On Albuquerque’s north side, in a dimly lit studio choked with cigarette smoke, Jonathan Perea leans over a cluttered work desk and pours resin into a mold. In 20 minutes, he cracks the mold open, and a naked figurine emerges: Another Not Tooth is born. Part playthings, part artworks, these Not Teeth, customizable and “ready for your imagination,” are Perea’s contribution to the strange and adorable world of art toys.
Like many things that first originated in Japan, custom toys are cute as hell and inspire mania. The toys, which are often decorated by urban and underground artists, are released in limited editions. They frequently sell out during pre-sale, only to be resold later that day on eBay for three times the issue price. In 2009, toys officially made the jump from creative trend to high art when they were featured in exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
But even though a few select pieces live in a New York City museum, most custom toys are available to just about everyone. The art toy market works like baseball cards; toys come in inexpensive mystery boxes that might contain (it probably doesn’t, but maybe it does!) a super-limited edition piece that will make you the envy of the cool-toy-loving world. You can also buy blank figures and customize them yourself.
Like many things that first originated in Japan, custom toys are cute as hell and inspire mania.
The most recognized name in custom toys is manufacturer Kidrobot, the producer of the little rabbit-like Dunnys. Dunnys can be purchased blank and are also issued in series detailed by artists like Tara McPherson. Some artists, like Huck Gee, independently create their own toys. Here in Albuquerque, Perea’s Not Teeth are being customized by local artists like Vincent Le.
Le’s art is typically wheat-pasted on city walls or found gracing album covers. He did the cover art for former X-Ecutioner Rob Swift’s latest album, The Architect, which is scheduled for release on Tuesday, Feb. 23, on Mike Patton’s label, Ipecac Recordings.
Though Le, 30, considers himself to be an adult since his Saturn Return, he says that art and toys appeal to him because they both keep you young.
For Perea, making toys is ultimately about making art fun and available to everyone.
“I think everyone grows up drawing and coloring, doing little crafts. But people have to grow up and pay their mortgages. But not having to lose that—I feel very lucky.”
Besides working with Not Teeth, Le and Perea are also transfiguring their favorite toys from childhood. Perea took a Castle Grayskull play set, from the ’80s cartoon series “Masters of the Universe,” and painted it pink. The drive to customize old toys feels like a revival of that kids’ frenzy to “collect them all!”
“I’m really jealous of his Castle Grayskull!” says Le. “I’m going to get my hands on as many old toys as I can.”
Perea, Le and four other artists will display their handiwork at Cool Kids Never Die, on Saturday, Feb. 20, at Studio Broadway.
In keeping with toyland mores, the art will be for sale for cheap. For Perea, who grew up in Grants “too broke to buy anything cool,” democratic pricing is a big part of the toys’ appeal. “I want to make something affordable,” he says. “No matter how much money you have, you have enough to buy some art.”
At the show, most items will be priced under $50. Blank Not Teeth are for sale for $5 on Perea’s website, ohbabysotasty.com. National lines of toys like Dunnys can be found at Astro-Zombies and Tokyo Hardcore, starting at around eight bucks.
For Perea, making toys is ultimately about making art fun and available to everyone. Back in his studio, he gets a phone call as he paints some finishing touches on his growing army of Not Teeth. The completed Not Teeth have now assumed identities: They have masks, sport horns and wear pants.
The call is from a friend who recently discovered his inner artist playing with these toys. Perea smiles when he hangs up the phone. “He lost track of time painting his Not Tooth,” he explains. “I love hearing that.”