Enter the Dragon King: kaNO’s Tribute to Bruce Lee

Who knows what the state of hip hop, breakdancing, graffiti, and urban culture as a whole would be like today if Bruce Lee hadn’t risen to international superstardom in the early ’70s. If this statement seems like a leap in logic, then bear in mind that Bruce Lee was a minority who stood up to ‘the man’, who fought oppression, who could be an inspiration. And all those urban art forms were — at the time — obscure subcultures primarily found around the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx, the practitioners of them being disinfranchised, rebellious youths looking for an outlet, one which even Lee’s philosophy about being “shapeless, formless, like water” ended up shaping, manifesting as the now-signature free-flowing aspects of urban culture. And all this leads to 2011, when kaNO, an artist that can be seen proudly sporting his “Make Vinyl Urban Again” snapback hat, made a vinyl sculpture paying tribute to Bruce Lee, a piece titled Dragon King.

Birth of the Dragon King

Around the time of its first release, kaNO described his Dragon King as “a labor of love”, further mentioning that “it’s not often you get the opportunity to make a toy of one of your biggest heroes.” A tribute and homage to Bruce Lee, this piece struck a beautiful balance between the artist’s angular, urban aesthetic and his subject’s fluidity. Already in the production process as early as September of 2010, this is when Shinji Nakako of Tomenosuke received illustrations of three possible color schemes for him to choose an exclusive for his shop from. The plan, at that time, was for there to be a broader, retailer release edition as well as three more store or event exclusive versions. Jonathan Ma of Kuso Vinyl, who was producing the piece, shared photos of a metallic-hued wax sculpture version in May of 2011, proclaiming that the mold for casting the limited edition vinyl rendition would be made from it shortly. And, at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con in July, the prototype for what would be the OG Edition was displayed, though a completely different color scheme would be used for the debut version several months later.

Dragon King – G.O.D. Edition (2011)

Available to the public for the first time, the Dragon King debuted with the G.O.D. Edition, the decoration inspired by Bruce Lee’s iconic yellow-and-black tracksuit from the incomplete film The Game of Death (1972). Coming with removable accessories based on Lee’s “Broken Rhythm” green bamboo whip as well as the popular Bolex handheld camera, there were nunchucks sculpted around its neck while the back side of the figure’s hood was emblazoned with kaNO’s stylized logo. Limited to an edition of 75 pieces, these were issued through the myplasticheart shop’s New York Comic Con booth on October 13th, 2011. But those unable to attend the convention wouldn’t have to wait long for the sculpture’s sophomore offering.

Dragon King – OG Edition (2011)

Modeled after more traditional bluish-black martial arts attire, like that worn by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972), the OG Dragon King edition was first available at DesignerCon on November 5th, 2011. With only 20 pieces issued at that event, as a pre-release special, the remainder of this 250 copy edition were offered to the general public only twenty days later, with a special signing event for occassion hosted by Munky King in Los Angeles.

Dragon King – Green Hornet Edition (2011)

At the end of 2011, with the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Dragon less than a month away, the Japanese store Tomenosuke offered forth their exclusive Green Hornet Edition of kaNO’s Dragon King, which was limited to 75 pieces. Inspired by the appearance of Bruce Lee’s Kato character on the short-lived The Green Hornet television show (1966–1967), this is the only factory produced version to alter the facial decoration, adding a domino mask to the appearance.

Dragon King – Enter The Dragon Edition (2012)

The penultimate edition to be released by Kuso Vinyl, the brown costuming on this Dragon King rendition is based on Bruce Lee’s attire in Enter The Dragon (1973), the film which this version is titled after. Limited to an edition of 250 vinyl sculptures, with orange colored nunchucks prominantly displayed on the front and a Tai Chi symbol on the back, this Enter The Dragon Edition debuted at WonderCon Anaheim on March 16th, 2012.

Dragon King – Longstreet Edition (2012)

The final version to be produced by Kuso Vinyl was the Longstreet Edition, which featured kaNO’s design decorated in the red tracksuit associated with Bruce Lee’s character Li Tsung from the television show Longstreet (1971-1972). Lee only appeared in four episodes, his role being that of an antique dealer and Jeet Kune Do expert who becomes the titular character’s martial arts instructor. Limited to an edition of 75 pieces, this version debuted at San Diego Comic-Con on July 13th, 2012. And even though this was supposed to be the concluding installment for kaNO’s Dragon King, the sculptural form would prove too popular for this to be the end.

The Crow King (2014)

First teased in March of 2013, The Crow King was kaNO’s memorial tribute to Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, and his breakthrough role as Eric Draven in The Crow (1994). Using his factory produced vinyl Dragon King as a base, kaNO meticiously hand-painted each piece in this edition of 20. Coming with a crow accessory that fits in the figure’s hand, this element was sculpted by Steve Schumacher and cast specially for this version. While the majority of these signed & numbered pieces were issued online directly by the artist on February 28th, 2014, in celebration of The Crow‘s 20th anniversary, five copies had been made available at November’s DesignerCon the previous year.

Bruce Lee Dragon King (2015)

For the celebration of what would’ve been Bruce Lee’s 75th birthday on November 27th, 2015, kaNO partnered with BAIT to produce a new edition of the Dragon King. Decorated in the same iconic yellow-and-black tracksuit as the G.O.D. Edition and standing at the same roughly 8″ height, this Bruce Lee Dragon King version was differentiated by the addition of a removable nunchucks accessory as well as crown and ying & yang graphics on its front collar. No longer simply a homage, this edition also featured the Bruce Lee Enterprises logo on the back side, denoting that it was an officially licensed item by the martial artist’s estate. In regards to this new limited edition of 500 pieces, kaNO remarked that it’s “truly an honor for me to have this product become a reality”.

SF Dragon Kings (2016)

For his solo exhibition Raw Goods at the then-shared Woot Bear & Kidrobot SF gallery space in San Franscisco, kaNO hand-painted three of his Dragon King pieces. These one-of-a-kind art works were collectively titled SF Dragon Kings, with their predominant coloration — Orange, Beige, and Black — being how the differentiated in references. Displayed at the exhibition’s opening on Saturday, March 26th, 2016, each one was accompanied by matching, life-size nunchucks.

20” Dragon King (2017)

And while everyone suspected that the Dragon King story might’ve sadly concluded, the final day of 2016 brought a surprising revelation: kaNO was partnering with ToyQube to produce a 20″ tall rendition of the form. Standing more than double the size of the original versions, this piece was first publicly showcased during May’s Five Points Festival, the decoration and inclusion of a nunchucks accessory modeled after the Bruce Lee Dragon King edition. Featuring the same five articulation points as the smaller rendition, this massive vinyl sculpture is expected to make its debut offering this month, in August of 2017. And just like Bruce Lee himself, this iconic rendition’s legacy continues on.

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