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By Jill Stewart
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“Vinyl toys are meant to be affordable art,” says Carter. “Their value increases exponentially as the years go on. Because people want that last one to complete their collection. They have to have it at any cost. A lot of the artists, their fame comes from this.”
“I really love the plasticness of the toys that we produce, the bright, flat colors, and the super-pop-art timeliness of the design,” says Kidrobot owner Budnitz in an e-mail from New York, where there is another Kidrobot store. His company manufactures Dunny dolls in limited-edition runs of 100 or 500. “When I started the company I flew to China and had to convince factory owners who are used to making 100,000 pieces of a single toy, or even more, to use the same machinery to make works of art for me,” Budnitz says. He loves the deviousness of it all. “In a way we’re misusing the machinery of mass culture to make works of art!”
A word on bunnies smoking. Bunnies being naughty is a common theme in designer vinyl. (“Dunny” is Australian slang for “toilet.”) The mashup of cute and evil, or cute and creepy, or cute and angry, or cute and more cute makes for irony, which makes for art.
Wandering around Giant Robot’s original store on Sawtelle one evening, I find a small case of toys. A taste: an 8-inch Obey Qee figure going for $110, a couple of Mothman figures (black with shiny red eyes), a Gargamel and a Mini Dragamel, a Nanospore (glow-in-the-dark poo) and a mini Biz Markie.
“I know nothing about the back story on that,” says the store clerk about one toy depicting a man stabbing a hippo. It’s part of a series called The Salmonella Being on Planet Porno, which turns out to be a variation on the title of a book of short stories wherein the characters suffer various awful fates as a result of their foolishness.
So, back story is everything. For instance, Giant Robot also carries the Moofia toy cows shaped like milk cartons: “Collect all of Mozzarella’s Moofia minions!” Mozzarella, who is kind and loving to good children and ruthless with bad ones, is the leader of the Moofia, a gang that extorts milk from schoolyard bullies. Eight characters accompany Mozzarella in his quest for schoolyard justice, including Low Fat 2%, Choco, Soya and Latte. It makes a kind of sense. Sort of.
Other toys .?.?. not so much. Someone, somewhere decided it was a good idea to make a line of teeny plastic collectible human torsos. There are a dozen of them in the Bust Emperor collection (pink bra, white bra, black bra and so on and so forth). Soon followed the Hip Parade line of collectible women’s buttocks. I should also mention the HazMaPo characters, one of whom is “a landscape architect, trained chef and outdoorsman that can skin a raccoon in less than 10 minutes.” An edition of 500 was made of that guy, and thank god, because when, really, do you get that combination of traits in true life?
“What is it?” a mother is saying to her boy as he rummages through a bin at Giant Robot.
“It’s a panda,” the boy sighs, exhausted, withering. He chooses several vinyl robots instead. “I think I’ve seen this guy before. I have to get the blue one but there’s only four of them.”
“Do you have, like, four more of these?” says mom, holding up the robot for the clerk to see.
Very young kids don’t play with vinyl toys. Partly because of the subject matter — it’s the rare, wonderful mother who will let her impressionable brood play with homicidal, ax-wielding rabbits.
Munky King on Gin Ling Way was the first store in L.A. to sell only vinyl toys. It’s a slow day in Chinatown and the Munky temple is deserted. Derek Puleston is the sales associate on duty. He picked that day because he knew it would be quiet. The rest of the week, he manages and curates Munky King’s sister store and gallery on Melrose, which recently held a solo vinyl toy show for artist Luke Chueh. Chueh, a humble teddy bear of a man who looks like he just rolled out of bed, sculpts soft-shouldered bears and paints their paws red. The bears stare at their bloody paws with a sad, shocked, ashamed, aghast expression that begs, “What have I done?”
“Everyone can relate to the bear,” says Puleston. “Luke addresses issues like violence and alienation. You know, that moment when you realize you’ve just done something horrible. To capture that, we closed the store windows and gelled the lights red to make it look like Hell. Three thousand people camped outside the night before the show. We had to shut the phones off because they just kept ringing and ringing.”
The show was called “Possessed,” and Munky King manufactured the doll that accompanied it, Chueh’s signature white bear with bloody paws. A small, evil, winged bear hovers over its shoulder. The winged bear holds an Atari controller attached like a kite string to the big bear’s head. “He’s being controlled by the devil,” Puleston explains. When the store’s Web site started selling the doll, Puleston and his co-workers watched the Web boards explode in a buying frenzy.