It’s a Vinyl World
Boasting such lines of vinyl toys as the HazMaPo, TinPo, JunPo, SUG and UniPo, each with a back-story almost as rich as the Devil himself, and all with the primary mission of protecting their human friends at all costs, UNKL has quickly asserted itself atop the U.S.-designed toy chain.
With a new line of Hazmapos (Series D1) on the Devil’s radar, time was taken to find out some of the secrets behind the Portland, Oregon-based brand, bred by Jason Bacon and Derek Welch.
Why invoke the Cold War in the story behind the Hazmapo’s purpose?
Part of the mystique of the Hazmapo is that they have a belief in something that no longer exists, so they carry on trying to function as “normal” although they are no longer specifically needed for the function for which they were created. They do each have hobbies and interests they engage in–collecting vintage blue jeans is one example–but their primary business now is as mercenaries. Most important to note with their mercenary jobs, however, is that they only dispense of those who are a “threat.”
What do you think the Hazmapos would do if they learned the Cold War was over?
Perhaps they’ve been tipped off that the Cold War is over, but they pay no mind to it, like a child learning there is no Santa Claus but choosing to believe anyway. Sure, they’re killers, but they’re young at heart, too.
The “Hazzies” have been around since 2005, is that because they’re your favorites? Or the best selling? Or both?
The Hazzies are our favorite because they were our first release, but also because their design POV represents UNKL best of all. This time, we decided to do a 6” version because we’d done many sets of 4” figures, and since they’d been off the radar for a bit we wanted them to have a bigger presence.
Did the success of your vinyl figures surprise you? What’s the highest price an UNKL figure has traded hands for? What was it? Is EBay the best place to find and trade limited edition and sold out UNKL stuff, or is there somewhere better to find the hard-to-find?
We were surprised initially with how UNKL took off. We were really just making what we loved and hoped others would too. When we sold out of the original series of Hazmapo in a quantity of 1,800 pieces, we realized perhaps we’d be able to keep it going, and we have. I guess eBay is the best place to find the stuff that’s sold out, but I’m not sure what’s even available there anymore. The most we’ve seen an UNKL figure fetch is $200 and that was a SUG.
For how long have you been going to Comic-Con? What is its importance now in your world? Is there any more important conference/convention for UNKL?
We’ve been involved in Comic-Con since 2005 but our presence has shifted a bit now with Toynami being our manufacturer. We hang at their booth.
SDCC is the biggest convention for us without a doubt. Being with Toynami has been great so far but it does limit the contact we have directly with the fans, which is something we really miss. Hopefully we’ll get to reach out and interact more with fans in the future.
What is the most impressive thing you’ve seen there?
The most impressive thing seen at ComiCon? Well, first the sheer number of people packed in the convention center is impressive. It blew us away the first time. Other than that, probably seeing a few different ladies dressed up as Princess Leia in the slave costume (from Episode VI) with a band of guys following them everywhere is pretty crazy.
Finding a Leia look-a-like that actually can pull off that look is the real challenge (no offense to the others who attempt it though).
What’s your favorite vinyl figure made by someone other than UNKL?
There are so many great vinyl figures that have been made it’s difficult to say. We love so many different ones, but one that stands out is the 32” Tesujin robot that was put out a few years back. Love that one, but it’s really a new version of a classic, not straight-up designer vinyl per se.
Eric So’s stuff is amazing, especially his version of Hellboy – that thing is killer. What Super 7 is doing is great to see too. They’re a great bunch over there at S7. We’re not heavily into the Japanese toy scene ourselves specifically, but S7 does some newer stuff that’s a tip-of-the-hat to the established Japanese style; the Star Wars-related projects they do are fantastic.
Derek is big into Kow Yokoyama’s work, specifically the Maschinen Krieger stuff – he’s got close to 300 pieces. He had to make himself stop buying MaK stuff so he could keep food on the table. I really love Kow’s work as well, so when we collaborated with him to create the MakPo it was a super big deal for us. The piece turned out great, too, so that never hurts.
What’s the best collaboration you’ve had with a client – do you have an image of it you can share?
We’ve had several great collaborations, the MakPo being amongst them of course, but one that sticks out certainly as the most fun is the Ipecac series of 12 figures we did representing 12 bands on their roster.
Mike Patton gave us full creative control on that one and allowed us to interpret and create as we saw fit. It’s very rare to be able to do that, but the beauty of UNKL is that we can do what we want or choose not to if it doesn’t jive with how we feel it ought to be.
One collab that was cool was designing some “Nudie” style suits for the band Wilco for Lollapallooza a couple of years back. That was unlike any project we’ve ever done and Jeff Tweedy from the band made it clear the reason he wanted us to do it was because of our own POV, so we just went for it. Didn’t get paid for that one but we got some sweet musical gear in trade.
