Show Me the Munny

Unpainted dolls stake their claim in local pop culture

Kids aren't the target market. The toys are collected and displayed, like other kinds of art, by connoisseurs. Some owners, naturally, keep their purchases in plastic, hoping their value will increase. But the market is being flooded, and cashing in seems unlikely.

The art toy scene got an early boost in 1999 when Mark Lau unveiled a line of G.I. Joe action figures that he redressed in baggy shorts, piercings, dreadlocks, and surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding gear. Fans waited in lines that snaked around several city blocks in Hong Kong to view a display of the toys, and soon Lau had a huge following.

In America, art toy companies like STRANGEco and KidRobot — the Munny maker — sprung up around 2001. KidRobot opened stores in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and company founder Paul Budnitz documented the rise of art toys last year in his book I Am Plastic.

Amanda Magnetta will open a Munny haven -- the Bear and Bird Boutique and Gallery --  on February 3 above Tate's Comics (following images).
Amanda Magnetta will open a Munny haven -- the Bear and Bird Boutique and Gallery -- on February 3 above Tate's Comics (following images).
Tate's Comics
Tate's Comics

Galleries in major cities, meanwhile, have held toy shows, and magazines like Vinyl Abuse have appeared to cater to a crowd that can't get enough of the Japanese-inspired pop art.

And in South Florida, the mecca for this crowd is in Lauderhill on a busy suburban thoroughfare lined with strip malls. That would be Tate's Comics, a one-stop shop for every edgy pop-culture toy, movie, snack, publication, and hobby.

Having outgrown three previous locations, the present store is sandwiched between Rockabilly Piercing & Tattoo and Neighborhood Skateboards in the Promenade shops on University Drive. You can't miss it: Staring back at you from the front window are oversized, anime-influenced, disembodied heads of girls sticking their tongues out.

Shoppers entering the store split off into a colorful collision of universes that Ottati, the 31-year-old storeowner, opened with his art-teacher dad 14 years ago while he was still in high school. Some customers make for the Japanese snacks and magazines at the front while others beeline for the rear, where the two winged sentries perch valiantly atop their pillars watching over new comics and back issues, which line 300 linear feet of wall. To get there, though, they'll wander past the graphic novels, action figures, collections of anime and Asian cinema, drawing supplies, manga, art books, collectible statues, and, of course, the toys.

A three-foot Yoda, sallow and sage, presides over the toy section, where the plush Ugly dolls peek out from their racks over at the vinyl creatures loitering in glass cases.

Some of the toys seem more inspired than others. It's hard to imagine forking over $24.95 for the BSHIT — a smiling, plastic pile of poo. And some seem to be trying a little too hard — for example, the Insanely Twisted Rabbit, a small vinyl bunny wearing a giant tiara fashioned out of the teeth and gums of perhaps a dinosaur.

In homage to the Japanese love of surprises, the shelves are stocked with small "mystery boxes" that contain any of a number of colored plastic figurines that shoppers are often tempted to dig through before making a purchase. (This is unacceptable.)

The Munny dolls themselves, piled in the corner of the toy section, also rely on surprise: They come with four secret accessories and one of several Munny coloring books.

Magnetta surveys the vibrant scene below from the loft, where her new gallery is under construction. She's petite with long, brown ringlets and expressive eyebrows. She doesn't actually work at the store, but she spends all her free time there, reorganizing the store's appearance and merchandise. She met Ottati — a soft-spoken and genial art student with long, curly black hair — at his store's first location, and the two found they shared an irrepressible urge to collect stuff.

The Ottati home is like a museum of collecting. Magnetta's framed Alice in Wonderland paper ads line the hallway, and she's also got sizable amounts of sideshow memorabilia, rubber squeak toys, mounted insects, and creepy dolls. After Ottati visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami and experienced Salvador Dali's "Dream of Venus" — a controversial 1939 World's Fair exhibit that included a woman's legs, spread-eagle, as an entrance, floating mermaids, and inverted umbrellas — he began collecting post cards from the 1939 World's Fair. He also collects Akira, Tron, and Dune memorabilia and anything from the Crayon Shin-Chan manga series.

After dating for several years, the two married last summer and solidified their plans to open Magnetta's boutique and gallery in the second-story loft at Tate's.

The 800-square-foot loft will carry jewelry, limited-edition prints, clocks, lighting, beads, T-shirts, and locally made body products. Magnetta plans to hold shows about once a month, with themes like "mushrooms" or "sex and science." Various pieces of furniture and building materials now clutter the loft, but Magnetta says it's a work in progress and leads the way back downstairs.

She spots a certain preferred customer, Nova Southeastern law Professor Jim Levy, whom she insists on introducing. Apparently Levy, who is clean-cut and dressed conservatively in a sapphire polo shirt and khaki pants, is an expert on Kaiju, plastic Japanese monsters and robots that predated and greatly influenced urban vinyl.

The longtime collector and Tate's aficionado flips through a book of Kaiju that includes creatures like Micrus, Barom 1, and the smog monster. Levy knows all of their names. He owns most of these toys, some in several color variations. Many of the monsters are not from movies or television, he says. They are references to nothing, toys for the sake of themselves, and this appeals to him.

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