John Baichtal

John Baichtal is a contributor to MAKE magazine and Wired's GeekDad blog. He has also written for legendary tabletop gaming magazines Dragon and Dungeon, as well as Kobold Quarterly and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. He is the co-author of The Cult of Lego.

Can Lego be considered art?

In The Cult of Lego, my co-author Joe Meno and I devote a whole chapter to art, both works created with bricks as well as art using more traditional media featuring Lego as the subject matter.

Despite the success of museum exhibitions such as Nathan Sawaya's nationally-touring "Art of the Brick", inevitably some people claim that Lego is not a serious artistic medium. While I don't see how someone can look at Sawaya's amazing works, or those by such mainstream artists as Olafur Eliasson and Douglas Coupland which feature the bricks, and not agree it's art, nevertheless there are doubters.

Enter Lego fan and philosophy professor Roy Cook, who wrote an essay contending that yes, Lego can be art.

From The Cult of Lego:

As Lego makes its way into galleries, it’s sure to provoke a reaction from visitors who don’t think it belongs there. Conversely, the artists featured in this chapter obviously disagree. Who is right?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Scholars have debated the concept’s definition for centuries and continue to do so to this day. However, most theorists agree that art involves three criteria: form, content, and context. Roy Cook, a Lego fan and professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, wrote an essay arguing that Lego, by this definition, can clearly be called art. He uses the following criteria:

Form refers to the medium and the skill used to manipulate that medium, Cook’s essay explains. A work must typically display masterful technique to be considered art. Surely numerous models demonstrate a high level of skill. As with any technically demanding medium, there will always be works that stand out as being exemplary.

Content is the statement the piece makes or the meaning behind it. Even if this message is so obscure that only the artist can grasp it, there has to be some sort of thought behind the piece. It seems like a given: If artists desire to make a statement with a Lego model, they can do it.

Context refers to the culture and artistic tradition into which the work is placed. Andy Warhol’s soup cans outside the context of Pop Art probably would not have been considered art. As Cook points out in his essay, there is no widespread artistic tradition surrounding Lego. Just as novels were considered trash literature in the 18th century and graphic novels battle for legitimacy today, Lego simply doesn’t have the acceptance it needs to be considered legitimate art. That doesn’t mean that Lego can’t be art; there simply is no longstanding body of formal, accepted Lego art to place a model within.

[The photo at the top of this post depicts art by James "AME72" Ame, whose work may be found in The Cult of Lego.]

Steampunk Lego inventions

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Matt "Monsterbrick" Armstrong -- he of the epic Lego Room in Wednesday's post -- is working on a neo-Victorian series of models. Each of these models, like the stunning typewriter above, is constructed solely of Lego -- but perfectly and amazingly. They represent both the look and the soul of the device. My favorites include his bellows camera, his meerschaum pipe, and his utterly elegant phone.

Extreme Lego organization methods

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Lego fans take their organizational methods very seriously -- there's even a Flickr group where they can share their techniques. Basically, Lego fanaticism translates into tons (sometimes literally!) of bricks. So, how can you organize all those elements so that you can find them?

Bin Method
All sorting methods begin with the Bin Method, whereby you just shove all your bricks into a bin and call it good. Sooner or later, however, usually after you start talking about multiple bins, this method ceases to work. Essentially, finding specific bricks becomes nearly impossible.

Part Method

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There's a certain logic to this -- the human eye finds color first, so by sorting by brick type lets you find the exact part you want right away. Most of the time builders use compartmentalized bins, but Lenore and Windell of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories developed a clever method of storing their bricks: stacking like types together. Need a 2x4 in "light orange brown"? Grab your stack of 2x4s and peel off what you need.

Color Method

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Legendary Lego builder Nathan Sawaya prefers using classic 2x4 and 2x2 bricks -- none of those fancy weird ones -- because he wants to make his art as accessible as possible to viewers. As a result, it makes sense for him to sort his bricks by color. From the Cult of Lego:

"All of my bricks are separated by shape and color in large transparent bins that line the shelves of my art studio. The rows and rows of color make walking into my studio a lot like walking into a rainbow."

NYC Resistor member Kellbot has a similar tack with an excellent twist: her Meta Lego storage boxes -- bricks holding bricks! While elegant and clever, most power Lego builders would accumulate elements in such quantities, both in terms of color and shape, that this method would not be able to keep up with the some 2,200 separate brick designs in around 80 colors that exist in the wild.

The Lego Room
Finally, consider Matt "Monsterbrick" Armstrong's Lego Room, pictured at the top of this post. It is the natural culmination of the Lego addiction where the bricks begin to take over one's home! Though Monsterbrick probably contributes to the anarchy by not breaking up his models after he builds them. My favorite part of his room? The kiddy pool!

