Kustom Kungfu With The NVC Crew

arriving unto the designer vinyl scene with their unique style of customization, the Canadian-duo of NVC Crew has made their mark time and again with their sculptural artworks and dioramas, which further pushes the boundaries of both "toy" and "art".

in this fifth installment of Toysrevil-interviews, i had the opportunity to get deep into the minds, motivations and the kustom-kungfu of Dr. Bao and Spive.

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TOYSREVIL: who are the NVC Crew? tell us about yourselves, your "dayjobs" and how does customizing affect them, or visa versa?

SPIVE: I am 26 and I live in Montreal. I studied in Administration and I work part time in a hospital now, so the rest of the time I put my energy into my creations while listening to music and watching TV, so customizing toys doesn't affect my day job at all :)

Since I was a kid, I always liked video games, cartoons and anything related to martial arts, samurai, ninjas, shaolin monks and stuff like that. Ever since high school, I've been a fan of real hip hop. It all started with Black Moon, Smif 'n' Wessun and the whole BCC and of course Wu-Tang Clan. Then there was Gangstarr, Pete Rock CL Smooth, etc ... more recently there is Mos Def, Talib Kweli Mad Lib,RJD2 and for sure MF Doom. Since the age of 18 I've been practicing Kung-Fu. I started with traditional chinese kung-fu (Hung Gar style). By the way that's how me and Dr Bao met. As a freak, Dr.Bao find a Wushu school in Montreal and Bao convince me to go practicing Contempory Wushu with him!!!!!

We then did Wushu and started doing competitions together. I'm still doing Wushu today but I take it (more) easy because I had gotten injured in the past. So that explain our interests martial arts and hip hop and how it perpetuates throughout our customs work.

DR.BAO: I'm the old man in the crew! I'm 31 but will be 32 in a few weeks! I was born in Vietnam but moved to Montreal, Canada in 1982 when I was 7 years old with my family, uncles, aunts and grand-parents. So I almost grew up in Montreal. When we arrived in Montreal, my uncles used to bring me to a theatre in Chinatown to watch kung-fu movies! At home, they'd rent martial arts series and movies too, so I've always been into martial arts! Like Spive said, we met together at a kung-fu school and from then, we became good friends and always hang together until now :)

I first studied in nursing, got my B.SC in Nursing in 1996, and because I graduated from university young (21 years old), I decided to go back to school to do my dentistry course, where I graduated and got my D.M.D (doctorat in medicine dentistry) in 2001. I worked for other dentists at the beginning, but but just got tired of the boring environment and "industrial" way of practice at these places, and so I decided to open my own clinic in 2002.

DR.BAO: I gave it a retro look with all vintage and original 1970's furnitures and decorate it the way I want and now it almost looks like a gallery/clinic since all the walls are covered of paintings. I even make a "toy room" in which I display my collection of toys and of course our customs toys that we're making! All my patients know that I design and customize toys and I introduce them to my universe and passion.

BAO: As a surgeon dentist at my clinic during the day, I actually condense my schedule to 3 working days of 10-12 hours, so I can have some free time to do my artwork. altho I have to find some time to do the administration work of my clinic too ... More than that, I do have my family life with my 4 years old son, 8 years old daughter and my girlfriend! As you can see, it's not that easy to organize all that! So most of the time, Spive will come one time during the week at my clinic and we will work on our artwork, then I have to work on my art during nights when the kids are sleeping, very early in the morning before kids are wake up and on week-end!!!!

I think I have one heck of a crazy life!!! But because I'm a passionate about and really like what I'm doing, everything seems to flow better!!! But I have to admit that I would like to have more free time to work on toys!!!

TRE: 24 hours never seem to be enough in a day, eh? i can so relate LOL ~ so how long have you guys been doing customs? what got you started in the first place?

SPV: Well before I started to do vinyl customs, I was creating articulated robots in clay and Dr Bao thought they were great. Then my first custom job was for an event that Dr Bao did at his dental clinic. It was inspired by the Tag the System event. He bought a whole bunch of HO scale trains and gave them to various artists and had a show with it. I did of course a robot train. At that time Dr Bao had already started to buy some vinyl toys and introduced me to that funky kind of toys. Then we went on different forums to take look at what other people are customizing. So we said why couldn't we try and do one. So we did our first piece Nakamura, a red armored samurai with a skull face for the Gee Whizz show and it paid off because our first piece was even featured in Clutter magazine.

