Frank Kozik is misunderstood. Or maybe he’s perfectly understood in a scene with many contradictions. Either way, he’s earned a living making stuff he likes for three decades. At the age of 48, he’s already been a successful poster artist and run his own record label. These days, most people know Frank Kozik from his toy art, which began in Japan with Medicom and Bounty Hunter. In the early part of this decade, Kidrobot discovered him through a credit card order, and what followed set the course for both Kozik and the American vinyl toy scene.
Frank invited us over to visit his San Francisco studio-slash-toy shrine this week. Perhaps you’ve met Kozik before, at a toy signing or event, and come away thinking he seemed jaded or grouchy. (I have.) But at his home base, the man who gave birth to a million smoking bunny rabbits was at ease and open. For a couple hours, we talked about toys (there to make people happy), art (jury’s out on what it is) and money (one of Frank’s unabashed favorite things). Frank answered every question we lobbed his way. Ultraviolence? Fiberglass on the way. More Kaiju? Maybe in 2011. Current music? “Old metal and flavor-of-the-week fake South African hip hop.” Let’s begin at the beginning.
Jeremy: At the risk of encouraging our readers to max out their credit cards, did you really get hooked up with Kidrobot by being a customer?
Frank Kozik: One day they called me up and said, “We saw your name on the credit card order. Are you the guy who did shit with Medicom?” I said, yeah, and they said, “Do you wanna make toys with us?” And I was like, FUCK YEAH, DUDE.
Two years ago, you talked about exclusion in the music business versus inclusion in the toy scene, saying “There’s no weird politics, there’s no hassles.” Is that still true?
Frank Kozik: I was around for punk rock and everything that came after, and I had a record label, and the reason I got out of music is because there’s all these fucking assholes that just want to build this little fort. In the old days of the punk rock scene, we’d all band together because everybody was against us. It didn’t matter what kind of weird music you like: we’re all weirdos so we all work together to make a cool things happen. You’d go to the punk rock club and all the gays and old stoners and freaky cowboy dudes were mixing with the punkers and new wavers. But over the years everybody wanted to have their own army, and I got to hate it and I got out of the music scene.
What I like about the Kidrobot thing, the mainstream toy scene, is its kind of like [the old punk rock scene]: there’s 12 year olds and old dudes and most people have a little bit of smarts going on and they’re interested in other cultural things. And like the custom scene, it can still be inclusive.
What I didn’t like about the kaiju scene is it’s like a lot of dudes who were the same kind of punkrocknerdfucks [from the music business] who live in their basement and say things like, “I collect Misfits singles.” Their whole trip is power through exclusion. How sterile can you get? I really like the kaiju stuff and I know all the Japanese guys so I got to make it all, but dealing with the elitists just got really negative.
What I’ve done is whenever any part of the toy scene gets real snipey or trendy, I’m like, I’ll go make some more rabbits because whatever, it makes a lot of people happy. I have no interest in some bizarre elitist trip with it because it’s not what they’re for. Everybody should just have a good time. I don’t come from any kind of hip hop graffiti skateboard trip. That was never my scene. A lot of those toys are kind of mean-spirited. They’re not very fun; it’s a thug creature. I came from the Japanese thing, the Lau stuff is cool, but I don’t really like the humanoids. I like animals or blobs or monsters.
Luckily for me, I sell enough Kidrobot stuff that I can experiment with my own shit. While I care about what people think, I’m not trying to chase trends anymore. I’ve got the bread and butter toys. The Labbits and the Mongers sell like Pez: it’s awesome. It brings people to the hobby. I make enough money to do the Army Men toys or some other weird thing that’s more art-like. To me it’s a good balance. I’m not really worried about chasing a trend or being cool.
What do you say to people who are critical of the repetition, which at its best is considered “iconic” and at its worst is called “lazy”?
Frank Kozik: I know from the record label days, people crave novelty all the time. You have to have a lot of new releases to keep the energy flow going. My thing is a maximum amount of releases. I don’t care if it’s the same figure in different colorways. You gotta have something that’s good for the retailers too, you gotta have fresh inventory to make your store look good. I try to do a thing with Kidrobot where we put out a lot of stuff and keep the price points reasonable. I try to design stuff so that it will appeal to the toy collector but also the “normal” person that walks in and might go “oh that’s really cute” and buy it and that brightens their day and helps the store.
Also my thing, too, is I’m just trying to design really good toys that can be manufactured. I want to appeal to the most amount of people that I can.
You once said you put out a new release every week.
