is that it truly has become worldwide. There are artists — both those making customs and those designing and making production pieces — on every continent except Antarctica and in a growing number of countries. robotandspark happens to be one of that growing a number, a creative design group based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that launched their first figure this year. 

We chatted with robotandspark's creative director, Rob Gibbs, about the collecting culture in the Middle East, how robotandspark came to be and what they'll be up to in the future. Hit the jump and check it all out!

So, I guess to start things off, give me a little backstory on robotandspark. How did things start, and how did you guys end up in the Middle East?

Rob: My wife and I were living and working in London but decided we needed a little sunshine in our lives, the UK being quite wet and dull for most of the year! At the time, there was a lot of talk about Dubai, so we thought we would give it a try. We moved to the Middle East about 5 years ago with some ideas and aspirations of starting a creative design studio by ourselves, having been pretty uninspired working for other people. And huzzah! robotandspark was born.

The thing that always interests me is how collecting and the toy scene manifests itself in different corners of the globe. I'm utterly fascinated by it, to be precise, and how it changes from place to place sometimes. What's the scene in Dubai and Abu Dhabi like? What kinds of people do you find are collecting in your corner of the world and what do they tend to collect?

Rob: To be honest, the scene is nowhere near as developed as it is in the U.S., Europe or Asia. There were a couple of stores a few years back that sold toys, but all have shut down — with only Virgin now stocking a very limited range of Kidrobot stuff. But what you do find is that the collectors and fans are pretty hardcore —and they have to be, being in such a removed environment. Most collections aren’t vast in size, but contain some really nice, rare pieces. The range of collectors tastes in Dubai is pretty extreme too — there are two other toy freaks at robotandspark; Jad is a huge Coarse fan, whereas Rollan loves obscure bootleg stuff from Asia — there is a giant knock-off Astro Boy in the studio.

I guess to go along with that train of thought, how is collecting or the vinyl scene seen in Dubai? Is it just another hobby amongst the many different ones you might find there or is there a special kind of perception given to it?

Rob: I think there are a lot of people here who wouldn’t understand the fascination with collecting — I think they find it hard to differentiate between the figures you can buy in Toys 'R' Us, and figures that are seen as collectible art. But hopefully that will change — the art scene in general out here was fairly limited up until a few years ago — but now we are seeing a new generation of artists/gallery owners/students etc. that are pushing boundaries, and more local brands that are willing to take risks with their products and exposure. A friend of ours (Mo Abedin aka Foo Dog) recently curated his own designer toy (MEGA) custom show and managed to get international brands like Puma, Mini, Virgin and Bloomingdales all involved — which shows how far the scene has come in such a short time.

You guys also curated the UAE’s first custom toy exhibition at thejamjar gallery in Dubai in February 2009. What was that experience like?

Rob: Tough, time consuming, expensive, really hard work but ultimately super enjoyable and very rewarding. It took a long time to get a gallery on board, such was the nature of the project. People just couldn’t get their heads around the idea that there was this little blank robot toy that people would be customizing. It was a relief when thejamjar got involved, as it was something we had wanted to do for such a long time. Once we started to hand out the figures it was just like a domino effect — so many people wanted to get involved — media, artists, performers, sponsors. The exhibition was a huge success — the artwork was fantastic, the turnout magnificent ... And I would like to think we helped create a little piece of art history in the UAE.

Tell us a bit about Robot VC3. What was your inspiration for him? How did he come about?

Rob: When I was a bit younger, I used to doodle a little cartoon strip about a robot and a penguin who were best friends. They used to go on these crazy adventures and end up doing random things like meet Tom Selleck or go to expensive restaurants and order beans on toast. I was always obsessed with robots and over the years kept developing the robot character bit by bit until I was really happy with the shape. He then became a bit of a mascot for the studio, so we decided to get him modeled in 3D ... Quite a few people liked the shape so decided to create a little army of VC3’s!

Were you guys involved in the vinyl scene before you came up with VC3? If so, as artists? Collectors? Curious outside observers looking in with interest?

Rob: I was always interested in toys, collecting and art. From Star Wars, Transformers and Thundercats to Muscle Men, Garbage Pail Kids cards and Micro Machines — I had always been a completionist even from a young age. So I guess it was in my genes! I can’t remember a particular time when I could classify myself as
involved in the vinyl scene," but probably when I first went to college and was introduced to more Asian/urban artists by the cool kids in class. From there, it sparked an interest that has just grown and grown.

How has the experience with launching VC3 been? Have you had to deal with any unexpected issues? Was there anything you would have done differently?

Rob: To be honest the whole experience has been really tough. Finding a good manufacturer that could be trusted was harder than expected, and the cost has just been piling up and up. I would say the whole project from start to finish has set us back US$25,000. It’s a huge chunk of change. It was never about the money though — it was something we had always wanted to do. But if we could go back in time, we would definitely do things differently — research a little more into the production side of things, check out the credentials of manufacturers before handing over cash to random factories in China, and probably try and get more presence at the big shows and conventions to drum up interest before the release.

Looks like you guys are getting ready for a new little project, Irezumi Girls. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Rob: Two of the biggest issues we realized when creating the VC3s were that 600 is a pretty big edition size for a toy designed by an unknown artist. And that there wasn’t enough background story for people to connect with. For our second figure(s), we decided that we wanted a very limited edition release and that there had to be more character depth.

So we created a set of four super-dangerously sexy superhero vixens, called The Irezumi Girls. Set to a futuristic neo-apocalyptic backdrop of mile-high skyscrapers and neon lights, where the streets of war-ravaged London are patrolled by gangs of hooligans, criminals and thugs — the Irezumi Girls are effectively the good guys.

The word "irezumi" roughly translates as "the Japanese art of inking" and each girl comes with her own signature tattoo design created by leading designers, studios or artists from around the world. We have collaborated with Argentinean studio DGPH, New York based tattoo artist Patrick Conlon, Finnish artist Katrin Olina and Brittish illustrator Tom Addison who have all created amazing designs for the girls.

As for the figures themselves, we want to create something really exceptional; large hand-painted resin art pieces, super limited edition, beautifully crafted, packaged and presented. As a producer of collectible figures, we are really looking at creating slightly more mature pieces in the future and I think the Irezumi Girls will set the tone. We really love what the guys at Fools Paradise are doing right now.

But the most important thing is to create longevity for the characters; we want to build an environment for the Irezumi Girls that enables us to elaborate on the story and introduce other individuals within the series over a long-term period.

Are there any other vinyl toy-related projects you guys are dreaming up at the moment?

Rob: Yes, plenty! One of the Irezumi Girls rival gangs are a bunch of brightly coloured robot mechas fused with famous cartoon characters ... think Gundam x Yosemite Sam! These are currently still sketches at the minute, though ... I think there is enough going on with the production of the Irezumi Girls to keep us busy for a little while at least.

When you're not busy working on projects, what does the robotandspark crew do for fun?

Rob: When we are not in the studio, we like to do the regular things — catch a movie, go get some food (there are some really great restaurants in Dubai!) — plus we get invited to quite a few social events through work where there is lots of free beer! Me personally, I like to spend time with my family though — chilling out, relaxing, going to the beach ... spending so long in front of a computer screen or sketchpad, sometimes it’s nice to switch the brain off :)

Thank you very much, Rob and the robotandspark crew, for sitting down to chat with us!

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Brian Szabelski, Editor-in-Chief
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Brian Szabelski is Tomopop's Editor-in-Chief, stuck with an ever-growing collection of figures and toys. When he's not posting on Tomopop, he can usually be found working on any number of project... more   |   staff directory

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