BAO: I have to start by saying that I always did customs on all kind of things. In the 90's, while i was in high school, i'd started customizing jeans and hoodies, which were the fashionable rage at that time. Later in 1993-94 I was more into graffiti and created the NBC crew with my friend Back 175 which became for a few years quite "legendary" in Montreal.

BAO: One day, I was reading the Juxtapoz mag and saw Klim's Tag the System show, and because I was into graffiti - I dug big time the graffiti on trains! I was like hey this is damn cool! So I was thinking of how I can do something similar to Klim's show (without doing exactly the same thing) And because I had already owned some Ho trains in the past, I was like: hey let's do the show but with these trains?! - I can create a train layout and make them roll for real! So I called and invited all my friends and almost the whole scene of writers in Montreal to contribute to my show!

[sample HO-train customs here @ my mutliply-album]

BAO: As for how the NVC crew started, well one day I picked up the phone and called Spive... I told him; "hey what do you think if we're taking the Wu Tang Clan concept and create a crew's name and start doing customs?" - I just knew that Spive and I can be a good duo since I knew how skilled he was. He came to my house and I showed him what people were doing with toys, and the day after that I started on Nakamura and Spive came to help me to continue the job ... and a week after, it was and became the first NVC custom-toy :)

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TRE: how do the concepts of your creations came about? what inspires you? i read a lot about your music influences, do you play any "customizing music" when you work your art? LOL

SPV: To begin with we do a lot of brainstorming to get a vision about how the concept will be. If you are familiar with our work you probably know that most of our inspiration comes from martial arts, hip hop, sometimes video games and also cartoon and animation movies - ie: most of the stuff in what we grew up with! But we try not to limit ourselves to only that when it comes to customizing toys. We might have to go out of the box, depending on what we are customizing. So mostly our concepts are about what we generally like in life.

When we do customs we mostly listen to real old school hip hop, or sometimes Jazz, Funk, Soul and/or R'n'B, anything that grooves and makes bounce, so you can get in a cool trance.

BAO: I enjoy a lot instrumental beats and music. people like RJD2, Madlib, Blockhead - this is what I like the most to listen when I'm doing paper works at the clinic. I really like some old jazz, funk and soul music too, I'm kind of an old school guy!
When I'm customizing, most of the time I don't put on anything because I'm working on the kitchen desk at my house and it's just in front of my son's room ... and since I don't want to wake him up, I don't play anything! but it's ok, I can concentrate more on what I'm doing! As you can see, we're quite "ghetto artist", we don't have studios or anything like that!!!! :)

What is really important for us is to really know what's the concept we will be working on. As you probably see thru our work, most of them are based around a certain theme. Most of the time, we don't just do a custom for the sake of doing a custom. We take the time to make a diorama and try to set a mood or story to it. I would say that asian pop culture inspires me a lot too ... it's probably because of my asian side! :)

TRE: how do you start a project? do you sketch out something first? and how did you decide on the execution and presentation of your toys?

BAO: I would say that Spive and I work pretty much in a freestyle way. I mean, after a brainstorming session, we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do in our heads and we can start right away on the custom. We don't draw anything in advance, it's just like Spive and I have telepathy and we "transmit" the pics of what we're seeing into each other's heads! LOL

We usually start by choosing a toy platfrom to work on, most of the time we choose a toy that is simple to work with. Because in Montreal, where there are not much vinyl toys available, we often use the Dunny (for example) and adapt the design of our character to it. But some times we may have to work with what company gives us for a show or exhibition. In that case we try to find a concept that fit the toy and the type of event as much as possible.

SPV: Once we have our main idea, we start our work. Our weapon of choice is polymer clay, so we start by choosing the dominant colors and the contrast between them, color coordination is very important to us. Dr.Bao really likes to play with contrast and lights. The visual concept takes form during the creation. Of course we know what details there will be, but we never precisely know how we will design them. We try something and if it works we keep it that way.

