I’ve heard of vinyl figures and had until recently assumed this termed referred to your standard regular vinyl figure.
But I now stand corrected and educated.
The term Urban Vinyl is used to describe a “new” movement afoot or scene that has been making waves on the underground recently and seems to be gaining popularity among die-hard collectors, artists and designers.
I say new but in all reality this “movement” has been about since the early 90’s but until recently it has gone pretty much unnoticed in the U.S. and Europe.
After a decade or more out of the limelight and hidden from the mainstream buyers news of the Urban Vinyl scene is gradually spreading.
Some of these “action figures” or “toys” have now started to spill over into the mainstream market and are becoming increasingly popular on eBay, a good indication of their growing popularity and acceptance.
What is an Urban Vinyl?
An Urban vinyl is a type of designer toy, featuring action figures in particular which are usually made of vinyl.
Although the term is sometimes used interchangeably with the term designer toy, it is more accurately used as a modifier: not all designer toys can be considered urban vinyl, while urban vinyl figures are necessarily designer toys, by virtue of the way in which they are produced.
Like designer toys in general, urban vinyl figures feature original designs, small production numbers, and are highly sought-after by collectors, predominantly adults.
Urban Vinyl’s are unlike your traditional action figure or toy and come from a blend of art and toys. As such it has struck a cord with both toy and art lovers alike.
An urban vinyl doesn’t confirm to the usual conventional ideas of what a great toy is either. The big difference with an urban vinyl is that it is an original work from the start and this is why the art community has also embraced it.
Traditionally when “creating” an action figure you start with an image of what you are going to make and how good the figure is depends on how good or close it is to the original. For example a good Darth Vader action figure should look like Darth Vader.
But with an Urban Vinyl there is no “original” to work from. This gives the creator, artist or sculptor the freedom to create what they want as there are no preconceived ideas of what it is or will be.
Urban Vinyl’s are also NOT created as “toys” to be played with but with the artist’s and collectors sensibilities in mind.
These new styles of action figures, and the term is used very loosely here, are designed by artists and designers and are erasing the boundaries between low culture and high art.
One of the industries leading retailers Paul Budnitz from Kidirobots recently stated "These toys are like Pop Art -- they're like sculptures. The canvas happens to be a toy."
"Urban Vinyl is a movement of independent toy manufacturers and artists producing uniquely designed original toys. Some of the hottest urban toy artists or (designer vinyl artists) have their roots in 2-D art or where former graffiti artists and in many cases you can purchase a print to go along with your vinyl toy.
What has happened in essence is the figures have become a new canvas on which the artists can express themselves.
But remember these are often considered art works and not toys so are therefore only available in Very Limited quantities and often sell for premium prices.
Where did Urban Vinyl’s come from?
The roots of the Urban Vinyl scene can be traced back to Hong Kong and a man named Michael Lau.
In the late 90’s Lau was showing his paintings in various galleries and was working in advertising.
He was employed by a group named Anidoze to create the artwork for the cover of their new upcoming album but instead of the usual 2-D artwork he decided to create an action figure for it, which he photographed.
He had already been creating original figures as gifts for relatives and friends for a number of years so this seemed like an ideal time to expose them to a broader audience.
This ultimately led to the first official line of Urban Vinyl action figures called “The Gardeners”.
These 12” vinyls represented a positive modern lifestyle without the usual violence or drugs although they were tattooed, pierced and wearing typical “urbanite” clothes of the time.
This first line of vinyl’s seemed to strike a chord with the toy collectors and art lovers who saw them in the local galleries where they were shown.
Due to their popularity Lau created a very limited number of 6 inch vinyl’s that were sold to patrons of the museums, some of these have since been known to sell for thousands of dollars.
Lau has since created several new lines but with the increased popularity, exposure and demand for his figures it soon became obvious that there was more than one man could provide for and so new artists, designers and manufacturers started to produce urban vinyl action figures and so the industry grew.
Another notable creator of Urban Vinyl figures in Japan at this time was Takashi Murakami, whose work has been exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Now there are so many creations and themes from a broad spectrum of artists and companies that it would be hard not to find an artist or toy that you would like.
One of the companies at the forefront of the Urban Vinyl phenomenon has been Kidirobot.
Kidirobot owner Paul Budnitz got involved with the Urban Vinyl market very early on in its development after seeing Michael Lau’s colorful vinyl figures in a book and after attending a Hong Kong toy show he opened up the Kidirobot online store.
He now has two bricks and mortar stores, each covering approximately 400-500 sq feet with more planned.
Instead of the “smallness” of the stores making them feel cramped it gives them an atmosphere similar to that of a curio shop or even a museum. To add to the effect each of the colorful, bright “toys” is displayed prominently in protective display cases.
There are many different styles, shapes and designs on show ranging from monsters, aliens, bunnies and bears many from well known and popular artists such as Peter Fowler, Tim Biskup, Eric So and Kozik.
But what really put Kidirobot on the map was Tristan Eaton’s Dunny design. This simple, elegant bunny-like figure became extremely popular and Budnitz recruited artists from a broad spectrum of disciplines, like illustrator Gary Baseman and cartoonist Joe Ledbetter, to paint them with their own styles. These were then sold in limited runs typically of between 500-1000 pieces.
The next big step was the introduction of the Munny, which introduced the blank DIY version. It was with the Munny that true customization really took hold of the market and became a major part of the Urban Vinyl scene.
The introduction of these blank DIY Munny’s has opened up the market to many new artists who use them to create their own works of art which are then sold as unique and original pieces on eBay and other auction sites as well as online websites and stores.
Many of these new artists are featured in new lines of the Dunny figures and Kidirobot often have competitions for new Dunny designs.
The appeal in Urban Vinyl’s isn’t the function or practicality of the figure but its form and rarity.
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. Good art fosters good art, with the Dunny begetting the Mad*L. In this way urban vinyl will continue to evolve.
Urban vinyl is commonly designated as either Eastern Vinyl, including anything designed and produced in Asia or Australia, or Western Vinyl, encompassing pieces which are designed and produced in North America, South America, or Europe.
Urban vinyl figures have become highly collectible. Rare pieces may sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Whether toy or collectable item, some of the figures have sold for as much as $10,000 which is an indication of the volcanic popularity of urban vinyl figures and designer toys.
One thing that seems certain is that the Urban Vinyl scene is here to stay and as its following and popularity grows so will their prices and collectability.