On some other potential projects we’ve definitely upset some folks by not doing what they wanted us to, but we do have a full on client-based business with Big-Giant. B-G is where we really have to do what the client wants. If we started making too many concessions with collaborations on the UNKL side it would defeat the purpose of us doing it. So, it gives us some comfort always knowing we can pass on anything that doesn’t feel right. It’s certainly not about the money, it’s all about the creation. We try hard to keep our integrity intact at all times. That’s not to say we wouldn’t take a wheelbarrow full of money to do some nutty project for someone, but that’s not likely to happen, so we’ll just keep doing our thing whether anyone likes it or not. That’s the UNKL way.
Do you have a personal favorite series of UNKL product?
Hazmapo and SUG are at the top of the UNKL food chain. They are both very different from each other but we love ‘em. They represent each of the two of us (Jason and Derek) very well.
Do any of the designs actually look like you and Derek – are you the co-founders, or did one of you set up shop first?
Derek and I met while working at Nike. We began collaborating on some work-related projects just for fun. He and I would write stories and illustrate each others’ writing. We then started Big-Giant in 1999 knowing we wanted to produce our own products of some kind. The more we did in the way of creating characters the more we were motivated to do something about it. Plus, we had friends who had seen some of our sketches and story ideas and they asked us why we weren’t making them instead of letting them rot in a sketchbook. So, we listened and gave it a shot never expecting this to take off. And as far as whether any of our characters look like us, I’d say no in form, but some of the faces on a couple of the UniPos were inspired by our own look. And we both hope we never end up with SUG’s body. Love the guy, but that’s a load to carry around. At least that’s what we’ve heard from SUG himself.
Are all UNKL Products born from minds in Portland, Oregon? What’s in Portland’s waters that encourages off-center design creativity?
Yes, all UNKL products and ideas are born in Portland. I think the level of pollution in the Willamette River right outside our office probably inserts a little of a toxic element into what we do and how. But, with Derek being from Texas, there’s always a bit of the Lone Star State in everything he does. A toughness, rebellious or maverick approach to it that we both feed off of. But, back to Portland, if you’ve ever seen the show Portlandia on IFC (and you should) they say “Portland is the city where young people go to retire,” and that’s so damn true.
There are plenty of slackers here in Stumptown (Portland’s original name), but there’s also a lot of creative energy that comes from younger artists who are simply here to create. Amongst the many talented artists here are Bwana Spoons, Charlie Alan Kraft, Miq Wilmott (transplanted from LA) and a pile more.
Does each UNKL designer concentrate on a different product or is teamwork at play on each item in the collections?
With our styles being so different between Derek and myself we compliment each other well. I tend to bring a more anatomical element to things, as in SUG, UlliGUS, SearchR and the like.
Derek likes to keep it simple as with Hazmapo, UniPo, TinPo, The Dad Gummit Blobs and others in that world. Although one of us may begin with an idea for a character, everything we do is touched by one another. If one does the form the other may create the story and graphics and we never do anything unless we both agree to give it the green light. Sometimes we give in to each other if one or the other really wants to do something the other is not totally crazy about, but we always sign off on each other’s ideas in the end.
Is UNKL records operational? Was that an extension of UNKL to include both vinyl and things inspired by vinyl?
UNKL records was really started to help a good friend get his band’s album released. We like to support the efforts of other artists, especially those who may not have the resources to do so. Unfortunately we only have so much in the way of time and resources to help out. If another band comes along we may jump in to help, but nothing is on the radar right now. It just all depends on who the band is and what they do.
I like so many different types of music and Derek is pretty much into either old-timey country western or super heavy metal, so we’d have to find the right band to fit what we both like if we did it again with UNKL records.
What goals do you still have for UNKL?
We love the UNKL fans that have been with us from the start (and even new ones). There are some hardcore UNKL followers out there and that’s flattering to say the least, but the next step for UNKL is to push it a bit further and introduce new audiences to what we do.
We’re expanding our apparel with Fifth Sun handling that for us, and are working up a lot of accessories and extensions. We are working on some projects we call “UNKL Presents” and those are our interpretations on existing characters. We like taking stuff that’s known already and killer as it is, but then putting an UNKL spin on it. The SpongeBob and Friends project we presented at SDCC is the first of many you’ll see in the future.
Really, we just want to see UNKL keep going and for us to especially be able to still create the smaller run, more limited characters. That’s what got us here and we’re going to continue it. One thing on expanding – back when we sold TinPo so it could be developed for entertainment, some people cried “Sell-outs” at us. If putting one of our creations in a position to really come to life as a full-on animated feature or television series is selling out then sign us up. Most things we’ll keep to ourselves, but we do develop properties that we’ll probably never make into toys that we’d be willing to sell so they can live on in other ways. We don’t feel glued to the toy-making model at all. We’re open to a lot of ideas and approaches.
One other thing regarding the future: The best way for anyone to get the latest poop on what UNKL is up to is to visit us on Facebook to either “like” us at the UNKL page or “friend” us at the UNKL Hazmapo page. We’re trimming the unklbrand.com website down and trying to spend less time selling and maintaining that and more time creating the good stuff. Lots going on. Stay tuned…