Chances are if you’ve come into contact with art toys it’s because of KAWS. Also known as designer toys, or urban vinyl, the art toy is designed by an artist and produced by small, boutique factories in a variety of materials and colorways. At least, that goes for the indie scene. For artists like KAWS, whose zombified Mickey Mouse-esque figures are enticing fare for the millennial art collector, the ability to mass produce his pieces significantly blurs the line between art and toy.
Until recently, the art-toy world was made up of a small, tight knit and global community of artists and collectors. Now, KAWS’s success has increased the overall demand for art toys, leading hypebeast collectors to scour the indie art toy world for pieces of similar style. As KAWS’s prices continue to inflate, the wider market is growing beyond its origins. But this popularity brings with it the baggage of the uncredited Black influence on art toys since the movement’s inception in the late 1990s.
Mie, also known as art-toy artist NegroidAutomata, began her career in art toys working at MunkyKing, a small art toy company. She’d spend her days scouring the internet for visual artists who would want to work with the company to adapt their designs into art toys. Mie would often go to these conventions as part of her job and as an extension of her own love for collecting and designing art toys. Recently, she’s begun to see an uptick in the sneakerhead-type collector at conventions like Designer Con.
“Art collectors and hypebeast collectors emerged [at conventions],” Mie tells me over the phone. “Something you’ll see if you go to [Designer Con] now is that a lot of the people who are buying art toys are sneakerheads. They’ll be walking around with $2,000 sneakers on their feet and then buying art toys the same way they buy sneakers. You’ll see a line for something and it’ll sell out, only to see it on Ebay the next day. The most popular ones are these hypebeast brands that have merged into the [art toy] community, like KAWS or Quiccs or Bape,” Mie says.
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The strong presence of hypebeast culture rankles Mie, who is one of few Black designers in a scene dominated by white men. “It’s all very street culture-y, but I think a lot of street culture derives from Black culture,” she says. Despite the influence of Black culture, “you go to these conventions and you don’t really see a lot of Black people or Black artists, just a lot of Black themes.”
Though the increased presence of sneakerheads in the indie art toy world has only really emerged in the 2010s, “street culture” – a term whose aesthetics are largely derived from Black culture – has been present from the inception of the art toy.
In 1990s Hong Kong Michael Lau, the so-called godfather of designer toys, came out with his Gardner series. In his early sketches and toys the presence of Black culture is obvious. Unfortunately, Lau didn’t develop his character design beyond stereotype. In 2007, for example, a series he made offered “Lazy” counterpoints to other designs in the series, all depicted with dark skin tones, as if laziness coincided with melanin.
The popularity of designer toys in the art world was always predicated on its edgy street-culture credibility. The appeal of this work for non-Black artists and consumers often goes unexamined. Art toys make childhood pop-iconography — like Mickey Mouse — subversive by making it “street,” continuing the old positioning of Blackness and Black culture as the antithesis of innocence.
But the subversion of innocence to what end? The aim of culture jamming through subvertising — spoofed or edited ads, often targeting billboards and posters — and other trends within 21st-century pop art was to crush the final establishment of commercialism. But as William Smith notes on the subject of KAWS’s own work in subvertising, the opposite happened.
“KAWS’s collaborative ads could become more alluring even as they became more ironic, more of a motivation to consume even as they expressed a knowing, if not critical, attitude about the mechanisms of consumption,” Smith writes. Consuming as an ironic gesture is what made the art toy a premium collectible amongst the upper echelons to begin with.
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The smaller indie art toy world, though not without its faults, is in some ways the antithesis to the KAWS type of ironic detachment. Though the artists within the scene that pander to or attract the hypebeast type collector fall into the same trap of making edgy and “urban” art toys, the indie scene has so much to offer beyond that. Artists as varied as Mie, Freddy Carrasco, Science Patrol and Chompton create wildly different characters that come from a variety of style influences, from the monster genre kaiju of Godzilla tradition to ‘90s cartoons. The work that goes into creating these limited edition pieces is complex, requiring multiple craftspeople and international networks. The initiation into art toy designing, though, often begins with a simple love for collecting them.
Mark Nagata, the founder of and one-man operation that is Max Toy Company, says, “If I see a common thread between the people who start making art toys it’s that they were all toy collectors in one way or another first.” Nagata started collecting vintage Japanese toys in the 80s while pursuing his career as a freelance illustrator. In 2005 he launched Max Toy Company so he could start making his own toys, often working with the same soft vinyl factories that made some of his favorite collectibles.
Nagata points out that these factories are smaller than most would assume, “When I say factory, people might be envisioning 20 or 30 people, but it’s usually one guy.” It’s due to the extremely small size of these factories, the quick degradation of silicone molds, and the constraints of overseas shipping and factory costs that runs of toys are naturally limited, making them perfect collectibles.
Cory Michael Privitera, an art toy designer who also goes by Science Patrol, moved to Japan to apprentice for a toy maker and now lives there full time. He notes that the Japanese art toy community is lacking the self-consciousness of the scene in the U.S. Privitera explained the nuances over email:
The community here is similar to what I’ve seen in America at their toy events, but due to there being more of a level of comfort for buying and collecting toys at any age here, post-event meet ups at random bars with makers and collectors where everyone just pulls out all the stuff they bought and everyone publicly looks at, ‘plays with,’ and talks about toys without there being a weird air of embarrassment is something I’ve never seen in the West.
While tapping into established collector communities, such as Sanrio collectors, is a sure way to sell out of one’s toy, indie artists don’t usually have access to these franchise licenses making it difficult to cash in on the pop art trend. However, sometimes artists will be contracted by designer toy companies like Medicom to collaborate on licenses that they’ve acquired.
Candie Bolton had already collaborated with KidRobot when she was approached at Designer Con with an offer to design a Hello Kitty art toy. A collector of Hello Kitty merchandise since she was little, Bolton jumped at the opportunity, but the pressure of collaborating with such an iconic character made the design process difficult.
“I was trying to encapsulate an idea that I think both toy collectors and Sanrio collectors have in common, which is that they like the things that they liked from their childhood and they don’t want to let go of these things,” Candie says. “I wanted people to feel that it’s okay to not let go of those things.”
Though she wanted to pursue a more mature design, there were limitations, “Since Sanrio has to protect their brand,” she says. “It couldn’t be too gory or sexual or have references to drugs; it had to be relatively tame.” After six months of experimentation, Bolton settled on a melancholy, teenaged Hello Kitty holding tight to balloons meant to symbolize the loves of childhood that are still being held onto.