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Bloody playthings

Artful? Damaged? Adorable? Evil? Whatever. These urban vinyl toys are crawling into Detroit

MT photos: Cybelle Codish
Chris Ramos and his band of misfit toys.
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Published 11/15/2006

Gloomy Bear is soooo cute. Not just cute, but fuckin' cute, Pokémon cute, the kind of wide-eyed, cheek-pinchy cute that makes your teeth ache from the sheer sweetness.

That is, until you notice the blood dripping from his claws.

A sort of homicidal, bloodthirsty version of Hello Kitty, Gloomy Bear doesn't frolic in meadows or shoot rainbows from his eyes — he likes bashing human brains and indulging in mass-killing sprees. These urges are depicted in a series of small vinyl toys (with severed animal heads resting at his pink feet).

Welcome to the twisted, funny and bizarre world of urban vinyl toys.

A burgeoning pop phenom, urban vinyl toys have taken off on the coasts, and are beginning to trickle into the Midwest. A combination of low-brow art, anime sensibilities and comic book/action figure collectibles, the trend started with Hong Kong artist Michael Lau in the late '90s when he took a series of G.I. Joe action figures from "toy" to "art" by customizing them. Since then, urban vinyl toy stores have sprung up in New York City and San Francisco, and the playthings have found their way into workaday cubicles around the globe. Many of the toy designers are graffiti artists with ties to hip hop, hence the "urban" tag.

Detroit had its taste of urban vinyl mania with C-Pop's Vinyl Klash exhibit in April last year (see "Toys are Us," Metro Times, March 30, 2005), but now we're getting even more: Collector and entrepreneur Chris Ramos recently founded his own vinyl toy e-store, The Banana Lab (www.thebananalab.com). A music and art lover (he's a self-professed art school dropout), Ramos began collecting the toys last year and saw an opening in his hometown market. Though his business is solely an online entity, he's hoping to quickly create a physical store for his merchandise.

"I want to take the funds I'm making and put that money into Detroit," the boyish, 25-year-old Ramos says. "Hopefully it'll blow up."

To launch his new venture, Ramos put together a vinyl toy art show called Urban Art Experiements, which debuts this Saturday. With help from his friend, artist Tony "Shades" Agee, Ramos distributed a blank vinyl toy to a roster of Detroit multimedia artists — C-Pop impresario Tom Thewes, superstar Glen Barr, clothing designer and diva Ziam, tattoo artist Mark Heggie — and invited them to do what they will.

"There's a huge demographic," Ramos says of urban vinyl collectors. In his backward baseball cap, Ramos is easygoing and playful, just like his wares. "They're bright and colorful, so they do appeal to a lot of people, from 30- and 40-year-olds putting them in their offices, to the hip-hop and skateboard kids."

Most toys are compact, ranging from 3 to 9 inches in height. Though they're usually released as a limited-edition run, the figures are fairly reasonably priced: most of the offerings on Ramos' site range from $5 to $30. But the price skyrockets if a toy is rare and in demand — a single vinyl piece of joy can go for hundreds of dollars.

An essential element to the genre is the "double-take factor," like the Gloomy Bear. Kid Robot (kidrobot.com) is a producer of vinyl toys and purveyor of the popular Dunny series: a vinyl bunny rabbit that runs the cute-to-morbid gamut. Among Banana Lab's Dunny offerings is the bloody Red Rum Dunny, who chomps a cigar through his menacing grin and, frighteningly and inexplicably, bears a blood-spattered banana.

The Dunny 3 series features blind packages; each box contains a foil-wrapped Dunny, and you don't know what you get until you open it — sort of like baseball cards for hipsters. On Ramos' site, you can buy the blind box for $4.50, or the Dunny of your choice — to complete your series — for $7.50.

There's also an accessibility factor to urban vinyl toys that's often missing among other collectibles: Avid fans of Star Wars figures usually keep their prizes encased in their original cellophane prisons, but most vinyl toy collectors take their babies out of the box for the world to see (and to play with). Given their durable nature, these digits are difficult to break, and their bright, screaming colors and round shapes cry for touch.

But is it a toy? Or is it art?

Ramos offers up an explanation. "It's reminiscent of Beanie Babies ... except it's fuckin' art, man."

 

The Banana Lab's Urban Art Experiments is 7 to 10 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Detroit Yoga Studio, 2000 Brooklyn, Detroit. It's free, 21+. Go to thebananalab.com for info.

Sarah Klein is culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to sklein@metrotimes.com.

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