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BAO: Because of that, even if we have our general style, we always try something new or different in each custom, so even if you have an idea of what we do, you'd never really know what to expect from us ... I would say that when I was into graffiti, it was similar to the way I was painting too: I would only sit down to have my first outline done, and once I got it, all the "filling" is based on freestyle. We sometimes have to draw something very roughly, especially when we have to sculpt something with a specific look, style or shape....but it's almost the only time that we're sketching.

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[the crew working on a Moody-custom!]

SPV: And depending on the type of work that we do, we sometimes add-on other elements such as jewels or anything that we can find that can achieve the effect that we wanted to have. And because we don't sketch our customs in advance, we never know for sure what exact details it will have and how it will precisely look when its finished. I think that may be a more creative process because we never know exactly how it will end up! It's more fun for us and the public because nobody knows how our next job will look like.

Once the figure is finished, we then decide on the diorama in in which the character will fit in. We use dioramas to put the figure in a context, which serves to tell a story about the toy. We found out that it adds a lot to the presentation of our final work.

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BAO: When we initially started to do customs, we did only the figures ... But the day when we started doing dioramas, I told Spive; "Forget it, we will never go back and just do figures by themselves!" I mean, it was cool what we we're doing before, but there was something missing ... well, imagine The Afro Samurai standing alone by himself ... I think it will never have the same flavor as it's with the diorama ... it's really day and night, with and without the diorama ... it really adds something special to the piece :)

And because of my experience in photography, I just love to take some nice pics of the project....I set all my lights, backdrop and start the photo shooting session to have some nice pics of what we did - I think it's almost as important as the custom itself! I mean, these pics are what people will be seeing, and most of the time, people might not have the chance to see it in real person ... so to me the pics have to be as nice as possible so people can really have a good idea of your work!!!!

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BAO: As you can see, we do care a lot of how our product will look like and the presentation of it......It's part of the job!!!! And as for any other sketches, when we work on our own series of toys that re to be produced, we will eventually have to sit down and sketch all the characters one by one, because we will have to sculpt them from scratch and would want them to have their own style ... but this is for later during the year!

TRE: coolness, that's great news for NVC Crew-fans! remember to drop pics our way, yeh? LOL ~ but i've always wondered, ever since i saw your customs and knowing NVC Crew is a duo-tag-team, how do the both of you work on a project? who does what? is it a permanent arrangement? or do you guys switch sometimes?

SPV: There is no strict rule to who does what exactly. We can both work on anything on a project, but generally we both do a lot of sculpting. I may specialize more in sculpting structures and creating textures and volume. And I have more potential when it comes to sculpting big things and I am good to create props to go with the setting.

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SPV: While Dr. Bao can sculpt almost anything but he is really great when it comes to do something small-scaled, the Bronze Migration is the perfect example of how hardcore and sick in the head he can be!!!!!! He is also more about style and flava. Most of the time he add all the finishing touch to the work, like retouching lines, cleaning and painting over.

BAO: As Spive said, I think we're both very versatile and it's what helps us progress pretty fast. Even if we can do almost whatever we want, we still help each other during our sessions. I consider myself lucky, because I can always ask Spive to help me if I'm not sure of how to do something. And because we do not have the same background, we don't neccessarily do the things in the same way, so we always learn from each other.

TRE: were your current signature customs done in the medium of your choice? if so, why? and did/have you both explored other mediums before deciding on the current?

SPV: Yes, I used to sculpt in clay before that and I am more at ease with clay than paint. We prefer clay especially because you can create volume and you can really transform the toy in what you want. We can, if we want, add any kind medium to it, so to us it's the perfect base. We didn't try to explore other mediums because we started this way and immediatly had a good response from the toy industry .It became our style. People recognize us for that. We get recognize also for working on small toy scales.

BAO: Because of my studies in dentistry, I learned a lot on sculpting tech. We had courses of how to sculpt teeth on wax, so it was obvious and natural to stretch my learning experience in dentistry to customizing toys! The transition wasn't hard at all - I use the exact same instruments that I use to sculpt wax teeth or carve/sculpt teeth in patients mouth in amalgalm or resin, to customize my toys! It's just like an extension of my daily job as a dentist, but now I can create whatever I want and not only teeth!!!!

