Vinyl Toys

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Subsets. That is the best way to define modern culture. One can exist in their little world and really never be confronted by, nor experience another subset. To some this keeps them happy, too much stimulation is a bad thing as it challenges their fragile view of the world. To others though, life is not quite right and something goes amiss if they are not dished up something that nudges them this way or that on their path through life.

Two words: Vinyl toys.

What does that mean to you?

To some it is no more than something you find in a toy store for young kids; action figures, dolls, whatever. What if I then said to you vinyl toys can cost upwards of US$100? That is sure to get some onto the back foot.

Vinyl toys, also known as ‘urban vinyl toys’ are a definite subset of culture. A whole industry exists producing thousands of small run toys, designed by artists and sold to collectors the world over. Discovering them is an eye opener to say the least and if you spend some time looking around, a whole new sub set of culture opens up to you. One with its own heroes and legends, industry and leaders. This is not even considering the offshoots that are related to the vinyl toy industry – fashion, artists, musicians etc. all tied to it in some way. If you enter the world of vinyl toys you enter a whole and very different global social subset.

So just what are vinyl toys? That’s a question that is a little abstract in that it would be easier to ask ‘what aren’t vinyl toys?’ The easiest way to describe them is that they are whatever the creator wants them to be. They can be complex socio-political statements to nothing more than entertaining whimsical fluff. One thing they all are though, after over 10 years since I first discovered them, is hot.


The vinyl toy, also known as ‘designer toy’ and ‘urban toy’, industry began in Honk Kong, even though there was already a long established vinyl figure scene in Japan. Within Japan a strong market for limited run, collectable figures existed but it was mostly a closed market, not really spreading beyond its boarders. It wasn’t until 1996 when Hong Kong based Micheal Lau started to custom modify GI Joe dolls to look like his friends, displaying them at Hong Kong toy fairs under the name ‘Honk Kong Toy Club’, did the movement start to build pace. Today those humble beginnings have grown into a global market where street, hip hop, alternative and avant guard artists create artwork that is expressed in the form of vinyl figures, as one offs or as limited edition runs.

Many of the vinyl toys produced have strong messages behind them. Rocket World developed a rage of toys with environmental statements supporting them. It’s an interesting way to get a message across to people and then keep on reminding them. The toy is marketed with a message behind it which is part of the appeal, then in buying the toy the purchaser is reminded of what the toy stands for every time they look at it. An interesting message model to say the least. Others just make one smile, which in some ways is enough reason to by them. Sit one next to your computer at work and when things get a bit much, a quick glance can have a re-set effect – things are just not that important on the scale of everything!


Call them what you will, vinyl toys have become a phenomena. As the global toy industry sees shrinking sales, the ‘designer toy’ market is booming. Being snapped up by many, especially those in the creative design fields, their adult and rather alternative appeal ensures that the industry is here to stay and grow. What’s more, as sales boom many budding ‘underground’ artists will be able to express themselves to a greater audience through limited mass production, which in this day and age of mass produced crap in every aspect of our lives, something that actually is a departure from what has become the lowest common denominator syndrome is actually a good thing.

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