Sunday, September 30, 2007

For love of Vinyl

I’ve just bought myself a Kaiju. Its name is Usagi-Gon and it’s been designed by Frank Kozik who is best known for his Mongers. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Urban Vinyl - the alternative side of action figure collecting.

Action figures have grown hugely in popularity in recent years. The larger comic shop chains like Forbidden Planet seem to have more figures than comics on display these days. The whole thing started in Japan (where else) but really took root in the west with George Lucas and his Star Wars figures. Until then, us boys (and let’s face it, it is mostly boys that collect figures although the number of female collectors grows ever larger) had had to make do with Action Man, the more exotic US import Major Matt Mason and those strange little HO/OO (1/72 scale) Airfix armies that you could buy and never paint properly because they were made of shiny polythene plastic. But then along came Kenner with its groundbreaking 3.75 inch Han Solos and Darth Vaders and there was a shift away from single figures with multiple costumes and props towards smaller figures that could be bought as part of a greater collection. In time, Kenner was swallowed by industry giant Hasbro, who still produce Star Wars figures to this day. The six films have generated US $4.3 billion at the box office and US $2.8 billion in video and DVD sales. But the merchandise surrounding the films (according to Lucasfilms) has generated a staggering US $9 billion, a major proportion of which is made up of action figures.

These days, figures seem to fall into four main categories: firstly there are the bona fide toy figures that are designed to be played with. They usually feature articulated joints and have associated props and vehicles. The Hasbro Star Wars figures fall into this category as do figures from the Batman, Simpsons, Dr Who, Family Guy and other franchises.

The second category is what I would call the ‘display figure’ as the sculpting is usually of a much higher quality and the figures are less easy to play with. Todd McFarlane’s company McFarlane Toys has been a major player in this area insisting on fine detail and good likenesses over articulation. Recent examples include figures from TV series Lost and 24, and the band Kiss.

The third category is best described as fine art. These are fixed sculptures, full figures, dioramas or busts, with a high degree of detail and quality and are intended entirely for display.

The fourth category is Urban Vinyl, a term that was coined by action figure aficionado Adrian Faulkner to describe a very particular kind of collector’s figure.

Part toy, part artwork, the Urban Vinyl figure is a limited edition sculpture created by an artist and cast in vinyl or resin. They are normally made in small production runs and – here’s a defining characteristic - they don’t tie in with any TV show or film or comic (unless it’s an indie comic or book produced by the same artist). If anything, they are often anti-establishment and the word ‘urban’ denotes that they have some synergy with modern street culture. The figures are a kind of 3D graffiti. Consequently, you will not find Urban Vinyl in the catalogues of companies like McFarlane or Hasbro.

As Faulkner says himself, ‘Urban Vinyl is all about Style. Sculpting is about how well something has been translated from design to 3D Model (i.e. how much does that Tomb Raider figure look like Angelina Jolie?). Style is what happens before that. If Sculpting is about the transposition from source material to figure (the process of creating something from the design), then style is about the creation of that source material or the creation of the design.’

Urban Vinyl appeals to people who value style and design over designer labels and franchises; the same sorts of people who seek out new art, new music and new clothing styles. In the same way that a small group of East Village kids created a resurgence in Hush Puppy shoes in the mid-1990s simply because they were so non-mainstream, so Urban Vinyl has made the action figure stylish. And contemporary.

Urban Vinyl is eclectic, quirky and highly collectible but it’s not always cheap. While you can pick up a new figure for anything between £10 to £40, the limited number of each figure soon starts to hike the price. On e-bay at this very moment, there is a full set of James Jarvis’s rarest figures, the Office Stereotypes – seven small vinyl figures each approximately 8-10cms tall – going for a staggering £200. His similarly-sized World of Pain series policeman figure is on offer at a mere £45 – and that’s the starting price. Meanwhile, if you want one of Gary Baseman’s Dunces figures, expect to fork out at least £50 each … if you can find them (limited to 500 and there are six in the set).

Most collectible of all are the early figures of Michael Lau, the granddaddy of Urban Vinyl. Lau is a Hong Kong-based artist who, in 1996, was asked to design an album cover for the band Anidoze. Instead of a painting, he created an action figure. He followed up with an exhibition of GI Joe figures that he’d customised by putting them into Hip-hop street gear. Lau’s work struck a chord with urban artists. Here was a new medium; contemporary sculpture building upon tradition but using 20th century throwaway materials and modern designer chic. Urban Vinyl was born.

