Fun, Flab & a Leap of Faith | Artist Ton Mak aka Flabjacks
Giving up a stressful role in advertising, Ton Mak took a leap of faith and decided to become a full-time artist – and we’re glad she did. Today, she literally makes people happy for a living with her series of chubby red-lipped characters, aka Flabjacks. We paid a visit to her sunlight-soaked studio in a charming lane house in the back streets of Shanghai, where she spoke to us about her affinity for all things round, artist integrity, and why she thinks public art is key to spreading good vibes.
Tell us about how you came to be an artist…
I never studied art. Art was something that my mom really encouraged me to do when I was young. She would sign me up for after school art classes, then at University I studied anthropology, and a lot of it was about the philosophy behind art and art history.
After I graduated, I was really passionate about drawing but I never pursued it as a career because I thought I would never make money from it. So I got into advertising, and I came to Shanghai to work with Apple, who was a client of mine at the time. It was really stressful, so I would draw or doodle once a day. After a year, I thought, "f*ck it, I can do this full time." I started getting projects on the side and that’s when I realized that I could actually make a career out of it.
How did you develop your signature round, bloated Flabjacks character?
When I first started drawing, they didn’t look like this. They were just doodles, and organically became Flabjacks. I was always really drawn to round shapes, like Totoro and Slimer from Ghostbusters. Generally speaking, even food like sweet potatoes – shapes that have a roundness to them – have always been a "happy" thing for me.
You’ve done collaborations with Lamborghini, adidas, Vans and Moleskine to name a few. As an artist, why is it important to collaborate with brands and other artists?
Before, when I didn’t want to become a full-time artist, it was because I thought of the industry as how it used to be, which was very fine art focused. It used to be very much its own world. But in the past 10 or so years, it’s evolved so much with things like social media. As long as you’re able to articulate your passions well, you can confidently say, “This is art, and this is what I represent.”
Collaborations are a way to make it more tangible, and to give it more presence. From an artist’s standpoint, that’s really important. But at the end of the day, you have to be mindful about who you collaborate with. It depends on the company and whether or not it fits with who you are and what you’re doing, and vice versa. It’s not just about sl*tting yourself out there.
“My long-term goal is to bring something a little different to the landscape, something that will have an effect on people. When they see it, I want it to make them happy. Even if it’s just for a minute."
Flabjacks is such a distinct looking character. Do you ever feel restricted by recreating the same character?
Never! If anything, I’m not restricting myself enough. I always want to draw another Flabjack in the form of a piece of butter, a sweet potato, or a broccoli. There’s so much I can do with it. I should probably be more focused and restrict myself more, to be honest.
You’re passionate about installation and public art. What do you love about it and how do you think art can improve and enhance public spaces?
I have a vision of Flabjacks being something more tangible, something people can touch and interact with. Right now, it’s still very digital. Installation art is also a way to connect with what I studied in anthropology. China is a good example, where there’s so much space but not enough visual content or stories within that space. You don’t see a lot of public art in China, compared to places like the States or Korea.
My long-term goal is to bring something a little different to the landscape, something that will have an effect on people. When they see it, I want it to make them happy. Even if it’s just for a minute.
The kind of public art I’m thinking of is interactive. I have an idea for a giant bean bag that people can interact with and have fun with. It’s something that would instantly create positivity and good vibes. But in other forms, if we’re talking purely aesthetics, it’s about giving something memorable to the space.
What keeps you motivated?
There is so much you can do in China. I started with greeting cards, then I did tote bags, and then I did prints. In terms of production, there’s still so much that I want to do, like stuffed toys. It’s endless, and that motivates me.
It’s also really important that I motivate myself to just sit down and draw - to do drawings that aren’t for clients or for any specific purpose, but just for my own enjoyment.
Photos by: Alex Maeland