The Artists of Urban Vinyl

With the growth of the designer toy industry, companies that produce and distribute the bold figures make millions while the pool of designers creating urban vinyl vastly increases. What is their story, and how did they get into the scene?

In the world of business, the value of good design has become progressively prominent within the last five years. In the world of urban vinyl, artists who focus on good design bring their craft to life on toys. The same ravenous crowd that hungrily collect designer sneakers, graffiti art, or even snowboards and skateboards are turning to urban vinyl and they're igniting its popularity among collectors.

The story of urban vinyl began with Hong Kong illustrator Michael Lau who created the earliest figures, focusing on bold designs and a fine art aesthetic infused with the urban culture of graffiti and hip-hop. These figures inspired other Asian artists to create urban vinyl toys, usually in limited editions, which made them highly collectible. Paul Budnitz sold these designer imports on his online store, Kidrobot. Later, the brick-and-mortar Kidrobot stores fostered an urban vinyl scene in America.

Tristan Eaton's Dunny, a simple and elegant bunny-like figure, put Kidrobot on the map. Budnitz subsequently recruited artists from many disciplines, like illustrator Gary Baseman and cartoon artist Joe Ledbetter, to paint the Dunny with their own style. The Dunny designs were sold in limited runs of 500 or 1000 pieces, with each artist using Eaton's design as a canvas to share their art. With the Munny, the follow-up to the Dunny, the open source art practice was enhanced with blank Do-It-Yourself (DIY) versions being sold to the public. This is when true customization came into play and took hold as a major aspect of the urban vinyl scene.

The aspect of customization opened up the urban vinyl scene for many artists, who buy the blank figures and paint custom designs on them, and offer the resulting unique figures on eBay or message boards. Jeremy Madl is one such artist. "If you're able to get a custom piece… that's one of a kind and hand-painted. There are a lot of artists out there now and that's their bread and butter," he says. Kidrobot's customization culture has continued for years, with each new series of Dunnys featuring another dozen or so artists touching the Dunny design with their original paintings. As well hundreds of artists, amateur and veteran alike, contribute DIY Munnys to contests.

Countless artists have grown to the level of creating their own figures they share with colleagues to brand with their own designs. After establishing himself as a name in urban vinyl with his Dunny designs and custom Munnys, Madl shopped around his own figure to toy companies. He released the Mad*L, a block-headed figure, through Wheaty Wheat Studios in 2004. Its simple design clicked with many artists, much like the Munny. The Mad*L figures were sold with a variety of designs, from Madl and other artists personalizing the boxy form. Though many artists move from custom designs of popular figures to their own unique figures, few have had the success of Madl. "My next step is to self-manufacture stuff. You make money designing toys, but it's not the money people perceive. Manufacturing is really where you can make a nice living," he says. Good art fosters good art, with the Dunny begetting the Mad*L. In this way urban vinyl will continue to evolve.

With more figures coming to market over time, something about their structure or distinctiveness may catch the eye of a traditional artist. Brent Nolasco was a painter who had an unorthodox past. "I started out doing graffiti in junior high, and I use those elements in my art," he says. He moved from painting to urban vinyl over a year ago. Like many new artists to the scene, he started with custom figures and contests, and soon he was offered commissions. Artists often do customs by commission for events at galleries or conferences, where a company releases a new figure and invites a group of artists to create custom designs for the launch. Often a company will conduct a contest based on a theme and receive hundreds of custom designs. Many vinyl artists gain a following by consistently entering contests and submitting customs for events. Established artists will use events as a springboard for creating unique pieces to sell to collectors. For the New York Comic Con Nolasco made ten custom figures specifically for the event. These events are integral to an artists' career. "Going to Comic Con or to a show, is like, 'Great! That's it.' I get really excited about it," he says. Designing art for these events may be the only way for an artist to receive recognition. People notice unique figures. They discuss them. They buy them. And then the artist will be invited to another event.

These events make it possible for artists who previously had limited avenues for their urban styles, to now have a means of entering the scene and becoming noticed. Those who garner a following in urban vinyl discover a new avenue to sell their paintings or t-shirts or other artwork they made before toy figures. "The great thing about being an urban artist is that you have the freedom to do anything you want. There's no limitations, no expectations," Nolasco says.

It's this sense of freedom that draws more artists to the field and fuels urban vinyl's growth. "More and more people are hearing about it and getting into it. That just means you are going to be able to sell your toys and keep making more. The pieces that are really good are going to float to the top. The not so good stuff is just going to sit there and kinda' disappear," Madl says. Nolasco agrees that urban vinyl's success will change the scene. "It's creating more people to come out with more figures. Instead of just having one company dominate the scene, you actually have more underground companies coming up with figures and putting their mark on to the scene," he says.

Kidrobot, the urban vinyl's unofficial epicenter in the U.S. has now leveraged their most popular figure's celebrity into other markets. Madl is one of the many artists collaborating with them on this venture. "As a business move, I think it's great. If they want to make a hoodie that comes with my Dunny, I'm down with it. It's getting my artwork out there. It just exposes more people to my work," he says. And in the end, maybe that is what urban vinyl truly is — another channel for an artist to tell their story. In this case, the medium is not the message. It is the artist, with their unique style painted onto a custom figure, that ends up being the take away.

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