Revenge of the Misfit Toys

A year ago, three South Florida friends began sewing plush dolls for fun; now they're at the vanguard of a toy revolution

While his associates relive Comic-Con glory, Tury concentrates on a new design in his sketchbook. "We're constantly concepting the next stuff," says Sam. Friends has been selected to make an animated promo for Nike. There is a stuffed bear under discussion as a promotion for a major cigar maker. Then there's the possibility of partnering with a more established company to produce a vinyl toy line. How about hiring Golden Eyes' cousins in Chile to carve wooden toys? Or making something practical, like Friends with You purses? "We make something that only special people buy," Sam observes, squinting his eyes, knowing he's headed for trouble before he even finishes his thought. "Now we're trying to figure out how to make something for people who aren't ... so ... special."

Four months ago when David Choe walked into the San Francisco indie toy store Kid Robot, Malfi was sitting on a shelf with his arms crossed like a badass. The San Jose-based painter is pretty badass himself, what with the sex-meets-machine themes of his paintings and the sassy messages that spout from the mouth of the graffiti whale he draws on buildings and freeway walls up and down the West Coast. Choe is not a plush guy; he doesn't even say "plush." He says "stuffed animal"; and he stays away. But something about Malfi got to him.

Friends bestow magic power: (clockwise from top left) Malfi, Shoe Baca, King Albino, Barby with Spirit Suit, Red Flyer with Pesus, Mr. TTT, Albino Squid, and (center) Poppings
Friends bestow magic power: (clockwise from top left) Malfi, Shoe Baca, King Albino, Barby with Spirit Suit, Red Flyer with Pesus, Mr. TTT, Albino Squid, and (center) Poppings

"It just hit me: I need to buy this," Choe relays over the phone. "If these guys can get someone like me to buy something like that, they're ready to take over the world. Their stuff is cute, but it's beyond cute. It's like next-level stuff."

Choe e-mailed Friends with You when he brought the doll home: "Hey suckers, I bought one of your Malfis. I hope he doesn't beat me up."

Sam e-mailed back: "Oh, Malfi's going to kill you. He will bring great wealth or death. Watch out while you're sleeping."

Not taking any chances, Choe left Malfi inside his plastic seal. The artist kept e-mailing Friends, though. He painted a self-portrait of himself as Malfi, wearing an argyle sweater and a watch. Eventually Choe invited the trio to collaborate with him for a show at San Francisco's 111 Mina Gallery on October 2. The crew attacked the project full throttle like they do every other endeavor: concepting madly, sketching designs on paper and skin, calling in Golden Eyes, sealing everything in plastic, and shipping it out. When they showed up at Choe's house, they convinced him to liberate Malfi from the plastic seal. "He knows you're a good guy now," Sam reassured him. "You'll be safe." Choe cut up a pair of argyle socks to make the doll a sweater.

When the "Treasure Whale" show opens in San Fran, a plush mammal as big as Melody's mini Cooper rests on a baby-blue wooden cart, intestines and guts and white baby whales spilling out across the floor from the massive toy's belly. Pulling a rope attached to the cart is a wedge of a wizard with a pointy head and a sly smile. In an enormous Choe mural behind the Friends installation, a hooded vixen with a baby-doll face pulls a cart holding a whale that has been sliced down the middle to reveal innards like the pulp of an orange. A soundtrack recorded by Sam plays the songs of whales making love and the screams of a whale getting butchered. A steady stream of hipsters flows through the Mina gallery from 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. A jazz drum ensemble jams in an adjacent room. A dozen DJs take turns scratching at a bank of turntables. The crowd gets more and more rowdy as the free-drink tickets take effect.

Patrons who purchase the white baby whales ask the artists to sign them. Choe and Friends comply, scrawling their messy drawings across the soft baby whale skin. "It felt really strange, people knowing who we are," Mel remarks. "Oh, Friends with You, I love your stuff."

At the end of the night, screams break out near the whale installation. The crowd forms a circle to watch a drunken filmmaker friend of Choe's grind with an equally inebriated young woman in the middle of the pool of baby whales and whale guts. Mounting the rope between the whale and the wizard, the chick starts riding like a rodeo cowboy. The filmmaker flays around her until, worn out, he hurls himself at the treasure whale. The artists watch in horror mixed with delight. Just when it seems the freak will destroy the installation, he lands gingerly. Catching his breath, he leans against the whale. No computer screen, no plastic, no art gallery pretension comes between the freak and the mammoth plush.

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