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Artwork by Shane Weaver
Artwork by Shane Weaver

Show Me the Munny

Except for the throbbing death-metal music playing and a woman browsing a notebook of star designs to have needled onto her wrist, there's not much going on at Colorfast Tattoo in the Las Olas Riverfront on a recent Thursday night. That's fortunate, because it means hulking tattoo artist Jamie Ryscik has time to show off his latest creations.

Ryscik is about six feet tall and close to a deuce, and his forearms are covered with tattoos of Tibetan skulls and an oni, a Japanese demon. The tragus of his left ear is pierced. He sports a camouflage cap, chunky sideburns, and a handlebar mustache punctuated with a soul patch. Think of him as Andre the Giant's subversive, diminutive grandson. Ryscik doesn't really fit the image of someone who plays with dolls, but the 31-year-old turns to retrieve a plastic figure he's been painting for the past several weeks. His Sunrise home is overflowing with the things, called "art toys," and he often makes special trips to New York City to acquire them.

"I mostly do it for fun," he says quietly.


Jamie Ryscik

Ryscik slides open a wooden cabinet where he keeps the doll and gingerly lifts the body and then, separately, the limbs of what he's been calling "the fink nzts" (pronounced "nits"), a temporary name for what he says will eventually be a rendering of a surfer. He snaps the vinyl arms and legs into place, then the bulbous head, which flaunts one giant, acrylic eyeball and a wide, stupid grin from which a glistening, painted tongue has escaped. He places the fink on the counter next to another doll he's recently completed.

That would be "el Carron."

"He's sinister," Ryscik says of the black doll streaked with hot rod-style pink and blue pinstripes and flames. El Carron is named after a Spanish curse word that translates to something a little more offensive than asshole because "he does all the wrong things. He'll climb in your window and mess with your wife," Ryscik says. "He's definitely a troublemaker."

The fink and el Carron seem to eye each other on the counter. They're made from the same vinyl mold, with the same low-hanging ears, slight tummy bulge, and wide stance, but "they're not in the same universe," Ryscik says. "One cares about the water. The other just wants to find an enemy."

Still, these two Munny dolls — part of an exploding international art toy craze, also called "urban vinyl" — will stand side by side on February 3 through March 10 at the opening show of Amanda Magnetta's new boutique and gallery, Bear and Bird.

Magnetta and her husband, Tate Ottati, are erecting the gallery in the second-story loft of Tate's Comics, a unique and widely adored pop-culture, comic-book, video, and toy store in Lauderhill that Ottati opened in 1993. Magnetta expects more than 100 entries from local and faraway artists for South Florida's first Munny doll show, "For Love of Munny."

The Munny, a cherubic and vaguely simian art toy, stands seven inches tall, comes in white, black, and glow-in-the-dark vinyl, and has been around for a couple of years. It retails for $24.95. The name is a play on the name of another popular art toy, the Dunny doll, since Munnys look like monkeys. But really, Munny just sounds cool.

The appeal of the toy is that it's a blank slate that begs for an owner to customize it.

"There are no rules for the dolls," Magnetta says. "It's whatever you want to do, whether that means painting it, making clothes for it, or cutting it up into little pieces and putting them in a jar. Whatever."

Munny dolls have been showing up in stores like Urban Outfitters and Pink Ghost, a recently opened designer toy store in Las Olas Riverfront, and their cool factor may be peaking.

Ryscik sees this as an opportunity. He's helped recruit tattoo artists for the Munny show and has used his shop as a satellite, selling the dolls at a discount to customers and friends. But not all local artists care to promote the plastic. New Times is told that art toys are already past their underground prime in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where urban vinyl stores jumped on trends that started in Hong Kong and Japan. So while respected local artists of all kinds — tattooists, graffitists, fine artists, graphics designers, illustrators, commercial artists, and even a "dope artist" — are designing their own Munny dolls for Bear and Bird's opening, some privately renounce art toys as "mostly junk."

But if the early adopters in places like New York are already turning up their noses, it might only be an indicator that art toys are about to go mainstream. And designers tell us the Tate's show could be a sign that South Florida will become one of their premier markets.

The Munny doll has a large family of toy relatives, designed by artists, then produced in batches of 200 or 300, sometimes in varied colors and styles. And they tend to have plenty of cheek: a cute plastic bear with a drop of blood on its tooth, a rabbit with a 5 o'clock shadow smoking a pipe.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

Apparently, the art thing doesn't pay so well. And without commercial successes like, say, art toys, Johnson is doomed to poverty. For that reason, she fully supports designer toys and what they could mean for struggling artists. She's also pleased that 10 percent of proceeds from the Munny show will go to the Humane Society, as she's got her own Faktura dog rescue business.

Skot Olsen, a renowned painter from Lauderhill, has decided to make an obscure reference to the 1930s H.P. Lovecraft novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

In the story, people begin breeding with and gradually turning into fish. Olsen's doll is about 30 percent human salesman, 70 percent blue, scaly fish, and it will be holding a briefcase and wearing a nametag. Olsen expects that with all the science-fiction lovers who frequent Tate's, someone will get the reference.

Painting a plastic object is actually a first for Olsen, who has long rebelled against vinyl toys. "It seems like a lot more plastic crap choking up the planet," he says. He also doesn't respect a lot of what's coming out, believing the intention is no longer to create meaningful art but to make money. "A lot of great painters are jumping on the toy bandwagon and cashing in," he says. "They know this market will eat up all this stuff."

But hey, South Florida may be just the perfect receptacle for pseudo-inspired, plastic crap, he says.

"It's probably as good as any of the best places [for art toys] because it's mostly younger, trendy people with some disposable income that buys those things," Olsen says. "That makes up a big part of our population. And I think these toys go with the attitude of South Florida. Always changing. Always edgy. Plastic, trendy, and temporary."

Still, Olsen and many others have a soft spot for the Munny doll, and it's markedly difficult to condemn the synthetic creature. The Munny provokes creativity and has a way of uniting different sectors of the art community, a main reason that Magnetta chose a Munny show as her first.

Besides, they're just so damned cute.


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