These are adult toys you don’t have to be so ashamed of. Toys with bad teeth. Toys with skulls for faces. They are evil clowns, nose-picking hillbillies, cigarette-smoking bunny rabbits and four-legged, gas-masked midgets.
But they’re not about to be exiled to the Island of Misfit Toys.
They’re all designer vinyl toys — a niche of the lowbrow art world that is by no means new (even in Spokane) and in no way mainstream. It’s a movement that has gained followers worldwide — art buffs, graffiti artists, musicians, comic collectors and even kids.
And though some say the major heyday of urban vinyl and designer toys has passed, there’s still a buzz about the things — including here in Spokane. Collectors seek out new releases at Boo Radley’s. They’ll load up on quarters to plug a capsule machine at the Shadle Dollar Store (which, just last week, was stocked with the first forays into the toy world of Frank Kozik, one of the nation’s most respected vinyl artists).
One local designer continues to release new toys with companies around the world.
Jim Koch, a Spokane native, isn’t well known in his hometown — but in the toy world, his designs are sought-after. A search on the fan forums of Kidrobot (a New York-based urban vinyl company) brings up 468 mentions of his work, including a mention of a Koch toy worth $500.
As a graphic designer who has worked for companies like No Fear and FOX Racing and has designed album covers for Vanilla Ice, Koch was drawn to the idea of seeing his work produced three-dimensionally.
Koch, whose work draws heavy inspiration from old-school punk, rockabilly and hot-rod art, says that making vinyl toys has allowed him, as an artist, to market his art to a whole different audience. “I don’t want to be famous,” he says. “I want to be successful.”
Vinyl toys have provided another venue for Koch and many other artists worldwide — propelling their work out of the underground into a new market: a market that enjoys collecting edgy art and one that is willing to spend cash to get it.
“These are pieces of art that you can buy for 40 bucks as opposed to a painting that’s $600,” Koch says.
It’s a medium that opens up access to the work of many types of artists: comic book artists, taggers, illustrators, animators, graphic designers and fashion gurus. They can be blind-boxed vinyl toys. They can be weird soft and squishy characters. (Ugly Dolls are considered a member of the designer toys family.) Under the umbrella of designer toys, any weird or off-the-wall 3-D creature can, arguably, find a home there.
Small urban vinyl toys rarely cost less than $5; large toys, due to their collectibility, can range from $80 to $500.
Andy Dinnison, owner of Boo Radley’s, carries Spokane’s only selection of designer toys — and not because it brings him tons of business.
“If I looked at it from a business standpoint, I don’t know that I would be [carrying designer toys] to the extent that I am,” he says.
Dinnison devotes one corner of his store to blind-boxed vinyl toys; a nearby wall features a crowd of Ugly Dolls in every color, size and shape. The counter is a sea of confetti-colored boxes, bizarro characters and otherworldly creations. The windowless boxes are ripe for opening.
Toys like these, Dinnison says, encompass a lot of what Boo Radley’s intends to offer its customer: the small indulgences.
“I think people love it because it’s an amazingly great way to keep the shopping jones going. You get the joy of Christmas morning — you don’t know what you’re going to get,” he says. “People can get their joy fix for not a lot of money.”
Dinnison and his staff have made attempts to conjure more of a collector scene in Spokane — hosting toy-decorating events and release trading parties for collectors. It hasn’t caught on as it has in cities like New York and L.A. — but people in Spokane are interested enough for Boo Radley’s to keep stocking the toys.
“What’s neat about this is it’s not an adult thing, and it’s not a kid thing,” he says.
Josh Frost, a 35-year-old Spokane resident, strayed from his usual coin collecting to start buying vinyl toys a few years ago.
“Some people just think it’s silly and stupid, which honestly I understand. At the same time there are others that appreciate the same things about it that I appreciate,” he says.
While the hunt to actually get the toys is exciting, it’s ultimately the art that drew Frost to toys. Kozik pieces. Tara McPherson’s 3-D characters. Any and all Kidrobot Dunnies he can get his hands on.
“I am pretty un-artistic myself. I don’t really consider myself that creative of a person, which is probably part of the appeal to me,” he says. “I might look at coins for the same reason that I like Dunnies. They have a bit of artwork to them. They look pretty… There is a value attached to them, which is appealing to me.
“I think most people like to collect because they want something that most people don’t have,” he adds.
Dinnison is not optimistic that vinyl wildfire will ever spread in Spokane. People, he says, need to first start seeing these as more than just toys.
“It’s still a fairly small niche,” Dinnison says. “I just hope that people just see that toys can be art.”