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.
“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.
“It was nuts. It was 6,000 people trying to get through a keyhole to buy this bear, clicking ‘refresh’ over and over again. It sold out in four minutes,” he says. “I don’t know. Sometimes I have a hard time with the whole thing. It’s primal, the need to collect. It’s an extension of when you were a kid, only now you have money and you have to have this toy on your desk. But why?”
Puleston does, however, own one very special vinyl doll, a Kaws “Companion.” He bought it at a time in his life when he and a friend had sworn off drinking. He used the $150 he saved from months of not buying beer to acquire the Companion.
Munky King’s Chinatown store was at one time a film location. The landlord wanted to convert the space to a retail location and kick out his tenant Patrick Lam, who was then using the space as a production facility for his filmmaking. Instead of leaving, Lam brought in a collection of vinyl toys he’d acquired in Hong Kong. The shop became a front for his film activities. The toys, however, which caught the eye of everyone who came to visit, eventually took over.
You slide down the Dunny hole at your own peril. Japanese toy makers won’t sell to American stores. Toy producers, afraid of copycats and of being preempted by rivals, are secretive about the identity of their manufacturers, most of which are in China. Designers keep hawklike watch over the molds to their sculpted toys because unscrupulous manufacturers have been known to produce knockoff dolls from unguarded molds. Toy sellers often e-mail announcements of coveted new toy releases a scant 12 hours before a sale begins to a select list of vinyl cognoscenti. You have to know somebody who knows somebody to get on the list. Established artists refuse to give advice to novices — if they had to weather the vinyl storms alone and unguided, had to move to China and learn to speak Chinese with the people in the factories to figure out how to breathe three-dimensional life into a paper sketch of an angry bear, why should newbies profit from this hard-won wisdom?
Some news, though, is hard to keep under wraps. Pop surrealist fine artist Mark Ryden, Lam reveals, is coming out with a vinyl toy soon, which is huge, since Ryden’s paintings fetch enormous prices. What is it?
“I can’t say,” Lam grins, sheepishly.
Nucleus in Alhambra has a small selection of vinyl art, but functions more as a gallery and retail art, book and clothing store, similar in some ways to Giant Robot’s GR2 space. Maybe they’ll get into it more in the future. Or maybe not, because there be dragons here (albeit cute ones). In the meantime, an elderly couple out for an afternoon stroll examines the store’s Mimobots. Those are, in my words, USB flash drives, or, in the manufacturer’s words, “friendly little data fiends; Feed the 2-inch monsters all your essential data and transport your files in style wherever you go.” The man stares for a long time at a painting of an upside-down vampire bat that could easily be a prototype for a vinyl doll. He scratches his white hair and says, “What possesses them to draw such things?”
Kidrobot, 7972 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 782-1411 or www.kidrobot.com.
Giant Robot, 2015 Sawtelle Blvd., L.A., (310) 478-1819 or www.giantrobot.com; GR2, 2062 Sawtelle Blvd., L.A., (310) 445-9276 or www.gr2.net
?Munky King, 441 Gin Ling Way, Chinatown, (213) 620-878; 7308 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 938-0091 or www.munkyking.com.
Nucleus, 30 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 458-7482 or www.gallerynucleus.com.