Frank Kozik: I’m producing more characters, I don’t keep track of the amount anymore. In March, there’s like 9 releases. It’s not a release every week, but there’s still a lot of shit coming out. All the old stuff, it’s kept reprinted. At any given point, if you count them individually, there’s like 200 toys on the marketplace. Kidrobot is keeping stuff as “evergreen,” which means you’ll be able to buy the Ramirez Banana forever. It’s not like there’s a toy coming out and then it disappears. I’ve always got inventory on the shelves.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Kidrobot. Many people feel they’ve lost focus, and a common criticism is that they’re turning out “Happy Meal Toys.”
Frank Kozik: Well, Kidrobot is a for-profit entity. They have spent a lot of money on weird experimental products, and you know what? No one buys them. You can do that once, twice, a dozen, two dozen times like they have, but after you’ve blown several million dollars making really cool artistic product lines that nobody buys, you have to make some Happy Meal toys to stay open, to keep going. Personally, I’ve worked with Kidrobot a long time, and I’ve seen them go to the wall for artists. I’ve seen them take huge risks and make really cool art toys, and the reality is everyone on the forum goes,”That’s rad! I want one!” And then you get it in the store, and it doesn’t sell.
But then the dumb little smoking bunny comes out, and you can sell a thousand of them. There isn’t some happy person that’s gonna keep funding Kidrobot to the tune of $5 million a year so they can make art. Now if one of those complainers wants to do it, then awesome: he’s the most biggest superhero of all time. So what Kidrobot does is they have a really good business model and they’re making it work, and every once in a while they can squeeze out a really rad art piece that doesn’t make them any money. It’s better than nothing. What’s the alternative? If nobody’s a sell out, then nothing’s going to exist.
All those guys complaining, are they making stuff, are they hiring people, what are they doing? They’re just consuming and complaining. I always tell people: you think my shit sucks? That’s awesome, do it better, blow me away, and I’ll buy your stuff. I went through this in spades with the music business. I’d put out these really cool bands, and we’d sell like 300 records. They got the same ad campaign, same push, but whatever, nobody really liked their shit that much even though they were so rad. Then I’d put out some crappy L7 live album and sell 45,000 units. What are you gonna do? The L7 shit paid for the 6 records that nobody bought. That’s how it works.
In the world of punk rock stuff, I put out these insane experimental noise bands, and all these people that did weird shit and the concept was really cool, but unfortunately it wasn’t good music: it was just cool energy. At the end of the day, you’re driving around in a car, you just want to listen to something with a beat. It’s exactly the same thing with the toys. I’ve done some pretty weird, fucked up toys I thought were cool and nobody bought them. With the little rabbit I sell hundreds of thousands of them a year.
I have artistic freedom because I take the rabbit money, and I make whatever I want, like a weird mechanical banana sculpture. If I had started Oracle, would I be doing like 100-foot long bananas in the desert? Sure I would. But I don’t exist in that crazy rich artist reality. I think I do OK though.
Besides Kidrobot, what other companies do you think are at the top of their game?
Frank Kozik: I think Jamungo’s doing a lot of cool shit. Ferg’s a good friend of mine. He’s consistently putting out really cool stuff. I really like the Muttpop stuff. I think the characters are pretty cool, but the quality of their releases is stellar. Their stuff is always really nicely made. There’s a few independent dudes like Bwana and those guys who make really cool trippy stuff. Medicom stuff is always great but they can’t figure out how to get it to people in America (or they’re not interested). The KAWS stuff is cool.
Another topic that’s being debated lately is “art” vs. “toy.” Some toy collectors are resistant to the highbrow nature of “art,” and some artists don’t like the lowbrow implication of “toy.” Are you a toy artist?
Frank Kozik: The deal is, I personally don’t like to put categories on stuff because it’s fuckin’ goofy. Anything can be art and nothing can be art. I’m really into cars and motorcycles, so I spent 15 years building a motorcycle for myself that is probably the greatest piece of art I’ll ever make. Not only does it look really great and it was a cool experience and I learned all this shit, but you can actually sit on it and ride it. To me, that’s art. Maybe to someone who started out as a fine artist, it’s not art; it’s a motorcycle.
