By Lei Takanashi
Their eyes look back at you, staring from every windowsill, case and shelf inside Aaron Hulsizer’s Brooklyn apartment.
The three-eyed Yoda easily intrigues some visitors. Others may be more interested in holding a Darth Vader bust wielding a can of spray paint. Some may not care at all and only wonder why Hulsizer spent $250 for a 3-inch toy.
But everyone would agree that his collection is massive.
“I only have half of my collection on display,” Hulsizer said. “Maybe less, because I just don’t have room for it all.”
Hulsizer collects art toys.
An art toy is not something a child plays with. Adults are the most avid collectors and view their toys as works of art. The toys are produced in limited runs, and prices range from $10 for a 3-inch mass-produced figure to up to $1,000 for a limited-edition figure by the artist KAWS. It is a culture that is evolving as toy companies make it more popular and bring the scene out of its niche.
The prime age group of art toy collectors is 30- to 40-year-olds, a pre-Internet generation that grew up with TV, movies and their related merchandise, much of it in the form of action figures. When art toys began to take off, many of these adults saw the toys they remembered as kids being reshaped by the artists’ unique vision.
“Instead of regular Spider-Man, he is gay Spider-Man, or he is disabled Spider-Man, or Spider-Man with his mask ripped off and toxic waste is coming out,” Hulsizer said.
But who in their right mind would spend $1,000 for a toy?
“A good art toy serves the same function as a good piece of art,” said Vincent Yu, a toy collector and the owner of the art toy store My Plastic Heart in Chinatown.
Yu and other collectors all said the same thing: A toy may seem like a child’s plaything, but the name “art toy” is an understatement. Upon closer inspection, one may understand why a toy collector would spend $65 on a 9-inch-tall, obese “Captain Cornstarch” figure, a parody of Cap’n Crunch that has lost a leg to diabetes. It is destined to become a conversation piece.
A Jeff Koons puppy vase could create the same effect, but it would cost you $21,932 more.
Art toys are produced in limited runs, sometimes as few as 400 pieces. Popular artists can sell the toys at prices up to $200. When the toys sell out, the only place to find them is through resellers who try to sell the toy at double the original retail price. The hobby can become addicting, as collectors try their best to catch up with new releases before they sell out.
“I have no money, literally,” said one avid toy collector who also runs an online art-toy store yet has trouble financing his hobby.
Then there is the “blind-box,” which is, collectors said, the drug of the art toy industry.
According to numerous collectors, the “blind-box” was crafted by the Japanese company Medicom Toy. In 2001, Medicom released “Bearbricks,” 7-centimeter tall, bear-shaped figures, each with a different design. But these figures were placed in blind-boxes, boxes that hid their contents so that customers could not see what they got until they opened the box. Blind-boxes are windowless and only show one small bit of information on the exterior: all the possible figures that one could receive from a blind-box and the odds of getting each figure.
We have all fallen victim to the blind-box before. It is basically the same crushing feeling we received as kids when we opened Happy Meals that did not have the toy we were looking for. You either got what you were looking for, or you got the same exact toy you got a week ago.
For collectors, it is like buying a lottery ticket. They know that they have only a one in 80 chance of getting that one rare figure. But it won’t stop them from spending $800 for 80 blind-boxes.
The art toy is not a new development. Although collectors debate when the first art toy was made, many credit the movement to two people, Todd McFarlane and Michael Lau, who both challenged the definition of what a toy was in the 1990s.
Both McFarlane and Lau turned away from major toy companies and decided to make their own toys. According to the book “Toys and American Culture: An Encyclopedia,” McFarlane was the first to do this when he broke away from being a toy designer for the toy company Mattel to give himself more creative freedom. McFarlane’s action figures, introduced in 1994, are considered the first toys that broke out of the mold and gave power to toy designers.
In 1997, Hong Kong artist Michael Lau took GI Joes, shaped the heads of the figures into square shapes, then outfitted them with hip-hop clothing. His work was an ode to underground culture. It was thematically based on graffiti, hardcore hip-hop and skateboarding. Other early pioneers, like the New York City graffiti artist KAWS, also caught on to the movement and began to take their 2-D art and shape it into 3-D toys.
The art toy movement became a business in 2002 when a U.S. collector named Paul Bundtiz decided to try to make his own art toy company, Kidrobot. Kidrobot popularized the art toy by making it more affordable and available to a wider audience. In 2007, the Museum of Modern Art added 10 Kidrobot toys to its permanent collection.
Although art toys can become an extremely profitable business for toy companies like Kidrobot, the hobby has downsides. The rise of art toy companies has helped bring more popularity to the movement, but its artists often struggle
“We’re not walking down any red carpets,” said Andrew Yasgar, aka Sket One, an art toy designer and graffiti artist. “Nobody is getting limo rides. Nobody is balling,” or getting rich.
Art toy designers can gain a cult following and win awards from the community, yet many still need two jobs and face the same hardships as other artists. Many do get the chance to feature their work to a large audience, thanks to large toy companies like Kidrobot, but they get only small payments. One artist, who goes by the name Nakanari, said that Kidrobot gave him 40 blind boxes and a small royalty as payment for his artwork.
Sometimes big companies take over the creative process and change an artist’s work entirely, Yasgar said. He recounted an experience he had when he made a toy for Kidrobot. The company changed 60 percent of what he had done to conform to its liking.
And there are politics within the art toy community. Hulsizer told stories of artists stealing others’ work or copying their ideas. Sometimes arguments can turn physical, with artists making threats to beat up a rival at an art toy convention.
Yet the art toy community is well connected because it is so small. Toy stores maintain close relationships with the artists and host their events. Artists invite collectors to get their favorite works signed for free. At signings, fans have even asked artists to make works for them on the spot by giving them blank canvases. The artists rarely say no.
“In a fine-art gallery setting, you will never meet the artists, but in this world, you can,” Yu said.
When asked about the future of art toys, collectors and artists were unsure. Art toys have already been exhibited in museums, and maybe they will be found in more museums in the future. Those involved believe the art toy will continue to change as any other art form does.
But no matter what happens, collectors are keeping their collections.
“These type of things, they are a part of your life,” Yu said, as he gazed at the hundreds of 3-inch figures sitting in glass cases throughout his store. The Bearbricks and the Captain Cornstarch figures arranged neatly together like a elementary school class photo.
“They’re all memories to me,” he said.