BAO: And because I'm doing some paintings too, I'm quite at ease with paint ... but unlike other artists I would say that I'm not only into a "painting job" on a toy ... I mean, what I like about toys, is that you have something that is in 3D, so you have to take advantage of it and do something in 3D. The other thing I like about scuplting and 3D is that when you're looking at your toys at different angles, you really have textures, relief and shapes so it just more fun to look at than a flat surface. But at the same time, I like to paint...that's why we're blending both techniques, sculpting and painting :)

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[view more smash-cans artwork done by Dr.Bao for the La Luz de Jesus gallery group show 2006, on my multiply-album]

TRE: and im sure you wash your instruments, yeh? LOL ~ tell us more about your creations. what are your most memorable customs? any personal favourites?

BAO: Well as you can see, we're a lot influence by anything related to martial arts and urban/ street culture. We knew that if we wanted to be recognized, we have to be real and stay true to what we believed in too ... So our first 2 customs (Nakamura and Takashi) served as a "test", to see the reaction of the toy industry and to what we were doing. And we were very pleased to see that we had gotten very good reactions from people. We then started "for real" and put more and more energy into our work, and that's also how we came with dioramas for all the rest of our customs.

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BAO: I would say that all our projects have something special in it. But I would say that we have a few signature projects. As you can see, we'd often use small platform toys for our customs ... but we made an exception when we did the Grendizer project. For us, it was obvious that we had to take a bigger toy than the 3'' Dunny, to give the illusion that he is a big gigantic robot!

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TRE: i remember watching the Grendizer video-clip on Kidrobot! (can't find it now tho :p)

Grendizer is our all timer favorite animation character, being our idol when we were kids! I still remember how I used to sit and wait in front of my TV every Saturday morning, to watch his series ... So that project was a tribute to a character that had influenced us a lot and represents an icon in animation history here :)

One of the projects that I'm attached to most is the Bronze Migration project. This project started when a fan and member of Kid Robot forums ask us if we can do Nakamura on the very tiny Munny Zipperpull! I then talked to Spive about what I was going to try, and he just went "You're crazy man! This toy is way too small to do whatever on it!" ... but i told myself that I'm gonna challenge myself and try to do it... and I finally did a new version of Nakamura on this crazy tiny toy! But at the same time, it was so small that it woudn't be nice to just keep him "alone" ... I had then found Kozik's mini Labbitt and Bob Monger in a toy store and I knew that was what I'd needed to complete the set and and I came out with a weird Labbit-animal, pulling a Bob Monger warrior slug with Nakamura sitting on top.

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BAO: The inspiration for this project came from the title of Bronze Nazareth's (member of the Wu Tang Clan) album; "The Great Migration" - I combined both names and come out with The Bronze Migration! I was quite happy with this project because I'd used 3 toy platforms, found a way to combine them, that fits well together and that someone could believe it "originally" came like that. We received a very good response from the toy industry ... Mr Frank Kozik himself even send us an email asking us for the hi-res pics of this custom!

And I would say that 2 of our most "famous" projects are the Shaolin vs Wu Tang and the Afro Samurai project:

BAO: We had always wanted to do some Shaolin monks, but we were looking for ideas of how we can do something cool with them and not only about making Shaolin Monks alone ... so one day we decided to take the classic kung fu movie and redo it!

We didn't want to just do some regular ninjas that people use to see. We wanted them to have some hip hop twist in the way they wear their suit.....If you look carefully, Spive incorporate some hip hop fashion icon to the way he wear his ninjas...Like instead of just putting a mask on his ninjas ....he make them wears bandana or ski mask...just like some hip hop heads are doing....

But I have to tell you that this project is not finish at all... We released the pics of our 2 first ones to let people know that we're working on this project and because we wanted to be the first in the toy industry to do a project on the Shaolin Monks combine with the Wu Tang concept.... But we have some surprise for this project and all I can say is that once it will be finish.....the person who will buy and own it will have something very special in his possession.....

