Bootleg toys are a thing — and they’re a lot cooler (and cruder) than you think

4 October 2018

As a pop artist, The Sucklord is happy to brand himself as a "supervillain", but he's also a hero in many circles.

The New York-based artist, also known as Morgan Phillips, makes highly limited, collectible toys. But don't expect to find them at a regular toy emporium (at least, the ones that are left).

With his ever-growing line of figures, The Sucklord is skilled in subverting properties from popular culture and imbuing stark political commentary — imagine pink startroopers as an afront to homophobia, or a recontextualised Captain America for a Trump era — but the modus operandi of The Sucklord is one of disruption, picking apart icons for biting social and political commentary that runs deep.

Mostly it's crude, sometimes it's reverential, but the "Suck-aesthetic" is boldly unmistakeable.

Making bootleg art toys is his trade, and he continues to hone his skill many years into his career. With a limited number of figures made for each concept in his studio, dubbed the "Suckhole", The Sucklord is one of a handful of artists who populate the DIY bootleg art toy scene, which embraces satire through transgressive figures.

We speak to The Sucklord himself about his work, ethos and memes, along with Quiccs, a Manila-based toy designer who's in Singapore with The Sucklord for a special collaboration, which will be showcased at Kult Gallery's new exhibition, Bootleg Toy Supervillain.

Learn more about what it means to be a supervillain, why there's a difference between "bootlegs" and "knock-offs", and why he's even able to do what he's doing.


THE SUCKLORD

How did you end up making bootleg toys?

I have had a lifelong passion for toys and always assumed I would work with them as a career. However, I was never able to "get a deal" in the "real" toy business, despite years of my best efforts. I was forced to produce them myself. I was bitter and jealous of others' success, so I positioned myself as an antagonist.

I set about stealing famous properties and repurposing them to my own ends. Because they were stolen items and poorly made (due to amateurism) I chose to make the bad quality a feature rather than something to hide, so I called them bootlegs. I wanted people to feel like they were committing a crime by purchasing them.

Also, by allowing for bad quality, I was able to increase the quantity because I kept all the mistakes.

The term "bootleg toys" is commonly defined by knockoff plastic figures sold at neighborhood shops, which look like a fraction of the real thing. Have they also influenced your ongoing work?

Bootlegs and knock-offs aren't the same thing. A bootleg is a direct ripoff of a real thing.

Say Darth Vader. You could go to Chinatown and buy a fake "DRATH VERDER" that is pretty much a copy made off of an actual Darth Vader figure. A knock off is not so much a direct copy but rather an imitation of, such as "EVIL DARK SPACE KNIGHT". It may have the same basic features of Darth Vader, like a black cape and a mask, but it's changed enough so it isn't an actual copy of Vader. It's kinda like a wannabe.

But yes, both of these things influence me. I love the nebulous nature of them and the process of having to go somewhere shady to buy them. You don't know if they are safe, how many were made, or if it's a good idea.

Being a self-styled "supervillain", have your bootleg toys gotten you in trouble before?

I have been accused of bad taste, having no talent, and being an insensitive asshole, but never sued or even acknowledged by any of the "big guys" that I was stealing from. I think because of the obvious parody and low numbers being made, it's just not worth the effort to try and shut it down. So I continue to happily operate in the dark and off the radar.

How much time do you spend on each figure?

It's hard to say because they are made on an assembly line. But to create an edition — to go from idea, to development, to production, and then to sale — can take as little as two weeks.

You have a tireless DIY ethic, and you're constantly churning out toys. Are you one who responds to demand?

I actually have to continually create demand, and remind people that they need to buy this stuff. I live in New York City and have to pay a lot of rent, and this is my only job, so I have to keep making this crap to survive, until I can figure a way out of here. I need to get really creative to convince people to buy the same thing over and over again.

What is one thing that people misunderstand about your work?

It's more than just a f*ck you, there is something being said about my life, my point of view, and the world. I mean it is also f*ck you, but there is a larger narrative here that my not be apparent by looking at just a single piece.

Taken in total, there is a grand unifying theory underpinning all of it. I won't spoil it here, plus it's too long to write out, but if one were to attend my lecture at Kult Gallery on Saturday, you can receive the complete knowledge.

There are wild and vivid streaks of 70s/80s design, graffiti and shock humour in your work. Has meme culture has affected the way you perceive humour?

Yes, of course. The practice of taking familiar images and mashing them together to say a new thing is a big part of my process. I especially like later-tier memes, where you need to know the prior memes to get the current one.

I've been doing this for almost 14 years, so I build upon older ideas, and to really get it, you need to know the Suckadelic language. Some bootleg toys hit you over the head with the concept. I like to make people work to understand, even if they rarely do that.

Have there been figures of characters and/or people you've always wanted to attempt, but haven't done so?

I have made so much shit sometimes I wonder what's left. Next up is a Christopher Walken study, then after that, I have no idea. Things just occur to me in the moment as I go.

It's nice not having a long backlog of ideas. I tend to come up with things as I go along, the culture at large mixed with the stirrings of my inner life provide the inspiration at the moment it's needed.

Will you ever work with a restaurant to bring the "Han Solo Pizza" to life?

