Show Me the Munny

Unpainted dolls stake their claim in local pop culture

"They're wild," Levy says, eyes wide. "The colors are so garish. The designs are so fanciful. They're really art." Levy is in his 40s, but a youthful excitement overtakes him as he speaks about his monsters. He considers urban vinyl the punk rock of the art world and has been collecting for more than a decade, often trading with friends and on eBay. He started back in Boston, where musicians he knew clued him in on a scene of Kaiju collecting. While on tour, many musicians, for example Danzig, noticed the toys in back-alley stores of Hong Kong and Japan. They quickly became addicted to collecting the monsters, and so did their friends.

After being gripped by the typical rush that any early collector experiences — I must be a completist! — Levy admits that with all the popularity surrounding art toys, he finds himself less concerned with what's appearing on eBay each day.

"I have started to get out of art toy collecting," he said. "It's fun to hunt for the obscure, and the more popular something gets, the less interested I become."

The seven-inch-tall simian art toys can be cute, evil, and sometimes both. By Sas Christian
The seven-inch-tall simian art toys can be cute, evil, and sometimes both. By Sas Christian
By Jamie Ryscik
By Jamie Ryscik

Which is where the Munny comes in. A blank slate, the Munny allows an owner to make it like no other object in the world.

At Urban Outfitters in Aventura Mall, Munny dolls, mystery boxes, and Dunny dolls (a rabbit-like predecessor of the Munny that comes already painted) practically hop off the shelves.

"The popularity has gone up quite a bit," says housewares manager John Kathey, who admittedly gets excited when he's called upon to stack new art toys and has recently purchased his first Munny doll. Although he couldn't give any numbers, Kathey said he's noticed the dolls are selling faster now than ever.

To the dismay of several customers, Urban Outfitters in West Palm Beach doesn't sell vinyl toys. In fact, before speaking with New Times, Assistant Manager Jenna Masaracchio had just disappointed a young man who had come in, again, to see if the store had Dunnys in stock. Masaracchio isn't sure why her store hasn't kept up with the trend but hopes it will in the future. There is certainly a palpable demand, she says.

Pink Ghost, a designer toy store in the Las Olas Riverfront, got slammed over the holidays, says owner Paola Mendez, who is originally from Colombia. She and her boyfriend, Brian Hunker, and sister, Andrea Mendez, all worked together in college at the University of Miami radio station, and they opened Pink Ghost on December 9.

Paola Mendez, 24, is not an artist — she majored in computer science. But after her sister, a designer, gave her a KidRobot CiBoy for her birthday, Mendez was hooked. She decided she wanted to have as many art toys as possible, and she figured the best way was to open a store. Her computer background helped her analyze the demographics of the area, and she decided that based on the ages, incomes, and types of jobs Fort Lauderdale residents work, it was a good place for an art toy store. Splitting the difference between Miami and West Palm Beach made sense too.

On January 18, the day that KidRobot released its new, brightly colored, Mexican-inspired series of Azteca Dunnys, Pink Ghost hosted a trading party for the dolls that was packed with artists and collectors, who bought up most of the 200 Dunnys.

But the toys are the primary focus, and the Mendez sisters believe they're about to become huge in South Florida.

"We wanted to catch it before it became a big boom," Mendez said. "I've seen from the reaction when people walk in the store. They think it's a really cool thing, so we've got our fingers crossed."

At the very least, scores of local artists are becoming well-versed in Munny dolls as they prepare them for the Bear and Bird show, and there's an incredible variety of ideas from an equally sundry pool of talent. From as close by as the skateboarding shop next door, where Paul Lappin is creating a Neighborhood Skate Shop-themed Munny, and as far as Croatia, dolls have begun pouring in. Local graffiti artist Books and his partner, Black (who own the eponymous BlackBooks Stencils, an engraving business in Fort Lauderdale), are painting their black Munny white, then searing it with a laser engraver. Books says it will wind up as intricately detailed as a doily.

The local art department of Jazwares Inc., a Sunrise-based toy company, will submit six Munnys, including a mountain-biker Munny, a Rubik's Cube-inspired Munny, a Cos Play Kitty Munny with real fox hair, and a robo-transporter Munny, which involved cutting up the doll and rearranging and gluing its parts back together, then placing a mini-Munny in the control seat.

The show is also bringing in artists from Miami, including those of tattoo parlor Miami Ink and Jacquelyn Jackson Johnson, a 24-year-old conceptual artist and painter who lives in her gallery, Faktura, in little Haiti. Technically, though, it's not Johnson who's participating in the Munny show. It's her gritty, fedora-hat-wearing, dope art-dealing alter ego, Jacqi Brown.

Brown, who deals tiny oil paintings and drawings out of nickel bags for $5 each, will create a little mascot for her business. She's sewing a tank top and jeans for him and threading together a cape made out of dope baggies. Drug themes are rampant in both Brown and Johnson's work, as they've seen their share of Miami artists disappear from the scene under the spell of various substances. Johnson worries that one day she'll disappear too, although not because of a drug habit.

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