Artist Tom Yoo is renowned for his unique blend of art and design, particularly in the realm of sneaker culture. With a background in finance and business, Tom transitioned into the art world, gaining prominence through his intricate Lego sculptures, especially his meticulously crafted renditions of iconic Air Jordan sneakers. These pieces, characterized by their attention to detail and creative use of Lego bricks, have captivated both art enthusiasts and sneaker aficionados.
Tom’s journey as an artist is marked by a constant evolution. His work extends beyond physical sculptures, venturing into the realms of digital art, where he explores new dimensions of creativity and important themes, such as Asian-American representation. Tom’s dedication to his craft and his ability to merge his passion for design with a keen business acumen make him a standout figure in the contemporary art scene.
Brady Walker: Can you describe the Chie project for anyone in our audience who might be unfamiliar with it?
Tom Yoo: The first few chapters introduce the character of Chie as a young girl, inspired by Michael Jordan to become an NBA basketball player herself. Chapter Four is special because it’s the first time we see the adult version of Chie, complete with a full jersey. We worked a lot on her adult form’s visuals to make sure it looked right. This chapter provides the first glimpse of her as an adult, venturing into the world. Her jersey, modeled after the Bulls jersey, says “Girls 23.” On the back, in the NFTs, she covers Jordan’s name with masking tape and writes her own name over it. But yeah, this chapter is special to me because it’s the first time we really see her as an adult, highlighting both the challenges and successes she will face.
BW: It’s beautiful. I want to take a step backward into your past to talk about your career. You were at Lehman Brothers, then opened a boutique burger joint with three locations in Southern California. After the burger business folded, there was a moment when you wanted to be a screenwriter. Is Chie your backdoor into screenwriting?
TY: That’s an interesting question. I’ve always felt storytelling was a strength of mine. After the businesses failed and I was in a dark place, trying to figure out my way and support my new family, I used writing as an outlet while working at the store for long hours. But I realized I’m not a good writer. I think visually and translate my vision into paintings or pictures, which I feel more closely connected to. When I stumbled upon Lego art, it resonated with me more. So, to your question, storytelling is still a strong part of me. As I’ve ventured down the path of an artist, I’ve realized that the best way for me to bring my stories to the world is through visual art.
BW: Can you tell me more about your grand vision for Chie? I know there are more chapters and characters to come.
TY: Yes, there will be seven total chapters, akin to seven games in an NBA Finals. I won’t give everything away, but Chie has a strong arc based on my wife’s life experiences. Her actual name is Chihye, and the Japanese version is Chie, after whom the character is named. She’s an Asian American female who has faced sexism and racism. We developed this character to help others understand these experiences. There’s a twist at the end that I think people will be excited about.
BW: You’ve got the whole thing planned out?
TY: We haven’t worked on the visuals yet due to the time it takes to get the animation together, but we have a direction planned.
BW: Awesome, I’m excited. I haven’t seen the full Chapter Four yet.
TY: It’s releasing very soon, so everyone should stay tuned.
BW: I’m excited for it. Can you tell me about the giant Lego bricks beside you and the room you’re in?
TY: This is a studio space where we house the bricks and plan. We ensure everything is structurally sound and safe. The sculpture is the biggest I’ve made, at 16.5 feet long, 10 feet tall, and six feet wide. It’s composed of 17 bricks interlocking at ComplexCon. It’s a Jordan One in the Chicago colorway, linked to Chie’s story and the NFT in Chapter Four. Visitors can see a 10-foot version in real life at ComplexCon. We’re excited and working on the R&D here.
BW: What is the process of planning a Lego sneaker of this proportion, or even a small Lego sneaker? All of it seems complicated.
TY: That’s a good question. The development of this project has been about seven or eight years in the making. For the smaller shoes, I used programs available online to build them digitally, starting in 2015. These programs tell you what bricks you need, but not all bricks and colors are available for purchase. It’s a constant process of designing with the available bricks. For example, the 21-inch Lego Jordan One, which we’re also displaying at ComplexCon, is made up of about 4000 Legos. The design process involves digital assembly, examining from different angles, and ensuring structural integrity. Once I’m comfortable with the design, I order the parts from resellers worldwide. Building the 21-inch model involves supergluing each piece, which takes about a week. I designed this model to be scaled up to the 10-foot version, which required more brainpower. Both have been long-term projects for me.
BW: Wow. About two years ago, I spoke with a Lego enthusiast who told me about conferences with speed building and creativity competitions. Are you a Lego enthusiast outside of the shoes you make?
TY: I’m a casual Lego enthusiast. I grew up playing with Legos, which I had a special connection to because of my cousin who passed away. We used to play with them together. I’m not hardcore about going to conventions, but I respect the work those people do. It’s hard to build on our scale.
BW: I build with my son, and I find it difficult. We’re building a tractor now, and it’s challenging. What’s the largest sculpture you’ve made to date, outside of the upcoming 10-foot one?
TY: The largest so far is the 21-inch model. You can see it on my Instagram, where I’m holding it. It’s quite large, about 18 pounds, so it’s pretty heavy.
BW: You finished your first sneaker in 2015 but didn’t enter into NFTs until around 2019-2020. What were you doing in the interim?