I don't know how that would work technically, but I'm all for it. As long as it's New York Pizza.

Being an artist so singular in his field, what kind of advice would you give out to other artists?

I'm actually not very singular. (Just the best.) There are a lot of people doing this kind of work, with varying degrees of success, in my opinion. My advice would be: Take the idea you think people would hate the most, and do that.

Let's talk about some of your toys: first, Gay Empire.

The second one I ever made and the most famous. I really just was looking to copy a Stormtrooper in an unexpected way, and making him pink seemed pretty incongruous. Once I saw it, I needed a story, and making him gay was the fastest solution.

I made a point to keep the "meaning" as vague as possible so people could project their own ideas onto it. But I was really kind of offended by the rampant homophobia and lack of representation in the so-called "geek space", so I just wanted to jam it up with as much gay shit as possible.

I have made several gay figures over the course of my career, pulling in GI Joe and Peanuts in the process.

Occupy Cybertron.

Just pulled this out of my ass back during the Occupy Wall Street movement. I was mulling about using these Transformers parts that I had. I felt I didn't do enough with Transformers so they were just ready to go.

I was on a reality show at the time called Gallery Girl, about girls who work in art galleries. I was in one episode doing a show in the gallery that these two women who didn't understand my work were curating.

I wanted to further confuse them in order to heighten the tension — that makes for good TV — so I just slapped the Decepticons heads on these suit bodies and made the evil 1% Wall Street guys. I guess it worked.

Make Captain America Great Again.

A reaction to Trump's idiocy on immigrants. Just an attempt to jam the narrative by making an All-American hero Mexican, Muslim, and Native American.

Sexy Ronald.

An absurd collaboration with a New York Artist named Wizard Skull. His signature character was a gross Ronald McDonald with french fries for pubic hair. It was my job to render that image as a figure, so here we are...


QUICCS

How long have you been making art?

All my life. I've been sketching and painting since probably when I was three.

Your art is incredibly vivid and reminiscent of stylish action cartoons. Does nostalgia play a heavy role in inspiring your artwork?

Yes. My older brother and I grew up in the 80's and 90's heavily exposed to cartoons on TV the likes of Transformers, GI Joe, MASK, Sky Commanders, and Japanese shows such as BIOMAN, Voltes V, Daimos, Shaider. My love for robots is deeply rooted in my passion for these growing up.

Years into your career, what has changed the most for you?

I've always had a dream of either having my own cartoon someday, or being a rapper. My art is an amalgamation of my passion for 80's cartoons, 90's hip-hop and graffiti growing up to the 2000's.


Not only have you collaborated with The Sucklord, but you also brand yourself as a "supervillain" (as seen on your Twitter profile). What's the most endearing thing about that term to you?

I always have rooted for the villains growing up, they look cooler, their backstories are more interesting, and something just told me, back then, that at the end of the day, they are the real victims.

If you're the "villain", is there an entity or belief that goes against everything you stand for as an artist?

Yes, that the normal equation for artists to succeed is to claw your way on top of the contemporary art scene. Because of the internet, the whole world is your gallery now.

The art and craft of bootleg toys hinges on subversion and imagination — what do you like the most about them? 

I grew up in my neighborhood playing cheap plastic toys we bought in fish markets, played much like how marbles are played. I love the way they look funny. There's a lot of humor in seeing how far they look from the real thing. It has that independent, free-spirited artistic core to them bootlegs.

As I've told Morgan (Sucklord) himself before, earlier in my toy design career in 2012 when I tried myself out in this industry from being more of a digital artist, I saw an interview of him on YouTube where he described his frustrations of not being noticed by the toy scene, and why he chose to DIY himself into it through his in-your-face bootleg toys.

I did this myself, by bootlegging Star Wars stuff and Kidrobot Dunnys, just enough to get myself into the radar. I'm thankful for him in this way.

Your toys are also highly limited and collectible — have you considered working your designs for mass audiences through a major company/distributor?

Not in the Toys R' Us level kind of distribution, I've never aspired to be that out in the open. I don't really do my toy designs to cater to a certain demand.

My brand is something that was formed out of my own passions, and I'm already happy to attract the people who have the same passion for the subcultures I dig. I want my creations to keep their value to my collectors, by making them highly limited and quite hard to get by.

What can you tell us about your upcoming collaboration with The Sucklord?

Bulletpunk Death Squadron is my tribute to Sucklord for being one of my main inspirations earlier in my toy design years. It features the 4 core characters of my Bulletpunk Universe brand: The Ghost of Kurosawa, TEQ63, Sharko and Mariko.

These characters are the ones you will see heavily recurring in my works and releases. I built them using parts that Sucklord sent me, and tried to stay true to his style in doing so.

I designed the card as well and patterned it out to look like one of his earlier releases, using the single-color screen-printed cards that he'd usually do on his classic releases, using this time my own artworks for the four characters mentioned.


 

Catch the Sucklord and Quiccs, alongside other artists invited from all over the region, presenting their work at Bootleg Toy Supervillain, launching on October 5th at Kult Gallery in Singapore. The exhibition will run until November 10th. 

— Daniel Peters

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