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The Dunny Thing

As intoxicating substances go, the Dunny sounds fairly innocuous. But to some people, these small, bunny-shaped toys are more addictive than heroin. Just ask the dozen or so teens loafing around Kidrobot on Melrose recently, waiting to score one of the soft vinyl creatures. Vanessa Holland, 13, said she caught the habit from her cousin, Jessica Macaranas, 18.

"I like that everyone gets the same canvas and makes something different," Jessica said. She owns 43 and was looking for more.

Dunnys start out blank, and then are customized by artists and designers. Illustrator Esther Kim, for instance, had painted that rabbit-shaped canvas bubble-gum pink and turned one of its ears into an ice cream cone. "My inspiration was 'spoiled rotten,' " Kim said. "It's, like, America. Having everything you want and your teeth are rotting away."

Kidrobot created the Dunny, and its store is pretty much the mecca. There were Dunnys painted like zombies and ketchup bottles and ninjas and tigers. There were devils in business suits and skull faces and sleepy wizards and Aztec bats. And those were just this year's releases. In the past, Dunnys have been painted to look like Mexican lucha libre wrestlers and Magritte paintings. There is an exceedingly rare Dunny cut from wood, designed by artist Travis Cain, which sells for $1,800 on eBay. Vladimir Lenin has been represented in Dunny form. So has Chairman Mao.

"It's like this explosion of art on my bookshelves," collector Alex Cerna said. The enthusiastic, boyish 21-year-old was at the end of a long line of people snaking into the store. He planned to buy eight boxes that day (one toy per box) — as much as his budget would allow.

It was a modest plan, considering some people intended to buy several 16-box cases.

One 40-ish woman shook her head grimly. Kat, who declined to share her last name, was first in line, but looked disconsolate. "They're cute, they're fun. They're a chance for a new collector to get a piece of art, if you can't spring for a painting," she said, then sighed as if she wished she'd taken up a less costly, less addictive habit. Something like, oh, collecting Fabergé eggs.

The problem is that Dunnys come in series. Each series might have a dozen designs, each by a different artist. Collectors like to buy one of each design to complete the set. At about $7 apiece, individually they're a good deal.

But here's the catch: Dunnys are sold "blind," or wrapped in foil, then sealed in a box. So, short of scanning them with an X-ray machine — which people used to do before manufacturers came up with the foil wrappers — you don't know what design you'll get. Also, certain Dunnys are less common than others. The system combines the heady thrills of gambling and shopping.

Cerna got hooked last year. He was walking down Melrose and saw the figures through the store window. He bought a couple. Once he opened the boxes and peeled back the foil, his heart started racing. It seemed to thump out the words, "I gotta have more." Several months and 112 Dunnys later, he was nurturing a dream of amassing an entire toy army.

Cerna's roommate, Brenda, arrived. "You should see his collection," she said. "It's insane." So far, the Dunnys have required additional bookshelves. The day is not far off when they will require additional apartment space (she and Cerna are looking).

Cerna, who works at a bank, has been spending most of his $800 monthly income on the vinyl toys. Just the other night, five packages came in the mail. He smiled sheepishly.

"My friends say, 'Why are you spending so much money on toys?' " he said. "Why don't you spend it on something else?"

"Like gas? Or food?" Brenda suggested.

"But they all look so dope!" Cerna said. In the short time he has been collecting, he has established a ritual. He prefers to let Brenda pick the boxes. "She always picks the good ones."

Afterward, they decamp to a restaurant and open the boxes while eating. He doesn't like to open them while driving. The disappointment of getting a design he doesn't want or, worse, one he already owns, or the ecstasy of getting one he craves — either way, it can be overwhelming.

Inside the store, people waved their palms over rows of identical boxes, as if trying to psychically identify the contents. They shook the boxes, squinting at them as if annoyed. The hush at the register was punctuated by small, contained explosions of joy as people unwrapped Dunnys.

Nicole Bahar, 10, said she'd been collecting for "a long time," or since she was 8. She selected a box and tore it open. The Dunny resembled a centaur, with a tiny bow and arrow.

"Oh, my god!" said Cerna. "You are so lucky. That one is really rare. That's one in 400. You could eBay that for hundreds of dollars!"

"Really?" Nicole asked, skipping around.

"Stop dancing, little kid," Cerna said. "You're worth a lot now."

"OK," said Nicole's mother and enabler. "Now can we leave?"


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