I don’t know what art is. Art maybe is some dude that’s fucked and cuts his ear off and lives on crap in a hole somewhere and is insane and pukes all his shit out onto a canvas and dies and 100 years later people decide its cool. Is that art? I don’t know. Or is art like some elaborate renaissance guy with a big studio who is patronized by the Pope and has all of his assistants doing his stuff. Is that art? I don’t know what the fuck art is, dude. All I know is that I like to make stuff. When I was a little kid I made models, and I’d draw comics, and then I did punk rock posters. I like to make stuff, and then I’ll get tired and figure out a way to do something else. Some people think I’m an artist and other people think my shit sucks. Whatever. All their opinions are valid. I’m just lucky because enough people seem to like my stuff where I can sell it all for enough money to do more. That, to me, is the formula.
You’ve done high end projects, but meanwhile you’re this dude who makes toys with buttholes. Do you get a kick out of that? What does it mean when Barney’s comes to you for a commission?
Frank Kozik: Money. You have to understand, I come from underground music. There’s this bizarre concept that if you’re a real artist you have to suffer. I’ll disagree with that statement. The more money I make, the happier I am and the weirder shit I can do. Every time I get a big paycheck from a big corporation, I will turn it around and blow it on doing something I want to personally make. That way, everyone benefits.
I had this pseudo-legendary status record label, broke all these great bands, revived old bands, put out a lot of cool shit, and the only reason that label existed is because I did an ad campaign for Nike. They paid me a ton of money for a shoe, and from that I was able to start a record label. I come from nowhere. I’m an immigrant. I didn’t graduate from high school. I worked blue collar for years. I was in the military. I didn’t discover my artistic abilities til I was almost 30 (through the good graces of punk rock). I know what it’s like to live on the street, and it fucking sucks dude. I like money. I like having a decent place to live and a nice workspace and not having to worry about buying lunch because when I’m not stressing about that, I can sit around and make weird shit. Money makes my life easier, and it allows me to create something novel in the world that usually seems to bring other people pleasure.
I have no problem doing stuff for someone like Barneys. I do the same thing for Barneys that I’d do for the most obscure local punk rock band. I might tailor it with their end customer in mind but the process and the amount of effort they get is exactly the same. One Barney’s contract pays for 100 jobs that I think are cool but the people don’t have any money. So everybody benefits.
I didn’t go to art school and do all this weird shit. The first art I did I got paid for. I started in a T-shirt shop. I’ve been paid for everything I’ve ever done, except when I chose to do it for free or trade. I don’t have any problem getting paid to do my shit. Now, is what I do art? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like to try to think that I’m a designer. I design stuff. There’s no tortured soul here.
Although Pop Art made some headway, still many people have trouble accepting commercial art.
Frank Kozik: One thing you have to understand about my work is that it’s not very romantic. What I do is not about me. It’s not an ego exercise or some driven vision. I don’t have to have a point. There are no crazy needs to be filled that get in the way of being successful. I will do one thing for a while as long as it seems to work. I transitioned from punk rock to grunge, from posters to a record label, to fine art. The toys have been great. Some day the toys will go away, and we’ll all find something else to do. I just want to be able to be a freelancer forever. I haven’t had a boss for 30 years. I want to die not having a boss. I don’t care if next year it turns out I design moccasins. If that’s what I do, that’s what I do.
You and me (knock wood) have managed to turn our hobbies into careers. What advice do you have for our readers looking to do the same?
Frank Kozik: Everyone has an idea. There’s plenty of ideas, and there’s plenty of people who want stuff. The problem is how to get your idea to them. That’s where the real world steps in. You want to be a successful creative type? Become literate. Learn how to do math. Pay attention to some kind of personal grooming or physical charismatic presentation, so when you walk into a place you can effectively communicate with people. I can function in the weirdo environment, but I can also go to the bank and have an intelligent adult conversation with a loan officer to get money to start a business. I can communicate to an accountant, I can read contracts. Those skills are just as important as the creative skills because at some point, you have to intersect with the real world.
Neon Monster has a store. If you were just high and drunk and naked and like, “dude we don’t know what the prices are,” your store’s gonna fail. You need to combine it, like OK, we like this trippy shit, but we can organize stuff. You don’t need to be 100% business or 100% creative, but you need to find a manageable combination.
People wake up in the morning and go to bed at night. If you’re the weird dude who sleeps all day and is up at night, nothing’s gonna happen for you. It’s just common sense. As dumb as it sounds, take some business classes, learn how to do basic accounting, think about physical reality.
Other than designing moccasins, what would you be doing if not toys?
Frank Kozik: I’d like to build drag cars. If I could do anything for a living, I’d build race cars. Not that I’m unhappy. What I’ve actually accomplished has so far outstripped any desires I’d ever had.