CubeDudes: Cartoony, geometric Lego figures

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Pixar animator Angus MacLane created a way to show humanity in Lego that is bigger and more creative than a minifig, while still being charming and lovable: the CubeDude. Consider the Tron Guy CubeDude, above. His head is a cube seen from one corner -- hence the name. Nevertheless, the best of these creations are instantly identifiable. Heck, MacLane even included the Tron Guy's famous junk!


Since creating the theme in 2009, MacLane has built hundreds of the dudes, and inspired a legion of Lego fans who have built hundreds more. My favorites are legion, but I particularly like Marvel comic book character Iron Fist, doomed Reservoir Dogs cop Marvin Nash, rassler Sgt. Slaughter, and Goonies friend Sloth. Or, check out all of MacLane's CubeDudes.

If you're interested in learning more about the evolution of the Dudes, check out this great BricksABillion interview or read my book, The Cult of Lego!

ApocaLego: Building end-times with plastic bricks

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One of my favorite Lego genres -- and one for which the Lego Group will never release a set -- is that of ApocaLego. Whether it's a zombocalypse, bioplague, robot insurrection, or nuclear conflagration, builders who participate in this theme love detailing the end of days. Expect a lot of bikers, ruined buildings, and jackbooted reactionaries vainly trying to hold back the chaos. And it's a popular theme; the ApocaLego Flickr group claims over 1,000 members with over four thousand uploads.

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Kevin "Crimson Wolf" Fedde (work pictured above) builds some of the most detailed and creative ApocaLego dioramas around. Kevin, a college student from Ft. Collins, CO, layers his models with intricate detail and mini shorelines, making them seem almost plausible. While he revels in the requisite "Mad Max" skirmishes, I love how he also shows how people's shanties look like. This is how they scrounge electricity. Those details are far more interesting for me than any battle.

Cult-Of-LegoBuy John Baichtal's The Cult of Lego on Amazon.com

Lego porn


[Video Link] So, yeah, porn. Rule 34 tells us that if you can imagine it, someone has made porn out of it. Lego minifigs have been forced to hump one another by 8-year-old boys since day one, but with the wonders of the internet, these lewd fantasies have been turned into videos, web sites, and photos.

Take the video (above) uploaded by YouTube user stickmeintheeye. Or Jonah Ray's Lego Porn photoset on Flickr. There have been some odd ones, like the infamous porn series by an artist named Drew, featuring not-so-mini minifigs, if you know what I mean. Or consider the satirical and sadly defunct Lego Friend Finder dating site. Finally, this BDSM Lego model has been floating around the internet for some time.

And I'm spent. Time for a Lego unicorn chaser!

Cult-Of-LegoBuy John Baichtal's The Cult of Lego on Amazon.com

Recreating reality in Lego

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In 2006, Vice President Dick Cheney pumped birdshot into a friend's face, simultaneously upping his thug cred while inspiring Lego fan Thom Beckett to depict the scene in plastic bricks.

Read the rest

The world's most controversial Lego model

My friend and MAKE colleague John Baichtal co-wrote an upcoming book called The Cult of Lego. I liked it so much that I wrote the foreword to it. As you might guess, John knows a great deal of Lego lore, and I have invited him to share some of it with the readers of Boing Boing. Here's his first post. -- Mark

Polish artist Zbigniew Libera's Konzentrationslager is a work of art he created in 1996 with the unwitting help of the Lego Group, who were happy to help out with a few buckets of bricks until they realized that Libera's project consisted of fake Lego packaging detailing an Auschwitz-style death camp.

From the Cult of Lego:

From the beginning, Konzentrationslager caused a huge sensation, with viewers split on whether it was an important work or a travesty. Depicting genocide with a toy made people uncomfortable. Some Holocaust activists saw the work as trivializing the experiences of survivors, while others disagreed. The Jewish Museum in New York City displayed the sets for several months in 2002 as part of an exhibit on Nazi imagery in modern art.

Even LEGO joined in the criticism, complaining that Libera hadn't told the company what he was intending when it donated the bricks and that this contribution didn't constitute sponsorship as implied by the packaging’s labeling. LEGO tried to get Libera to stop displaying the work, backing down from its pressure only after the artist hired a lawyer.

Libera, one of Poland's preeminent artists, was asked to attend the Venice Biennale in 1997 -- on the condition that he leave Konzentrationslager at home. The artist had been imprisoned in the early '80s for publishing an underground comic mocking Poland's Soviet rulers, and that kind of put him off of censorship, so he chose not to attend.

Images Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw