Some time ago, I got in contact with creative entrepreneur Matthew Del Degan, the brain behind what is rapidly becoming Toronto's most loveable cultural icon: LOVEBOT. Starting as a mere sketch for a school project five years ago, LOVEBOT today has not only taken over the city with its concrete and painted signature robots and pixelated hearts... it is spreading love by enabling, supporting and sharing countless acts of kindness, charity and generosity. Below, I sit down with Matthew at the LOVEBOT headquarters to chat about developing a brand, standing behind one's decisions, the need to inspire and the challenges of public art.
I’m going to start with a question that I’m sure you’ve had to answer a million times.
(laughs) Go for it.
What triggered your initial inspiration for LOVEBOT?
It’s funny because this anecdote is actually kind of dark in comparison to what LOVEBOT stands for. Almost five years ago, I was sitting on the subway observing the other passengers and began thinking how cold and robotic Torontonians were. When you’re on public transit it’s almost like all you see are these faceless robots, all plugged into their cellphones or headphones, not connecting with each other, tuned out as opposed to tuned in. There was that idea, but I guess you can’t just go around commenting that everyone is acting like robots (laughs). So to add a little bit of hope and positivity, I thought: well, we do have big hearts. We have this ability to connect and love each other and that’s where the opportunity to be positive is. Saying that we can all connect is a good robot metaphor anyway.
I agree with you when you say that Toronto feels cold. What do you think this is due to in the most part?
I think that when there are so many people in one place we tend to put up our guard a little bit. I mean, there’s an overload of information. It’s hard to connect one on one with everybody… it’s nearly impossible. You can definitely start up a conversation with whomever is closest to you but they would probably be weirded out at first. I think that the coldness is due not only to the frigid winter but in the fact that Toronto is a very focused, work-driven, bustling city… task oriented, like a robot which ends up filtering down into everything that you do.
Do you remember the first robot that you ever gifted?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s my favourite story actually. There was this prototype in the beginning which was part of a first year university project. We had been assigned to design a toy and this one didn’t even have a heart yet.I had gone outside to see what people thought about it, got some cool responses and after asking her mother if I could, I showed it to this girl - probably around twelve years old. She said she loved it, gave it a hug and then asked if she could keep it. The mother kept telling her not to ask that but I was like don’t worry about it, just take it. So she kept it. My only model, 3-D printed, cost about $200 to make, it was due that week and I gave it away. I stayed up for like five days and ended up handing in three resin prototypes for the project and everyone else came in with plasticine models, which I thought was pretty funny. I put my heart and soul into that model, it was the first one I ever gave to anyone and that girl still has it.
And now, five years later, you’re launching the official LOVEBOT toy for the first time. What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt in developing your brand?
Don’t ruin what you created. The best way to say it would be to live with integrity and to make sure that your brand matches that. Every decision you make has to maintain the values and goals of your vision.
You studied at OCAD University right?
Yeah, OCAD is pretty great. I was in industrial design but honestly, I was always an artist. People would ask me what my ideal company to work for was and I just always wanted to work for myself.
As a graduate, what advice would you give to art and design students?
Everyone is going to graduate with the same portfolio. I mean, everyone has the same projects when it comes to the visual stuff so even if yours is slightly different, everyone is presenting pretty much the same thing to future employers and to the world. Weirdly enough, I designed this toy in first year and didn’t leave the project alone in the whole time that I was at school. It took me five years to do the whole project plus the degree so I graduated with a company, with a brand and with the robot. I worked probably double the hours, didn’t sleep most nights and I would be completing school projects to have time to work on LOVEBOT. Although I believe a formal education is important it does not define who you are or what you’re capable of. Just do something that you’re passionate about.
Photo by Mike Linnik
I find students prioritizing marks over skills a lot. They graduate and think they’ve been flung into the “real world” without realizing it’s where they’ve been the entire time.
(laughs) Yeah, what real world? You live in it. Just follow your heart. It’s cliche but I find that everything cliche has a lot of truth to it. Do what you want to do and work towards your ideal self but don’t worry about your critics.
Or at least let it pass. What you’re doing is more important than what other people think about it.
Yeah. It’s hard for people to think that way when they’re getting hate or dealing with getting bashed on. I recently painted a train top to bottom with a 40ft tall robot, knowing very well that it was risky and that I was going to piss off a couple of graffiti artists. In the long run, though, I see just how small their thinking is and it makes me realize that people are going to try to throw you around anyway so you just do whatever you want to do. I was thinking a lot about masculinity the other day and how, in our society, we mistake it for control, power and anger That’s not a man… that’s a child who is acting out. A man is somebody who walks around with integrity and honesty, constantly bringing people up, creating beautiful work and inspiring people. That’s the epitome of fully realized masculinity.
LOVEBOT seems to teeter between public and commercial art, how do you balance that?
It’s that tightrope walk on which you’re constantly balancing and if you fall off you just need to get right back up again and keep going. I need to make a living but I can’t just sell a bunch of products every month so I have to offset it by doing double the amount of work: working with charities, getting stories published, connecting with everyone and celebrating kindness. If done simultaneously, you can sustain what you’re doing and inspire more people, but if you do too much of one or the other you either don’t have enough money to keep going or people don’t believe in your cause. You only present the polished stuff people may not know the difficulties behind the scenes… what’s on the line and what you’re risking. But putting in an insane amount of work and seeing that people believe so deeply in what you’re doing is enough motivation right there. You have a lot of foundation, you feel very solid.
What’s in store for 2015?
(Pointing towards a massive set of printers) I live in a printing house now, so that’s changed! (laughs) These machines are new additions to my life. Basically, both my full time job and my hobby is to make stuff so this year will see an overwhelming amount of posters, the launch of the official toy, new concrete robots, LED lights, stickers… A stupid amount of posters, actually, more than the city has ever imagined. And giant murals, 2015 is the year of the murals. I’m pretty excited.
It seems like once you’re on the ball you can’t get off.
No, because it will roll all over you! I tend to do this thing where I put myself in a tricky situation that I know I can’t get myself out of and then I figure it out. It’s pretty strange, but it works. I’m a professional skydiver and after launching the toy, I’m planning to work on a model that you can jump with. It has to be a certain size to fall at the same speed as you, pretty cool stuff. I’m also pairing up with many artists, which I won’t disclose for now, but most notable artists in this city. Digital street art is going to blow minds. It’s definitely too much work and I need to learn how to delete things and slow down a little bit.
Knowing when to say no is definitely important.
I’ve gotten much better at prioritizing. Someone would ask me for a favour and as soon as I see the word “favour” I automatically say no unless they really need me. You can’t give if you’re not healthy and happy. My mom would always that if you’re not taking care of yourself then how are you going to help others? The first step of giving is always taking care of yourself.