TY: During that time, I was making various designs digitally. I used a program Lego provides, along with another to render 3D-looking images. I created art with hip-hop, pop culture, and sports references. I sold small sculptures and put my art on Instagram, doing it for the passion and to scratch a creative itch. When I was first approached to make an NFT, I had limited knowledge about blockchain and had to learn about Bitcoin and blockchain. It’s been crazy to see the explosion of NFTs and to have been involved from the start.
BW: I’m going to ask a question that might seem a little obnoxious, but my heart is in the right place. When you were building your first Jordan 11 in 2015, after your burger joint had folded and you were looking for a way to support your family, did you think this was a viable career path?
TY: At that point, I had no idea this would make money; it wasn’t a commercial endeavor. I had received a Back to the Future DeLorean set, designed by someone who got 10,000 votes on Lego’s website. The day after Christmas, inspired by that, I thought about what I loved and hadn’t seen in Lego form: Air Jordans. Since 1989, I’ve been a Jordan fan. That was the start of the three-month journey of building the sneaker. I didn’t have social media then, as I was anti-social media, but I opened an Instagram to post it. Despite concerns about getting lost in the algorithm, I posted it in the middle of the night on a Tuesday. The next day, my first post ever went viral, picked up by all the hip blogs like Complex. However, it didn’t bring any financial benefit initially.
BW: What avenues were you exploring after the burger joint? You mentioned screenwriting and having contacts in the industry through your wife, who’s an actor.
TY: I was serious about screenwriting and talked to industry people. But I realized my skill level wasn’t where it should be, and the road was long and hard. Being middle-aged and starting a family, I felt it wasn’t feasible. I didn’t have a plan B, which may have been foolish, but that fear drove me to find something I loved. I had no idea I would make money from it; it was just something I loved to do. Then, thankfully, it started to happen.
BW: Going through your pieces, I noticed the DeLorean motif. You mentioned the DeLorean story earlier, and I find it interesting how it’s become an important symbol in your work.
TY: Back to the Future is one of my favorite movie series, especially the first two parts. The DeLorean Lego set, which I chose during a white elephant gift exchange, sparked my creativity. I used the DeLorean again in my art, making it meta. The car’s design was ahead of its time, and I’m a big design guy. The movie made it a piece of lore, and for many reasons, it’s something I really love.
BW: It’s fascinating how the DeLorean metaphor played out in your life. Speaking of art, it seems like the web3 community has recently started to appreciate physical art again. There was a period during the Bull Run when people favored digital assets over physical objects. You’ve been creating tangible art for a long time. How have you experienced this shift in web3, from anti-physical to embracing physical art?
TY: It’s been interesting to see the change in mindset. Initially, there was a strong push to prove the worth of digital art, which made people hesitant about physical art. But over time, people have recognized the value of merging the two. I never tried to force my perspective, but I’m in a good place now where people are more receptive. I’m excited to use web3 and blockchain technology in combination with my physical work to create more authentic experiences. This wouldn’t have been possible without web3. I’m glad the thinking has shifted because I enjoy both types of art, and it’s great to be in this happy place.
BW: With web3 being a huge part of your career and having taken off before its rise, how have you fared in the bear market? What tactics have you used to diversify your output during this challenging period?
TY: I’m thankful for having established myself with physical art, which has always been part of my journey. Partnering with a gallery to develop a show took my focus away from the downturn in web3 and allowed me to concentrate on physical art while still honing my skills in animation. I continued to release work, like chapter three, even in dark times, to show consistency and engagement. I believe those who have been consistent will be trusted by collectors. While I’m aware of the value fluctuations in NFT art, I try not to focus on that. My priority is my confidence in my skills and the work I’m willing to put in. I assure my collectors that I will deliver value over time, regardless of market fluctuations. I’m aware of the market conditions but choose not to let them discourage me.
BW: When did 3D art come into your artistic practice?
TY: Originally, I used the Lego program for 2D, flat images. The first set of NFTs I did was 3D rendering, but it wasn’t animated. I created one piece with animation, but it was a series of slides put together in a movie editing program, not a rigged animation. I started with still imagery that looked more 2D-ish, then graduated to full 3D rigs and motion capture to take it to the next level.
BW: On your website, there are some 2D images that haven’t been minted. Are you working on new 2D art?
TY: Those images on my website are from the period before I got into NFTs and after I started doing Lego art. My website is a bit dated, but I keep those pictures because I love them. They’re older works from the time I described earlier, and I feel if someone likes those, they’ll probably love my newer stuff too.
BW: As a full-time artist for many years, is there anything you’ve learned in the last seven or eight years that you wish you had known sooner, regarding your process or relationship building?
TY: That’s a great question. Coming from a finance and business background, my early career was driven by the goal of making as much money as possible. It’s a mentality I still struggle to shake off. The creative side should remain separate from this mindset, as it can complicate things. At times, I’ve been influenced by what I think will sell or what people want to see. I have to be vigilant about not letting financial motivations dominate. I wish I had known earlier to focus on what I really want to say, share, and believe in. I believe that creating art around these true passions will eventually bring financial rewards. It requires work and discipline, not just passivity. For anyone considering a career change or pursuing the arts, I advise having the courage to take that step. If it’s connected to your true voice, that’s the greatest contribution you can make to the world, and it’s what will be valued, not just doing what you think you should or what others tell you to. It’s a lesson I’ve learned and still work on, but I’m aware enough to check myself.