Another major milestone in the rise of UV was when Kidrobot, who have gone on to become a major player in the UV market, produced the Dunny; a small, generic, rabbit-shaped blank figure that could be customised; in other words, a 3D canvas for artists to work with. Invented by Kidrobot director Paul Budnitz and artist Tristan Eaton, the Dunny has now become the most widespread of all UV figures with over 200 different variants to collect, and all designed by different artists. After the Dunny came the more humanoid Munny and Trexi, the aerosol-headed Fatcap and the Quee, which can be a bear, a cat or, a rabbit or, more oddly, an anthropomorphic egg.

Meanwhile, artists started to create their own brands: Gary Baseman released his Fire Water Bunny and Dunces series; David Horvath created his immensely popular Uglydolls; IWG took familiar animals and armed them with rocket launchers and machine guns. And Tokidoki’s Moofia series featured milk cartons. And as more and more artists entered the arena, the world of Urban Vinyl became ever more bizarre and more intriguing. But that’s one of the joys of Urban Vinyl - there is no corporacy. No range looks like any other, being driven entirely by the artist’s vision rather than commercial or media pressures.
British designers have now successfully entered the UV scene, most notably James Jarvis. Jarvis creates quirky little figures with potato-shaped heads that inhabit their own ‘potato-headed multiverse’ - his words, not mine. His first figures were designed as promotional items for the Silas clothing range. But soon they’d become extremely collectible and led to him forming his own company, Amos Toys. His In Crowd figures come in themed sets of six or seven figures. One recent set, his Young Ruffians, is a perfect snapshot of the ASBO generation with their hoodies and puffa jackets, gold hoop earrings, mobile phones, white trainers and bling.

Another Brit who will soon be joining the fray is Nottingham-based ‘King of Doodling’ Jon Burgerman who tells me that he will be releasing a set of Heroes of Burgertown figures in 2008. Burgerman’s unique style has been employed on projects for Sony PlayStation, The Sydney Morning Herald, fashion label Miss Sixty and rock band Metallica, and he’s exhibited all over the world, including at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Here’s a sneak preview of two of the prototypes for his series.

And I can’t leave this section without mentioning influential comic artist Jamie Hewlett. Having come from an urban art background, it’s interesting to see that he’s now producing vinyl toys of his Gorillaz characters. Manufactured by Kidrobot, these figures successfully straddle the line between true UV and commercial franchise

Another thing that makes UV figures both collectible and cool is the underground nature of their sale and distribution. You won’t find these figures in Argos or Asda. You have to seek them out in secluded little lifestyle shops like Playlounge. Situated in London’s Beak Street, just off Regent Street and a Quee’s throw from Carnaby Street, this tiny shop is always stocked with the latest figures. The fact that the stock changes so often is testament to the popularity of UV and the rarity of the limited edition figures. Another option is to buy online and, here in the UK, companies like Bugvinyl, Octane 3, Funkyzilla, Tokyo Toy Store and Nasty Vinyl usually stock a great range. Even Forbidden Planet has started stocking a few items. There are always hundreds of figures on e-bay too. But who buys this stuff?

Basically, anyone with a desire for style over branding, and quirkiness over conformity. Artists buy them for the aesthetics. Students buy them as mascots. Creatives buy them, as do advertisers and marketing people. In the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd we saw a basement office littered with figures like Kaz’s Smoking Cat and Dave Cooper’s Pip and Norton.

Most Urban Vinyl is made in China and Japan where advances in 3D Printing (3DP) are allowing rapid prototyping from sketchpad to 3D computer model to physical object. 3DP works like an inkjet printer, using a travelling head to deposit a fine powder which is fixed with a water-based adhesive. Some machines use polymer resins (instead of powder) which harden in the air or are cured by Ultraviolet light. At present, the cost of these machines is prohibitive, but it’s not difficult to imagine a near future where artists will be able to create figures at home by simply ‘printing’ them out using 3DP. Blank figures like today’s Dunnys could be downloaded and personalised, decorated, swapped, and ‘printed’ in limited runs from home. So maybe one day I’ll be able to download my Kaiju (which, by the way, is Japanese for ‘weird beast’ or ‘monster’). And, by placing production directly in the hands of the artists, Urban Vinyl will have come full circle.

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