If you’ve encountered LEGO bricks before, chances are you might also have come across Nanoblocks. They’re similar in building and gameplay, but tinier. At about the 1/4th the size of regular LEGO bricks, the smallest Nanoblocks are about 4mm x 4mm x 5mm.
Nanoblocks were first manufactured by Kawada Co. Ltd, a toy company based in Tokyo, Japan. They started marketing it internationally sometime in 2012 and began reaching out to niche fans of simulated construction and kids with a fascination for building worldwide.
One of these was Christopher Tan, former software architect, who loved playing with LEGO bricks as a child.
“Somewhere along the way, I stopped because LEGO was expensive and I couldn’t afford it on the pocket money I was getting. It was only when Nanoblocks appeared that I got interested again. The really tiny size of Nanoblocks attracted me, as it allowed me to create highly detailed designs.”
He started building Nanoblocks in 2011 as a casual hobby, but felt inclined to pursue it further when he started getting corporate inquiries and found that his fanbase was steadily growing.
Encouraged by the response he was getting, he made the decision to quit his office job and started going full-time as a Nanoblock artist on a freelance basis.
“It started slow, but I just kept building and building and it paid off. To this date, I have done numerous exhibitions in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Malaysia. There have also been collaborations with many big brands like Starbucks, Toast Box, Sasa, Nikon, foodpanda, OCBC WingHang Bank, CITIC Telecom, etc.”
Just last year, he finally formed ChrisTan Design to continue his work and aims to elevate it to a higher level.
His designs have proven to be popular, having won numerous Nanoblock awards through the years and he was even awarded the title “Tatsujin – Master of Nanoblock” by Kawada themselves.
When asked if he sells his own Nanoblock designs, Chris replied that he mostly did requests for corporate clients.
“Apart from that, I don’t really sell my own Nanoblock sets, but I would not rule out that possibility in the near future.”
However, he encourages everyone to use his designs as a guide to Nanoblock building to promote the love of building and construction and instill a note of inventiveness to the local Nanoblock community.
Today, he has over 62,000 fans on Facebook and has even given a TEDxTalk at Sunway University Campus.
“A lot of my Nanoblock creations are inspired by popular culture. You will see a lot of characters from Pixar and Disney among my creations, simply because I love them. Being a geek, I also love SciFi, so you will also see many Star Wars items among my creations as well.”
Talent doesn’t buy you success all the time; this is something Chris had to compensate by with lots of hard work.
“The early years when I started doing this full-time was tough as projects don’t come in consistently, so it’s possible to go for 6 months without any income.”
“Trying to make it as an artist is hard, but trying to do so using an unconventional medium like Nanoblocks is even harder.”
“People out there still mostly perceive Nanoblocks (and building blocks in general) as toys, rather than a medium for artistic expression. When people ask me what I do and I tell them I am a Nanoblock brick artist, I just get blank stares from them.”
He recalls one of the most unpleasant surprises for him was when he realised his Nanoblock designs were being pirated by China manufacturers.
“The irony is that they even pirated the Nanoblock of myself that I created to use as my avatar on Facebook. Believe it or not, they even called it “Chris” on the box! It’s sad to see that happen, but what can you do right? I just have to keep telling myself, ‘Hey, my designs are actually worth stealing!'”
Having worked under the radar for a few years, his most memorable milestone was his Nanoblock exhibition in Hong Kong in 2014.
That was the first exhibition that truly celebrated him a Nanoblock artist and was legitimately related to his work. It was also widely covered by the media, which led him to much-needed contacts and exposure.
“It was also the largest Nanoblock build I had ever designed, using over 250,000 bricks. This build was so large that I had to get the help of a team of 20+ volunteers working 12 hours a day for 5 days to complete it.”
“Until today, that’s a record that has yet to be broken. Many of those volunteers are still my friends today and I am really grateful to have been given that opportunity.”
A true geek at heart, Chris proudly stated that he can “speak” over a dozen programming languages.
These skills from his experience as software architect has undoubtedly helped him in managing everything from web design to online marketing and photography, meaning he more or less has everything he needs to handle the work.
“I think I am doing okay now, earning a decent living, but nothing is certain of course. I work hard to get more clients and from time to time, I also do exhibitions to keep building up my credential as an artist.”
“The nature of my work right now also tends to be seasonal, with more work coming in on the second half of the year, as clients prepare for holiday season promotions.”
He adds that he believes Nanoblocks can be here for the long-term, just as LEGO has thrived.
“In Malaysia, Nanoblock is still fairly new, relative to established brands like Lego. It’s only been around a few years, but it’s growing slowly. It’s also perceived as expensive because the bricks are tiny, so even a set with a lot of bricks comes in a relatively small box.”
“People tend to think that bigger things should cost more, but that’s not really true for building blocks. The cost to manufacture a small block is not that different from bigger blocks, so the quantity of blocks is the main determining factor for the cost.”
He cheerfully adds that from the still relatively small number of Nanoblock fans in Malaysia, means that they will have more room to grow.
Feature Image Credit: ChrisTan Design