They glare from molded, terrifying, Technicolor faces, resting in glass cabinets and attracting passers-by.
From the minds of artists they entered the world like flowers from a magician’s wand, the beacons of kaiju — an army of tinted toy monsters.
Disclaimer: They are not intended for use as chew-toys or as a 4-year-old’s tea party dates.
Classified as urban or designer vinyl toys, molded into colorful monsters, they join a squadron of prints from local artists, vintage Japanese products, graffiti paintings, giant purple bananas, stuffed bunnies, do-it-yourself vinyl kits, and other eclectic collections at Lulubell Toy Bodega in downtown Mesa.
With an emphasis on urban art, the local business and gallery hopes to fuse itself with the Mesa community and offer niche products that customers cannot find anywhere else in Arizona.
Amy Castillo co-owns Lulubell Toy Bodega with her partner, Luke Rook, who lives in Tokyo, Japan and produces custom vinyl monster toys for the business.
The toys can be any color or design, scoping across the human imagination.
“People are constantly looking for those things that remind them of their childhood, remind them of their youth, happier times or simpler times,” Rook says.
Rook started Lulubell Toy Bodega in Tucson seven years ago as a brick-and-mortar business, but Castillo convinced him to go online for a larger mass of clientele.
The online business focuses on rare Japanese products that people could normally not find in the U.S., while the in-store business sells anything within the range of “fringe art,” Castillo says.
This category of art falls into anything besides a typical landscape or painting of a bowl of fruit. Painting senior Zack Osowski interned at Lulubell Toy Bodega in fall 2011. He says a non-traditional form of art can be almost anything.
“You aren’t following a certain rule, or how things should be done. You’re just creating something in your own way, in a unique way,” he says.
Danny Bushey, who goes by the alias Rusted Halo, sells steam punk figurines in Lulubell Toy Bodega. His toys are robots and creatures with pocket watches and protruding goggles with names like “CopperHead.” These characters used to hold residency in his own business in downtown Mesa, an art gallery called Rusted Nail that closed down in July 2012. Now he is thankful that the owners of Lulubell Toy Bodega offer a place in the community to sell his art and provide designer vinyl toys to people in Arizona.
“They actually show that Arizona has an art culture, and we’ve got a following here,” Bushey says. “It’s not just going on in LA or New York.”
In summer 2011, Lulubell Toy Bodega moved to Main Street on Mesa because of the area’s focus on art and sculpture.
In its current location, Lulubell Toy Bodega rests among a swath of used bookstores and antique shops. Warm Arizona sunlight pours through a glass storefront that displays a well-organized arrangement of books, art and stuffed animals. The vinyl Japanese toys linger in glass cases near the back, luring tourists, art fans and curious locals alike.
Every face on the toys holds a different expression, a different aura of abstractness, terror or friendliness. They tell the stories of the artists whose hands crafted them.
While Lulubell Toy Bodega contracts with artists from the UK and Mexico, Japanese vinyl toys resonate most with their D-I-Y art ideal.
Most toys in Japan are completely custom-made, Castillo says; where a toy factory in China may employee hundreds of workers in an assembly line, an entire toy company in Japan may consist of two people.
“For a long time Japanese toys and the process was really shrouded in mystery,” Castillo says. “That was just such a craft and an art form for them.”
In fact, the vinyl itself holds an air of exclusivity; Sofubi, or soft vinyl, cannot be manufactured in the United States because of laws against certain chemicals in the substance. That leaves this particular type of toy making to foreign countries.
However, Lulubell Toy Bodega provides local artists with the opportunity to make their own vinyl toys, via the connection with Rook in Japan, who will produce someone’s design and then send it back to the store in Mesa for display.
Rook describes the manufacture of a vinyl toy like pregnancy: “It sort of sucks the whole way. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it’s difficult. There’s just all of these problems. It’s one of those things where if something can go wrong, it will. Everything goes wrong all the time. And then you get to the point where it’s just here. It exists. And now it kind of takes on it’s own life and it takes on its own things that you have to do to keep it alive.”
He now works and is friends with the Japanese artists whom he once admired. He not only sends Japanese vinyl toys to Lulubell Toy Bodega, but a menagerie of Japanese paraphernalia, some of which is vintage, such as Hello Kitty pencil sharpeners, models of transforming robots or Power Ranger coloring books.
Many of the artists draw inspiration for their figurine designs from the kaiju or “monster” genre, which hails from classic Japanese flicks like Godzilla or King Kong.
“Japanese art style in general has always been more interesting than traditional American style,” Bushey says. “It’s so diverse that you can’t really call it all one style.”
Until the arrival of Lulubell Toy Bodega in Mesa, local artist Mike Marinello had never been fully involved in the local art scene. He now sells his paintings and sculptures of monsters there and appreciates the store’s impact because he can network with other artists and share his interests.
“Lulubell is more than a business. They are about family, they are about reaching the community here locally, but also outward locally,” Marinello says.
Castillo travels across the U.S. to host booths at or near conventions like San Diego Comic-Con and, recently in October, New York Comic-Con.
Involvement at these conventions is another way she can network with artists and educate others about vinyl toy art.
Because in the end, those armies of toy monsters and their ferocious pastel faces can inspire people of all races, ages and religions through the magic of art.
“By making art more accessible, it breathes a little bit of life back into it and it helps people see that (art) is important,” Castillo says. “It’s an important part of our culture that’s slipping away and no matter what form it is, it should be prioritized.”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @hhuskins