Toying With Art: How the arts and urban culture are changing toys

Walk into stores like Hello Portland (525 NW 5th Ave, 274-0771) and Missing Link (3314 SE Belmont St, 235-0032) and you’ll be surrounded by the hottest toy and collectible trend around—designer toys. It started nearly a decade ago in Hong Kong with folks like Michael Lau and has since hopped the pond to the US, invading cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and now Portland.

The designer toy craze has spawned such US giants as KidRobot, founded by Paul Budnitz, a film-maker with a fine arts degree from Yale. Budnitz writes in his book, I Am Plastic: The Designer Toy Explosion, “It was as if artists were taking toys that I remembered from my childhood and imposing an adult aesthetic on them. They were cute, scary, hip, violent, scarce, expensive and beautiful.”

In the toy world, the characteristically bright, smooth plastic or vinyl toys called “urban vinyl” are considered true works of art and a new form of canvas on which artists can express themselves. Many toy manufacturers like KidRobot create a mold—like their most popular character, the Dunny—and then commission artists, designers, musicians, DJs, illustrators and graffiti artists to work their magic on the space. They then create limited numbers of these pieces, anywhere from as little as 50 to as many as 5,000.

“Many of the toys are sold in blind boxes, particularly the three to five inch ones,” says toy collector and Missing Link Toys employee, John Magnifico. Buying a blind box means that you don’t know what you’re getting when you purchase the toy. If you’re lucky, you might nab some pretty great limited edition pieces. “It’s kind of like collecting baseball cards,” Magnifico adds “It adds to the excitement of these toys.”

Magnifico asserts that many folks just “don’t get it” when they walk into a store like Missing Link (3562 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 235-0032). “These aren’t really functional toys; they don’t do anything and that stumps some people. But they are beautiful, smooth-styled. They’re art and the kids that get to collect them are being exposed to and learning about art,” says Magnifico.

Portland is home to several of these cutting edge toy designers. “Vinyl toys are a real niche market. It’s quite remarkable that UNKL is here in Portland,” says co-owner of Hello Portland and collector, Stacey Korn.

Manufacturing their own urban vinyl are the boys from UNKL, which was started by designers Derek Welch and Jason Bacon in 2004 as a way to focus their creative energy doing something they liked without having to answer to a client. “We had created so many characters and stories over the years, we figured why not make something out of it? Our first character, HazMaPo, launched January of 2005. That first offering of 1,800 figures sold in about a month, so we decided to keep doing it,” they say.

The artists who produce these whimsical toys obviously love their work and folks that collect them pay premium prices as the limited edition pieces skyrocket in value on places like eBay.

Artist Bwana Spoons got his start making toys back in the early ‘90s. “I started casting and sculpting my own toys but didn’t have a way or means to mass produce something until a few years ago when Super 7 took a chance on me and made Steven the Bat for me,” says Spoons.

Spoons and fellow artist Justin “Scrappers” Morrison (the creator of the sculpey figures, Oregon Gentlemen) own and operate the Grass Hut Shop (811 E Burnside St, 445-9924). The Grass Hut Shop is a studio, gallery and shop that features the artwork and toys of Spoons, Morrison and their artist friends such as Portland based APAK (Ayumi K. Piland and Aaron Piland) and Martin Ontiveros, Seattle-based artist Le Merde and LA artist Tim Biskup—all of whom have at least dabbled in the toy realm utilizing vinyl, resin, punks and plush.

Spoons, who says he is inspired by old monsters and artists such as children’s book illustrators Richard Scarry and Ed Emberley, has been a fulltime artist himself for the “last six or seven years.”

Urban Vinyl isn’t the only Asian-inspired toy being made or carried by Portlanders. Corporate Pig’s Meredith Dittmar created “My Guys” in 1994 from Primo polymer clay and sculpey. Since that time she has created thousands of her Guys with no two alike until recently (her clones series). Dittmar estimates that there are “over 12,000 unique Guys floating around in the world somewhere.”

A senior designer working at Weiden and Kennedy, Undoboy—aka Chean Wei Law—is making a splash with his “Super Bastard,” a toy that was born in art school whose appeal is that you can change it around for your amusement. Made from thick cardstock, they have four sides—each a different person—with three panels on each side and removable pieces so that you can see what type of underwear and skeletal structures they have. Undoboy’s Super Bastards came to be only because of friends who wouldn’t leave him alone.

“I had friends and instructors telling me I should make this toy. They kept bugging me to do it because they wanted them for themselves. I made several handcrafted and finally decided to work with a printer in China,” says Undoboy.

Originally from Malaysia, Undoboy pursues his passion for design with other projects such as the whimsical mimibot designer flash drive Artist Series ‘07 King and Queen that he created for Mimoco. But he hopes to one day break into Urban Vinyl.

“I’m doing vinyl decals right now [through Brick] and my goal is to do vinyl dolls but it’s pretty expensive to do yourself. I’m talking to a few people right now about the possibility of doing a line with them but I may just end up doing it on my own,” he says.

At the Compound (107 NW 5th Ave), a gallery that merges art, DVD/video, fashion and a toy shop called Just Be, owner Katsu Tanaka reigns supreme and is said to have been the impetus for Welch and Bacon’s UNKL as well as the man who connects Portland to Japan. “Katsu has influenced everybody in Portland,” says Magnifico.

With all these designer toy movers and shakers converging in Portland, you’re bound to the feel the Godzilla-like quake; and if you’re interested in getting your hands on a toy of your own, you can also visit Billy Galaxy (912 W Burnside, 227-8253)or Greg’s (3703 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 235-1257) and pick up a few playful works of art for yourself.