LABEG on His Journey in Making Paper Art “Watches”

The Hong Kong-based artist discusses his creative process, passion for horology and the important figures who have helped him along the way.

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Gabriel Lau AKA LABEG is an emerging artist who’s on the radar for both horology and contemporary art communities. Known for his distinctive and highly recognizable watch art, all of LABEG’s creations are crafted from paper or cardboard, boasting a playful aesthetic that embraces imperfection. His artworks have captured the interest of all sorts of audiences, particularly collectors and independent watch Maisons like Ulysse Nardin. Earlier in the year, the paper watch artist even had the opportunity to personally gift Pharrell a piece he made based on the multi-hyphenate’s Richard Mille RM 52-05 watch.

Naturally, LABEG is a lover of watches. But when asked whether he’d consider himself a watch collector, he sees himself as more of an enthusiast, explaining that his perception of a collector is someone who collects with a theme. “Maybe it’s because I know some really big collectors personally. Their collections are mostly thematic and are very specific, like all vintage Rolex Submariners, vintage OMEGA or something of the sort,” he remarked.

From a vintage Rolex GMT-Master, Zenith El Primero A384 to the modern remakes of OMEGA’s 1957 Railmaster and Speedmaster, his pieces serve as mementos of both his interests, preferences and journey thus far. In recounting his journey from moving to Hong Kong from Canada, LABEG elaborated more on a Tudor Black Bay that a friend had gifted him.

“My friend gave it to me to symbolize the amount of time we sacrificed for each other. He had mentored and helped me out a lot throughout my career too. When I moved to Hong Kong, he gave this to me on my birthday.” Upon a closer look, we caught on that the Black Bay looks somewhat different than usual. “I wanted to make it unique, so I popped off the bezel,” he said, adding that “Marlon Brando did something like this before and popped off the bezel on his GMT. I thought it would be super cool if I did that too. The watch originally came in burgundy and was the first version with the smiley dial, now with the bezel off, it has that more robust and military look.”

Hypebeast recently had the opportunity to visit the artist in his Hong Kong home studio, where he ran us through his art-making process, his journey as well as the important figures who have helped him along the way.

What drew you to base your craft on watches?

I’ve always loved drawing, painting, making sculptures and models as a kid. When I went to design school to study product design, I got introduced to luxury watches and learned to appreciate the craftsmanship behind them. I think I purchased my first luxury watch after graduating from university, which was a Bell & Ross 03-92. It wasn’t super expensive and the choice was made based on the brand and its design rather than function.

When I moved to Hong Kong, my exposure to watches was crazy. Not only are watch boutiques and retailers everywhere, but major auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips are accessible to everyone. The exposure in general really helped enhance my passion for art and watches. It was around then that I realized I wanted to tap back into my creative practices. That’s when I started drawing watches, especially crazy, complicated pieces that I love but couldn’t afford.

“I realized I wanted to tap back into my creative practices. That’s when I started drawing watches, especially crazy, complicated pieces that I love and couldn’t afford.”

Did the process of developing your art style come naturally to you?

I’m amazed by artists who can draw or tap back into their childish creativity – I knew wanted to draw like that. At the same time, I was lucky that I was able to hit a style that was interesting and reflective of me as a person. I love to make people laugh and also not take things too seriously sometimes, so this style is really an extension of my personality.

A few years ago, I met Tim Yu, who’s a gallerist here in Hong Kong. My work was still rather rough then, as it was just pencil drawings on paper. Tim told me that I could change my choice of mediums, make it more substantial and that it could elevate my work. He introduced me to the works of Bill Barminski, Tom Sachs and also helped link me up with a museum-grade framer. I give a lot of credit to Tim as his advice is what got me to where I am now.

How did you meet Tim Yu in the first place?

Through IG. The watch community there is awesome and I’ve met so many genuine people through the platform. The ability to connect with people there can be very powerful sometimes. I’m blessed that everybody has been super nice and encouraging, which is what helped me grow and continue making art watches.

