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Art toys, alternatively known as urban vinyl, or sometimes designer toys, are collectible figures created by artists and designers usually made of vinyl, though occasionally other mediums such as wood or resin, in limited edition runs.
Art toys aren’t mass produced like most action figures, dolls, and happy meal toys. However, there have been arts toys that were spin offs of pop ideas and icons such as Barbie and G.I. Joe. The art toy started around the late 1990s when artist Michael Lau in Hong Kong made the Gardeners series, as inspired by his comic Gardeners, which ran mainly in Hong Kong’s fashion and street culture magazine East Touch. These comics and art toys can still be seen online, mainly via the fansite The Art of Michael Lau. There have been many more variations of art toys since then, including some from Lau.
The appeal of art toys is their quirkiness and creativity. It emphasizes street art and juxtaposes familiar ideas and icons. The Smorkin’ Labbit, a popular creation by Frank Kozik, is a cute bunny on break time. It has a five o’clock shadow, an agitated expression and an ash-tipped cigarette. Also, the Smorking Labbit is known for its X butthole, which is modified to be more or less apparent in various releases. Art toys can express political thought, be funny or just become a medium for wild expression of creativity. The common theme within art toys is self-expression.
The original art toys, Gardener toys, are very rare and thus exorbitantly priced. However, there are many other places to buy art toys. There is KidRobot, which mainly sells mainstream art toys such as the Smorkin Labbit, Dunny, Munny, and pop culture crossovers like MarvelxKidRobot and The Simpsons. My Plastic Heart tends to sell more names such as TokiDoki, Ashley Wood, Jermaine Rogers, and the ever popular PopToys. eBay has many art toys, but beware, the prices vary greatly from the retail cost depending on the popularity and rarity of the item.
You can also create your own art toys. Blanks of popular art toys such as Munny, Raffy or Dunny can be bought online, in local toy stores, and some chain convenience stores. Original designs can be drawn up and implemented on a 3D printer (try a local art school or even a library) or even carved from soft plastic or wax (try the wax covering from Laughing Cow cheese, very pliable and brush on resin to preserve). If creating your own design on an art toy blank, please research the base material to prevent warping or peeling on the finished product, since different materials respond differently to various mediums such as acrylic or oil paint, resin, glaze and aerosol paint. There are limitless designs of art toys and their creations. They can glow in the dark; they can balance on a point, emulate the world around them or simply reflect a different world. It’s all up to the creator.