The Elias Project – Art Toys 101
What are Art Toys?
An art toy, also known as a designer toy, is a sculpture, typically made in limited quantities and from a variety of materials such as ABS plastic, vinyl, wood, metal, latex, plush, and resin. Creators of art toys are usually self-taught artists or commercial designers with backgrounds in graphic design or illustration.
A debate exists about whether or not art toys are art or toys. The differences between them aren’t always clear but think of art toys as a work that characterizes memories, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and influences in a way that brings you to reflect on or celebrate them. At their core, art toys are a reflective figure of our cultural and individual identities.
Where To Find Art Toys
Art toys are normally sold on websites, at conventions, or – depending on your location – in indie boutique gallery-like shops or art-centered coffeehouses.
Why So Expensive?
Art toys, like all art, are priced according to demand and influence. Prices are typically based on cost, time, and value (demand, style, size, trends, etc). Some art toys are less expensive because the creator is lesser known, while others have sold for as much as $25k because the creator is highly sought after.
Beauty (and value) is in the eye of the beholder. What’s that worth to you? If you understand what it takes to bring an imagined thing into physical existence, successfully, then you’ll see a greater value in its existence.
The Art Toy Making Process
For each creator the process varies, but we all start with at least an idea. Check out my blogpost The Elias Project: Art Toy Development to see how I brought my Elias prototype into exientence.
Art Toys, Urban Art & Low Brow Art History
Art toys began as a 90s trend in Hong Kong and Japan, soon making their way into American culture through the animation artist turned street artist, KAWS.
KAWS’ artwork falls under the category of Urban Art, that is any artwork relating to city life, but as an artist, he belonged to a categorical group called Low Brow. This term may be new to anyone unfamiliar with underground art, but you probably enjoy its fruits without knowing its roots. The term Low Brow was coined by Robert Williams, a west coast artist and co-founder of Juxtapoz Magazine. Mr. Williams used it to describe an underground visual art movement that began in Los Angeles during the late 1960s.
The Low Brow Art Movement consisted of self-taught artists that were rejected by the fine art establishments of the time. These artists developed their skills within various subcultures including advertising, animation, comic books, graffiti and street art, psychedelic art, punk rock culture, surf culture, tattoo art, tiki culture, skateboard culture, illustration, graphic design, and the list goes on.
Today, the Low Brow Art Movement is officially known as Pop Surrealism. Artwork of this category has progressed towards acceptance into many establishments that previously rejected such art and artists.
More On Urban Art
Urban Art typically includes all visual art forms that come from urban areas and are displayed in a public space; grafitti, sticker art, and street art. Artists like Banksy, Keith Harring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and KAWS began as urban artists, eventually gaining notariety and popularity leading them to a mainstream status.
The Evolution of Art Toys
While art toys began with artists in the Low Brow Art Movement, they quickly developed a market space and value of their own, thanks to artists like KAWS and companies like Kid Robot, which gave a retail space and gallery-like exhibition opportunity to artists that favored the designer toy niche. The art toy phenomenon swept through American pop culture with companies jumping on the trend by amassing licenses of popular icons from American media and mass-producing figurines that mimicked many popular designer toy platforms; Funko Pop!, Hasbro Mighty Muggs, and Disney’s Vinylmation Series.
As commercially licensed figurines began to override the indie art toy boom, other countries jumped on the trend in very different ways. For example, in Mexico, a figure called Xico was developed by Cristina Pineda to celebrate and promote the various unique cultural centers in Mexico. Unlike in the US, Xico is not produced in huge masses and can be difficult to find.
It’s Only Going to Grow
With the advent of 3D printers, art toys will continue growing as a viable artistic medium. Whether hand carved from wood or stone, molded from clay, or printed from a computer, the expression of human thought, symbols, actions, and emotions in sculptural form is widely sought after by patrons of the arts everywhere. Truth be told, seeking is how my journey really began…
Birdlett Bloodwing – The One That Got Away
I first became aware of art toys when I visited a Kid Robot store for the first time in Miami, Florida. I was overwhelmed with the artwork and figures that I saw. It was like a melting pot of all my favorite things; monsters, graffiti, mechs, anthropomorphic animals, and gritty/taboo artwork.
In 2010, I visited my first independent art toy gallery and store, MyPlasticHeart Gallery in New York City. There, I discovered the first art toy I wanted to own. It was a small bird with funny-looking eyes and an inspiring, playful form that I couldn’t resist but to want. I inquired about the figure and was given a price, but when I told the clerk I wanted to buy it, he told me that the figure wasn’t for sale. Naturally, that didn’t sit right with me, and it lead me down the rabbit hole of finding one of these figures.
How Okkle Begot Nolli
I found out the artist’s name, Okkle, looked him up online, and learned as much as I could about him and his works. Okkle made a handful of these characters that he named the “Bloodwing” edition just for MyPlasticHeart. The edition was a paint scheme of his art toy form called Birdlett. I searched and searched for one online, but to no satisfaction. The Birdlett Bloodwing Edition was out of my reach, but it inspired me…
Con the Crow
It was because of this that I decided I’d make my own, and through a series of artistic projects from 2010 to 2015, I created a large, 10″ bird sculpture that I intended to become my first art toy, Con the Crow. With Con’s creation, I also took on the moniker, “Nolli”, for the first time. Unfortunately, Con was broken before he ever made it to display at his first exhibition.
Resources to Learn More!
Want to learn more about art toys, molding/casting, or artists working within the medium? Here is a list of some resources that helped me along my art toy journey.
- The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook by Thurston James – the book that started it all for me. Some of the materials in it may be a bit outdated now, but the techniques remain the same. This book goes further than just resin toys; the techniques presented in this book are useful for costume and prop building too.
- Pop Sculpture: How to Create Action Figures and Collectible Statues by Bruckner, Oat, and Procopio – an amazing and detailed guide through the molding and casting process for figurines. It includes tips and tricks that aren’t covered in many videos and books I’ve watched and read before.
- We Are Indie Toys! Make Your Own Resin Characters by Louis Bou – this book takes a look at some of the industry leading toymakers and “reveals how they turn their unique ideas into one-of-a-kind collectibles”. A must-have for the art toy creator.
- Part of Rebellion #1: Flying Fortress by C100 – Flying Fortress, a Munich based artist, created an iconic character – the Teddy Troops – that began as a graffiti work. The book doesn’t cover how to make art toys, though the Teddy Troops have been made into a vinyl figure, but I find Flying Fortress’ story and artwork to be a source of inspiration. I highly recommend it for graffiti/street art and art toy enthusiasts or artists.
Notable Art Toy Artists, Conventions, Publications, & Shops
If you’d like to learn more about other artists working in the art toy medium, then check out some of these well-known creators, galleries, and shops. These are just a few that I can think of, but the Art Toy community is much larger and expands to many other countries. Welcome to the rabbit hole.