Toys for Lots

Eddie "E.F." Angel and Luis Diaz are 23 and 29 years old, respectively, but they still play with toys. Both are avid collectors: Superman, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, "and a lot of Freddy Krueger stuff," Diaz adds, indicating a snarling, foot-and-a-half-tall Freddy atop his refrigerator. You can distinguish Diaz's small fourth-floor apartment from the rest in his gated complex by the twenty or so action figures staring motionless out the window, as if from a satanic Santa's workshop.

These days the veteran plastic warriors are just for show. But one toy, at least, will get some action tonight.

At opposite ends of Diaz's apartment, the two friends each sit hunched over a small, white plastic doll. Beside Angel on the kitchen counter is a palette dotted with blobs of earth-tone acrylic paint. Sitting at a computer desk, Diaz uses an arsenal of gaudy hues — hot pink, bright yellow — comic colors. Slowly, quietly, they begin painting.



The seven-inch toys are called Munnys. They're blank figurines that come in white or black, and always the same hominoid shape: two legs, a round tummy, two stumpy arms, and a head with a little bump on it. Even without features, they're cute.

They're made by Kidrobot, a limited-edition toy retailer at the epicenter of the "designer toy" or "urban vinyl" movement, which began in the late Nineties when unique, hand-crafted toys started getting attention — and fetching fat price tags — in the United States.

Within the cultish world of toy enthusiasts, Munnys are selling like Tickle Me Elmo dolls: A cleverly hand-painted Munny might go for a few hundred bucks on eBay. Munnys modified by celebrities and art bigwigs are selling for even more — Fakture, a Denver designer toy gallery, is offering a Munny created by artist The Pizz for 700 big ones.

Still, it would be wrong to think Munnys are the undisputed territory of toy geeks. One of the reasons the dolls are doing so well is that their appeal crosses lines — particularly between hard-core collectors and amateur dabblers.

The idea is that you buy them blank, at $25 a pop, and then do whatever you want to them: paint them, decorate them, dress them up, even wrap them in toilet paper and make a Mummy Munny. (Ahem. © Isaiah Thompson, 2007.)

There are no rules; express yo'self.

For some artists, Munnys are a way to get out of a rut — or just to get off of their asses in the first place. Oh, and there's one more incentive: Every now and then, Kidrobot will "pick up" a good design and mass-produce it; those Munnys are available at outlets as mainstream as your local Urban Outfitters.

Diaz had never heard of Munnys until he caught wind of an upcoming show at Broward's Tate's Comics called "For Love of Munny." The show -- running from February 3 through March 10, with a closing-night "swap shindig" -- will feature custom-made Munnys from mostly local artists. Diaz had to go all the way to Lauderhill to find a Munny to customize.

Diaz isn't exactly sure why Munnys have become so popular. "To tell the truth, I'm with you: I didn't know much about them." Comics, not toys, are his overriding passion. He met Tate's owners through his work on Garbage Pail Kids, the ultragross trading cards that were popular currency among kids of the Eighties. The cards were relaunched in 2003, and Diaz makes a decent buck on the side designing new Kids for the series. (Among his favorites are Hurley Harley, a young greaser depicted popping a wheelie on a Harley-toilet hybrid whose exhaust consists of green refuse.)

Although Diaz has had his work shown at venues like Churchill's and South Beach club Pearl, he says it's difficult for a kid from the graffiti school to gain acceptance. "In Miami there's different scenes of art, right?" he says. "There's the Coral Gables scene, which is like all horses and flowers. And then there's the underground artists — and it's hard [for us] to get the gallery space down here. We're pushed into bars and clubs."

And comics stores. For the show, Diaz is creating a Munny in his own image, sort of. "Since I'm known for the Garbage Pail stuff," he says, "I'm going to do one in that style." He's using as a model his second-favorite classic Garbage Pail Kid: Varicose Vane, a lad in blue overalls, single snaggletooth dripping a drop of drool, head enmeshed in bulging veins. To get the bulge right, Diaz tried Elmer's Glue, but it dripped too much. So he got some glossy 3-D paint. "It's like a thick paint that has a needlepoint tip; you squeeze it like toothpaste."

Johnny Robles, another artist readying Munnys for the show, works in a tiny room at his parents' house in Westchester. Atop his Munny's head sits a giant mass of plaster that looks like gum. Robles built a ceramic extension onto the head, colored it with pink auto paint, and built a tiny plunger. "It will look like a plain Munny being painted pink, and somebody's taking a plunger and just ... plunging it up like bubblegum or something." For his second Munny — "kind of a Tarzan guy" — he's knitting the little fellow a shirt from some burlap he found.

Robles, like Diaz and Angel, is young and eager, and came to appreciate art through graffiti, comics, and cartoons. And like his peers, the 23-year-old views Munnys as just another way to put his stuff out there, another hustle. "It's funny that it's called Munny," he muses, "because I feel like this is a way to make money." He's going to try to sell his creations for about $350 each.

But his affair with the little guys won't likely go beyond a two-night tryst. "I'm having a blast; it's a very fun medium," he says, but "I probably won't be making any more of these. It's always good to keep things fresh."

New Times Broward•Palm Beach staff writer Ashley Harrell contributed to this report.

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