Since the early noughties Luke Temby, aka Cupco, has been bringing his signature brand of pop art-inspired visuals to audiences around the world, carving out a distinct niche in the increasingly competitive world of designer toys.
His visuals are always cutesy, but tend to incorporate a lot of edgy or even controversial material. It’s an aesthetic that’s not for everyone (Google searches of his work are likely to be NSFW) but has earned him plenty of accolades and a dedicated fanbase over the last few years.
I’ve come to know him over the last couple of years via my day job as a copywriter, and wanted to interview him for a while – so back in March, we caught up over a drink at Tommy’s Beer Café in Glebe, to talk about his work. In real life, Cupco is mohawked, bearded and has a decidedly offbeat sense of humour, very much in line with his work. Start a conversation about, say, a movie you just watched and you’ll quickly find yourself drifting into surreal territory like the Japanese pronunciation of dinosaur names or where the aliens are hiding in the universe. But however strange, it’s never dull.
Illustration had been a love for Luke since childhood, but it wasn’t until a stint in Japan that things became more serious. After some freelance work for a number of Asian designer toy companies and a few non-starters (“Pretty sure I blew a potential partnership with kidrobot,” says Luke of that time), he decided to cut out the middleman and take matters into his own hands.
“Things really kicked off around 2001 while I was living in Japan as an English teacher,” he says, taking a sip of the beer in front of him. “The first recognisably “Cupco” doll was a little evil cowboy – a skull head with a cowboy body.”
Things quickly expanded from there, with an additional nine dolls being produced in rapid succession. Most of the specifics of this batch are lost to history – he’s unsure whether they got sold or are still lurking in his garage at home – “But I definitely remember they included Jesus and the devil.”
Since then there’s been several hundred more dolls, covering a huge array of pop culture icons and some decidedly more obscure subjects (including legendary black metal band Immortal). He freely admits that his knack lies with creation rather than commerce.“I’m good at making all of this stuff,” Luke says, “Selling it’s another thing entirely.”
There’s the zines, patches, t-shirts, caps, a couple of vinyl figures (including the Bozwangler) and a plethora of stickers. Looking through Cupco’s work is a dream and a nightmare for any designer toy collector – you’ll see a huge amount of stuff you’d love to own, but the chances are it’s already been snapped up. Or has it?
Luke's garage is full of his works, both finished and unfinished -- including 100+ Bozwanglers all looking for a home -- the good part about this (for new fans in particular) is that new or newly found items pop up periodically at his shows and on his online store. It's a boon in a scene where limited, time-specific launches are the norm and resale prices tend to be obscenely high. But catch him on the right day and you could find an item that hasn’t even made it into circulation yet.
In my case, I was at an opening night of his residencies in Surry Hills last year and discovered two werewolves amid a pile of semi-finished works. I had to have them – and now they adorn my mancave wall. If you go to one of his shows you'll more than likely find something to be offended by, but also something you have to have.
By 2011, Cupco's staple doll fare was something of a stale prospect for Luke. With the “Cupco is Dead” exhibition, he signalled the end of his doll production. Of course, since you’re reading this article you’ll know that Cupco’s “death” has not been forever; it’s just taken a slightly different tack over the last few years.
"Severed heads" have been a big thing, with a considerable amount of time devoted to making new and bizarre busts. Pulp comic icon Phantom finds himself sitting atop a demon head, while other long-nosed and floppy-eared creatures gaze out from display shelves. You can view a collection here.
Sequins and beads have been a big interest recently, with Luke exploring a variety of different methods of textile art production, producing a few works well outside of anything that Cupco has produced before. Also on the cards is a giant light-up skull, all based around a balsa-wood frame.
So why the change? The answer is more shocking than you might realise.
"There's no special reason," says Luke. "I just go through phases."
With that, it was time to finish our beers and make our way to our respective homes.
Luke Temby, aka Cupco, will be undertaking a number of different projects throughout Sydney during the remainder of 2015.