Check out the mantelpiece of your friendly neighbourhood hipster and you might find any number of creatures that wouldn’t be out of place in a kidies toy chest. Limited edition vinyl toys, mostly from Asia with a handful from other locales, have a cachet among pop-oriented design enthusiasts, culture vultures and other assorted taste-makers. Their popularity in the West and in Australia and New Zealand is driven primarily by a twenty-something crowd; people who spent their childhood collecting My Little Pony and Transformers and have found an adult fascination for all things pop-Asian and a grown-up taste for illustrated and animated narratives. Holding their own in this (now-crowded) arena are the vinyl creations of Australian illustrator Nathan Jurevicius.
His best know character, Scary Girl, first hit the scene at a trade show in Hong Kong in 2002. The Hong Kong toy maker, Flying Cat, saw Jurevicius’ illustration work in a magazine and contacted him by phone. At the time Jurevicius, a Melbourne illustrator, was aware of the trend for collecting Japanese vinyl toys, but he had no idea about the explosion in collectible vinyl toys in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong vinyl scene started off as customised GI Joes making your own clothes heads and hands and making your own vinyl figures. Then that sort of moved into urban hip-hop-inspired stuff, says Jurevicius by phone from Toronto, where he’s working on turning some of his toys, including Scary Girl, into feature-length animations.
Scary Girl, Jurevicius’ most popular creation to date, started out life as an orphan she was invented for a Film Victoria project but when the funding was cut she was cut loose (a tale that makes her silver screen debut all the more fitting.) She borrowed her name and parts of her character from Jurevicius’ real-life daughter who was ill at the time and going though a battery of medical tests.
When you see a six-month-old with tubes hanging out of her you think, “she looks a bit scary”. So we sort of nicknamed her scary girl, says Jurevicius. (His daughter is now happy and healthy, approaching her fifth birthday.)
Scary Girl wears an eye patch across one eye and a pirate party hat, at a jaunty angle, atop her large head. One of her hands is a hook, the other is a bone. Despite all of this, the character is unnervingly cute.
You look at Scary Girl and she looks kind of deformed, says Jurevicius. Or she looks like she could be limited in some way, but with her there are no limitations. Working in three-dimensions, however, has altered the way Jurevicius approaches his creations.
The way they stand becomes important and I’m always guilty of creating top heavy figures because that’s the way I draw, but now I have to think about balance and weight and side views and profiles. I prefer to have them look sort of out of proportion which works perfectly for an illustration but doesn’t work so well for a toy so you have to create stands and all that stuff.
Collectors, most of whom are adults, are attracted to the open-ended stories that the characters grow out of and enjoy the activity of collecting. The mass-produced toys don’t come cheap. The original Scary Girl with cat came in an edition of 300 and retailed for around $100 AUD. It now sells on the secondary market for almost twice that.
You could make them cheaper if you made 10,000 but then they wouldn’t be a limited edition, explains Jurevicius. Collectors, it turns out, have figured out that less is more. It would be very hard to sell 10,000 of that kind of alternate-type figure. So [we think] it’s better to have a smaller, more expensive run.
It’s a bit like if you do a feature film for $100 million you have to make the feature film generic, whereas if it costs less you have the ability to make it more alternative because you can recoup it, he continues. On an economic level it makes sense because we’re not trying to create generic figures. And if your toy is seen as an artistic endeavor more than a commercial one then you’ll want to keep it kind of limited because it’s more special and appeals to a collector market.
In the world of hipster vinyl toys, the collectors and the artists have struck up a dialogue of sorts and neither can exist without the other. The collectors are quite important because they really move the whole thing along. It’s a real cycle because the whole thing can’t exist without the collector and collectors drive what’s desirable, says Jurevicius. Hence, the ongoing creation of characters, each carrying a new message from the artist to his loyal audience of toy collectors.
Toys are one way to tell a story, says Jurevicius. The whole Scary Girl world is based on a general story line I’ve come up with, and if I want to do a story that’s part of the Scary Girl world then I base a new character around the story.
For example, I just designed 13 characters based on when Scary Girl goes to the city. One character is called the Air Filter. His body is kind of leaves and stuff and he drags around this weird fish-thing that has gills. He goes around the city soaking up bad smells and evaporating them into thin air. Obviously [these characters] don’t all exist in real life but they should. No doubt the many collectors of Jurevicius’ 3-D vinyl saga will feel the same.
You can see Nathan Jurevicius’s vinyl toy designs in the new exhibition In your face: contemporary graphic design, 5 August-5 November at the Powerhouse Museum for Sydney Design 06.