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With this project we don't only reach toy collectors but we reach some fans of Wu Tang that doesn't know anything about vinyl toy...but they dig what we did because it's related to Wu Tang!!!! We regularly receive emails from people asking to buy them. What's also cool is that even some members of Wu Tang even wrote to us to show their support ....and that's quite cool!!!

BAO: Finally our last customs of 2006.... The Afro Samurai!!!!

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BAO: I think this is my favorite custom overall....I mean, it's not really a hard custom in term of details, but it's all about the style and flavor that we give to the character. I was at a bookstore one day and put my hands on an anime mag with the picture of the Afro Samurai on the cover....I was like....ohhhhhhhh this is sooo nice........we have to do something related to it...I showed it to Spive and he was 10000% down to do it.... It was the perfect kind of combo in term of concept......hip hop mixed with martial arts......and an Afro Black Samurai as the main character....Ohhh man.......I'm a big fan of big afro hair just like these guys from the Sly and The Family Stone music group so you can easily understand how happy I was now that I can do some Afro guy!!!!!

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I recently received an email from one of the writers of the Afro Samurai animation series and he's digging big time on the project....So that's a very good news for us since it means that it was noticed by people who did the seires.....Now would be cool if the pics come to RZA or Samuel L. Jackson!!!!

TRE: memorable customs indeed! i haveta say, i can't wait for more of your works :) ... what are you working on now, or have just completed?

SPV: We keep on making new customs for different shows. We're working right now on our custom for the Vinyl Element show coming in March. It's a show organized by Vinyl Pulse and will feature the top 40 toy customizers wordlwide. We're working on our biggest custom job so far, and because we know how high the level will be and we just want to be ready for it.

and here's an added treat: an "exclusive first look" at their recently completed custom (privately commissioned): The Grim Reaper!

TRE: *schweet!* and besides your customs, are there any further developments of your own creations planned, other than your customs? any "top-secret" toys being mass-produced in the near future? LOL

SPV: We've been approached by some toy companies to develop some projects. But we didn't really start doing anything yet. We mostly branstorm and discuss on phone every day to see what we will come up with......For sure mass production is one of our goals, but we will always do customs becasue it's there that we can try and experiment new stuff.
BAO: I'm into discussions with a major videogames company for a collaboration ... I can't say more about it since I'm waiting a call from them to see how we can do this collaboration ...

TRE: aw, man! the mystery is killing me! hahahaha but yes, we will await with baited breathe and look forward to your toys :) - finally, tell us what you hope for your creations to do, for you and the toy collector.

BAO: Well what I would really like is the recognition of customs toys as a art form. I mean, it would be great if the collectors consider them as equal value as a painting or sculptures. To me it's obvious that what we're doing is an artwork. That's what I'm trying to explain and to educate my patients at my clinic.

As for what we're hoping our creations to do, well we try to reach more than just toy collectors. We want to do some collaborations with people in the movie, videogames and music industry ...The best thing is how to get people that are not in the toy industry, to get interested in toys ... and that's what we're working on.

TRE: thanks for a great interview, guys! any other words or thoughts you'd like to share with your readers, friends, fans and family?

DR.BAO: I would first like to thank you Andy to give me the opportunity for this interview to talk about our love and passion of customs toys on Toysrevil!!!!

I would also like to thank my girlfriend, my 2 children and parents that help me a lot by giving me some free time and their support during my stressful periods when I'm working on a project! Finally I have a few people that I would like to mention for their help and support in our artwork; Producer Johnny IllDigger and his crew from the Boom Bap Cats for his help on some of the visual presentation of our work. Ted, Jack and Francine, Brian, MD, Emily ... There's too much people to mention but for all the people that knows me and our fans = Thanks a lot for your support!!!

SPIVE: I would like to thank my dad and mom for their support ... My good friends Johnny Ill Digger and Mister Slang from the Boom Bap Cats ... And just like Dr.Bao said; To all our supporters and fans = Thanks a lot!!!

TOYSREVIL: my sincere thanks to both Spive and Dr Bao for taking precious time to do this interview and for the sweet images! best wishes to the NVC Crew for what is going to be a happening 2007 :)

- check out their customs at NVC@blogspot :)

[original post circa 02.02.07]


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