In the week that the UK unveils a much-maligned nation-wide advertising campaign encouraging creatives to retrain for roles in cyber security, and with the arts industry under immense pressure the world over due to venue closures, sportswear brand ASICS has this week unveiled a collaboration with 30 emerging artists in the Southeast Asia region. Initiated as a way of marking the 30TH anniversary of ASICS’s GEL-LYTE III design, the project offers a much-needed platform for artistic talent and demonstrates the important power of creative collaboration.
Having debuted in 1990, the ASICS GEL-LYTE III pays tribute to legendary designer Shigeyuki Mitsui, and in this campaign, heroes the heritage of the style whilst imbuing it with a newfound modernity. The artists that ASICS selected come from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, and have each put their own unique spin on the GEL-LYTE III by creating their own interpretation of the sneaker, in the style of their individual art practice, the shoe as their canvas, so to speak.
One of the 30 creatives tapped for the project is 25-year-old recent NTU graduate, illustrator Toby Tan – better known by his moniker TOBYATO – who already counts Uniqlo and Netflix among his clients. Tan’s life-sized mural on a Punggol basketball court in 2019 made headlines for the emerging artist. In his creation for ASICS, Tan, has drawn on the dual inspiration of ASICS’s tiger stripes and the traditional Chinese belief that winds of the Earth come from a tiger’s breath. His custom design for the GEL-LYTE III features an asymmetrical black and white sneaker pair that reflects the raw and turbulent power of creativity in our current world climate. Below, TOBYATO speaks exclusively to Esquire Singapore about the project.
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It's 2020 and this year, ASICS is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the GEL-LYTE III. I am honoured to be one of 30 creatives across Southeast Asia invited by ASICS to make their mark on the iconic sneaker silhouette. Here is me speaking about my design and my hopes for the creative industry in 30 years! @asics_sportstyle_sg #ASICSSPORTSTYLESG #GELLYTEIII Video by : @commoncray
Tell us about how your work developed – did you train in painting growing up or in university, or is your art self-taught?
Prior to university, my “art” only existed as doodles on the homework and textbooks of a science steam student. At that point I never considered my art living anywhere beyond the confines of my worksheets. It was only when I was finally surrounded by creatives in an art studio where I taught kids how to paint, that I knew then that I wanted to pursue art for the rest of my life and haven’t looked back since.
During my university course at NTU ADM, I was fully aware that I was few good years behind my peers who had years of prior art education. So, I made it a point to develop my work both in and outside of university. The combination of school and outside work really helped me develop the foundation for a lot of the work that I do now.
Where are your ideas and references and influences drawn from?
I am very much inspired by things people tend to overlook. This ranges from origin stories about a neighbourhood, the heritage of a brand or even mythical creatures and animals that once held a huge significance but have started to lose relevance in our fast-paced, modern world.
There's a graffiti element to your large-scale works, but that's not something that's traditionally embraced in clean Singapore – is it ever a challenge creating these types of works and trying to obtain the freedom of expression or space to do so?
On the note of the graffiti element in my large-scale works, I guess it depends on how you define what “graffiti” refers to. Many people would not consider nor categorise my works as “graffiti” and I wouldn’t consider myself a graffiti artist by any stretch of the word. I would consider my works to be more in the public/street art realm.
That being said, a friend once told me that freedom without constraints is not freedom at all. So, in the context of clean Singapore, I do think the constraints of space is and always will be a challenge for creating art in public spaces. But at the same time, it is that same challenge that forces us artists to get creative and push ourselves to create more within certain constraints as opposed to free reign with no restrictions over an open canvas. But of course, I’m sure many artists would agree that more spaces, more relaxed regulations and a general shift of public art into a more positive light would be very much appreciated.
What are the challenges – or opportunities – in applying your work to a smaller scale (but 3D) object like shoes?
I have a fascination with translating artwork onto different mediums and canvases. So I was excited at the chance to paint on the iconic ASICS GEL-LYTE III. The GEL-LYTE III is such a timeless silhouette with an amazing repertoire of colourways and collabs. The challenge I set for myself was to try to do something that hasn’t been done before, and I hope I managed to achieve something close to that.
What was your idea for the Asics project?
For the ASICS GEL-LYTE III 30th anniversary campaign, I wanted to create a design that related not just to the ASICS brand heritage, but also reflect our current turbulent creative climate. Drawing inspiration from the ASICS tiger heritage and the traditional Chinese belief that winds come from a tiger's breath, I created an asymmetrical sneaker by extending the iconic ASICS side stripes to create powerful wind streams twisting around the shoe, highlighting the powerful force of creativity. The interior sock liner also features two hidden tigers in black and white, signifying the hidden source of creativity that often goes unnoticed or under-appreciated.
How important are these types of commercial projects to you at this stage in your career?
In an increasingly saturated industry, I do believe that just doing good work alone is not enough, and as creatives we must find ways to be relevant in the industry as well. In my opinion, brand collaborations are a great way for creatives to do just that. When brands like ASICS believe and trust in the work that we do, it really helps to give us a platform to show our work and increase our relevance in the industry. And having a chance to work with brands that I admired and loved growing up is just a mega bonus for the kid inside of me.
That being said, at this stage of my career, I am fully aware that I still have a long way to go and a lot more to learn. So with more of these collaborations and projects, I do hope that I am one step closer to following behind the footsteps of other well-established local artists and at the same time, begin to inspire younger creatives to follow suit.
Photographs by Jeff Chang