Crazy for Mini’s: Urban Vinyl Toys

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Good Things Come in Small Packages!
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You can say that about the collectible urban vinyl designer toys. Unlike typical toys which are mass produced, Urban Vinyl Toys are sold in limited runs of about 500 to 2,000 from designs made by various artists, some well known and highly sought after. The toys can also feature characters in movies, animation, or be linked with music such as rap artists. The small runs, designers and artists make urban vinyl toys very collectible as “one of a kind” pieces of art.

The urban vinyl toy craze got its start in the late 1990’s in Hong Kong, with artist Michael Lau who is credited with starting the trend. Lau was showing paintings in galleries and working in advertising–a familiar path for artists such as Andy Warhol. He was employed by a music group, Anidoze, to create cover art for albums. Instead of a 2-D design, Lau created an original action figure and photographed it. It received a positive response and led to the first official urban vinyl line, The Gardeners, which were 12″ vinyl figures that represented a modern positive lifestyle with urban wear. Shortly after, Lau created 6″ figures in very limited runs which have been known to sell for thousands of dollar in some auctions. Since then, he’s created numerous pieces and is still producing the figures.

The main appeal of urban vinyl toys was the marriage of toy and art–they struck a chord with toy collectors as well as art lovers who saw this as a new medium of their creative expression. As the public demanded more urban vinyl figures, more artists began creating their own figures, and thereafter, a subculture was born as production expanded in so many directions. The design of the toys are now mainly done by graffiti artists, musicians, dj’s, illustrators, and comic book artists from urban areas in Asia (especially Japan and Hong Kong), North America (especially the United States), and Europe.

Urban vinyl toys comes in different sizes — some 12″, and others smaller at 2″ or 3″. There are hipsters, hoopsters, soldiers, vixens, monsters, rappers and reporters. The cost of one of these figures ranges from $5 to $500 in stores, and can be sold over online auction sites for more, some for thousands, depending on its demand. An example of designer toys are the Qee series, produced in Hong Kong by Toy2R. The standard size of Qee figures is 2″ high, but 8″ and 16″ are also produced which sell for a higher price. Qees vary in design, usually with the same basic body type, but with varying heads that may be of a bear, cat, dog, monkey or a rabbit. There are also blank Qees which are packaged unpainted as do-it-yourself pieces. Each 2″ figures is also packaged with an optional keychain attachment. Another popular example of designer toys is the Dunny series which are considered the Western counterpart of Qee, produced by ToyRobot, an American company. Dunny are a series of figures that resemble anthropomorphized rabbits in a cartoon style which are produced as 3″ or 8″ figures.

To purchase an urban vinyl toy, you can find the figures at any Urban Outfitters stores, or google. Urban Outfitters started selling Urban Vinyl in 2006 when its foot traffic increased with the opening of a Kidrobot store in Santa Monica. Urban Outfitters, with stores in San Diego, found urban vinyl toys fit well with their philosophy of creativity and art that are expressed in their urban clothing lines. The buyer of their stores picked up on the trend and frequently looks for local artists to design their limited runs, some being vintage lines.  Due to the positive response of these toys, management plans to expand and increase inventory of Urban Vinyl in their stores as they have proved to be highly popular with university students as well as other demographics.

While there are many well known artists and designers such as DKNY, Comme de Garcons for Be@rbricks, Kubricks, and Toyrobot, you will also find street artists such as KAWS. What also stemmed from urban vinyl are prints of the toy figures. You can find some of the prints in Gallery1988 located on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles priced anywhere from $75 to $5000! Even plush toys from the figures have become highly collectible pieces.

If Andy Warhol picked up on this urban vinyl craze, I’m sure the Campbell soup cans, Brillo boxes and figures from the cover of Velvet Underground would have had its share of limited runs for collectors of underground art and music. But seeing that the first run of urban vinyl was released in the late 1990’s, the trend followed more the urban subculture with urban music. Leave it to the Asians for coming up with products that keep reinforcing their credo that good things do come in small packages.

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