Let’s say you kidnapped some small animals — bears, hamsters, rabbits, dogs, tigers or whatever — and left them stranded on an island, only to come back years later and discover that the animals had been mating and giving birth to weird hybrids who were fighting wars and having revolutions. Picture entire species rising up and being extinguished in waves. Now imagine that aliens had also landed on the island and started colonizing and assigning the inhabitants nonsensical names and making everybody do lots of acid.
That island might look a lot like the world of urban vinyl toys, only not as complicated.
The vinyl or designer toy craze hit hard in the late 1990s when Hong Kong graphic designer Michael Lau showed up at a toy convention with some G.I. Joe dolls he had customized into hip-hop street figures. People loved them so much that subverting the toy culture became a thing that graffiti artists, DJs and illustrators started doing too. They sculpted dolls in the shape of rappers, street hoodlums, overweight superheroes, cowboys, menacing clowns. Vinyl toys, in a way, are the three-dimensional manifestation of paintings and drawings by so-called lowbrow and pop-surrealist artists.
Vinyl toys entered the city — and some say the country as a whole — when Eric Nakamura and Eric Wong, impressarios of the Asian pop-culture juggernaut Giant Robot (which began in 1994 as a local zine-turned-glossy-magazine) started selling them on the Giant Robot Web site, and then circa 2001, in their store on Sawtelle.
“They were the hottest-selling item we carried up to that time,” says Nakamura.
He recalls going to Japan nine years ago and meeting with a company called Bounty Hunter, which many people credit along with Lau as being the very first to produce designer vinyl toys.
“When I saw those, that’s when I realized something great was about to happen,” Nakamura continues. “It was a great opportunity to bring them out to the masses. We interviewed Michael Lau for issue 18 — we’re at 51 now — and he offered them for us to sell to people. It was a financial risk, since [the toys] weren’t inexpensive.” But they were so hot they “flew out,” as Nakamura puts it, even after several restocks.
Kidrobot came on the scene in 2002 when founder Paul Budnitz started an online store and began commissioning artists and others to make toys. Last year he opened a store on Melrose Avenue (replacing the short-lived shop on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade), and it has quickly become one of the preeminent places in the city to buy rare urban vinyl. White-glass cases are packed to the gills with every creature that ever slithered, crawled, hopped, jumped, tiptoed, rolled or bounced out of your imagination — some small enough to cup in your hand, others as big as boulders.
“It’s looking pretty empty right now,” says sales associate Jed Carter, indicating shelves that look plenty full to me. “We’re expecting a shipment. But usually there’s a lot to look at. People come in and they go ‘whooooah.’ We sold our most expensive piece yesterday. One of our regular customers came in and bought it. We weren’t too surprised.”
The piece, a large Be@rbricks figure carved out of Japanese rosewood, sold for $1,500. But prices run the gamut. Nearby, a rabbitlike toy called a Smorkin’ Labbit (tagline: “Make face for happy mouth!”) by artist Frank Kozik retails for about five bucks. It is pure white, soft vinyl, like a marshmallow. Labbits are equipped with holes in their mouths for sticking in tiny popsicles, mustaches, cigarettes, pipes.
What does a Labbit do? “Pretty much everything in here doesn’t do anything,” says Carter, who is “minimalist about it” when it comes to collecting vinyl toys. Other Kidrobot employees, like their patrons, he says, are “severely, severely into it.” When vinyl artists stop by the store to sign their work, the line of customers stretches around the block. Toys are usually sold “blind boxed” in identical, anonymous cardboard packages so you don’t know what you’re going to get. Inside, the toy is then foil wrapped so it can’t be X-rayed, as people in the throes of vinyl fever have been known to do.
Sometimes the artist will release a “chase,” or a rare figure that isn’t officially part of a series. In vinyl speak, it’s the equivalent of finding a black jellybean in a bag that you think is only going to be shades of pink. The chase for Kidrobot’s latest series of Dunny, still another rabbitesque creature, is painted like a gingerbread cookie with one ear bitten off. A second, even rarer chase — a burnt version of the cookie rabbit — is going for $200 now on eBay.
Gary Baseman, David Horvath, Tim Biskup, Shepard Fairey and Tara McPherson have all done versions of the Dunny. Heatherette, the fashion brand, has done vinyl, as has artist Takashi Murakami. George W. Bush, Kim Jong-il, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Tony Blair have been immortalized as vinyl dolls by Plasticgod (they come as a set, actually, called “Axis of Evil”), and the members of the virtual band Gorillaz have gotten the vinyl treatment too.