To be honest, I didn’t start making art pieces out of cardboard until I spoke to Tim. He even got my work featured in a watch exhibit on vintage Rolex watches at BELOWGROUND a couple of years back – that was the first time my art was shown in a public setting and space, which was a big deal for me. Looking back, I didn’t start selling art until just a few months before that show.

“I give a lot of credit to Tim Yu [gallerist] as his advice is what got me to where I am now.”

How would you describe your journey as an artist so far?

Ever since the BELOWGROUND exhibition, I’ve started getting a lot of commissions too. Right now, I always have stuff to work on as I have a backlog of 12 and a half months. It still blows my mind that people want art from me. I never expected myself to become an artist as I was never that kid in school who was good at anything. Though I’ve always loved art, I was never at the top of my class. So, for me to be where I am now is mindblowing.

Ulysse Nardin also invited me to Watches & Wonders in 2023 to help launch the Freak One. I made around 30 limited-edition art pieces for them then which was really fun. They presented me as a “unique watchmaker” for their exhibition where I was making the Freak One out of cardboard. Getting to know the people behind the brand was an experience that I never had before and it really humanized the brand for me.

When exactly did you start making your big pieces?

I’ve always wanted to explore new avenues for my work while also sharing my passion for watches and art. I’ve always wanted to play with scale and naturally, something big would allow people to instantly recognize my work even from a distance.

Sometime last year, I started making much bigger pieces, which were first shown at the grand opening of Mark Cho’s Pedder Arcade. Phillips also did a live auction that night and had sold two of my “clocks” then: one was the Puyi clock, the other was the Tiffany Nautilus.

“Right now, I always have stuff to work on as I have a backlog of 12 and a half months. It still blows my mind that people want art from me.”

In terms of process, what are the main differences between making a large piece and a small one?

The small-scale ones would take three to four days max and I try to make two to three pieces every week. However, that does depend on the complication and decoration of the watch I’m basing my piece on. If it’s like a Richard Mille or any type of openworked watch, it’d take a lot more time.

As for the bigger pieces, it usually takes weeks. The F.P. Journe Resonance “clock” I’m working on now took a long time as I was trying to figure out how to make the parking meter work. I really worked around, tested it out and tried to really get it to at least rotate. Structurally, I have to use five layers of cardboard for the case and around three or four layers for the bezel. For this piece, the case alone took about a week and another week for it to be completely painted.

Out of all the artworks you’ve made in the last few years, which “watch” was the most memorable?

It’s got to be the diamond-set Richard Mille RM 67-02. The gentleman who commissioned that piece was a jeweler and he gave me a bag of diamonds to set the bezel with! I had to punch out all the holes, dip every piece of diamond in glue and hand-set them one by one onto the paper bezel – it really gave me a sense of the real craft.

“Some of these [watch details] are so fine that I actually do have to use a watchmaker’s loupe to see – I do feel somewhat like a watchmaker when I’m painting.”

Can you run us through your usual art-making process?

Typically, I start by looking up the reference number and all its specifications first. The most important part is the case diameter, just so I can make it to scale. Then I either look up a good photo of the original so that I can color-match it as much as possible or if I’m lucky,
my clients may be able to show me the real watch in person.

After I have all the specifications and colors in mind, I’ll draw out the silhouette by hand on a piece of cardboard, which will be cut out by hand. I’ll then prime all the components with a layer of white acrylic paint.

Once that’s all dried, I’ll start painting the dial before letting it dry again. I’d then start drawing in all the small details like the numbers, the fonts, the minute hand, hour hands in pencil before painting them in detail. Some of these are so fine that I actually do have to use a watchmaker’s loupe to see – I do feel somewhat like a watchmaker when I’m painting.

After I painted all the details, I’d finish the strap, emulating down to the details of the texture of the original. The last step before bringing the piece to my framer is to outline the entire “watch” in black, making it pop and bringing out that cartoonish feel.

Any hints on upcoming projects you’re working on?

There are a couple of projects that I’m working on, some I can’t show or tell yet. Aside from working through my backlog of commissions, I do have some potential collaborations with other brands that I hope would work out. I’d love to work more with the brands I grew up loving and are passionate about and if I can share my passion with those brands, it’s beyond dreams for me.

 

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