Ron English is notorious for his sociopolitically-charged artwork that blends mainstream cartoons with art history visuals in a series of paintings, sculptures and billboards. However, it’s no secret that the acclaimed pop-surrealist is also completely fascinated with creating vinyl art toys. In 2005, English began creating various versions of his iconic characters such as “Ronnnie Rabbbit,” “MC Supersized” from his Cereal Killers series, “Mousemask Murphy,” as well as collaborative figures such as “Astronaut Star Skull” with Chris Brown. His most recent creation is “Charlie Grinn” inspired by Charles Schultz’s renowned Peanuts comic strip.
How did the POPaganda shop begin?
We did one in New York for three months. Kind of the nature of these toys is that they are very limited and it takes a year to two years to create each toy. It wouldn’t make sense for us to have a retail space open for a year because we would run out of inventory within a month. Now, people are a lot more amiable to let you rent a space for a month or for three months instead of a one to 10-year lease. Also, you can move around.
What makes you so captivated about vinyl toys?
When you move to New York and become an artist, something you don’t realize is that you get separated from everybody because it may take you three months to make a painting and then the painting is a bit of change. Suddenly, you’re in this exclusive club of very wealthy people that are collecting the paintings and there is no connection to anyone else anymore. I’ve always had the connection to street art, but you can’t buy the street art. Vinyl toys for me, it gave me a closer connection with everybody.
Why do you think people become obsessed with collecting toys in general?
It’s accessible art. If you’re 23, you can buy a toy. It’s nice also that the culture kind of mimics the art culture. In 1983, one of my paintings was like $300 USD and then they were $500 USD and then $5,000 USD and then $20,000, $50,000, they go up in value and that’s one of the attractions of people collecting art. It’s not just to decorate your house, but it’s also an investment. This culture kind of mimics that culture. So, let’s say you collect for 10 years and then you get married and your wife really hates the toys or whatever and think that you need to re-liquidate this collection, well, now the collection actually has more value than what you originally put into it. You can liquidate and then get three or four times your money. It’s nice that it’s a hobby and not just a sinkhole for money.
Do you have any strange collections?
I have a couple of warehouses full of stuff. Throughout the years, people constantly give me super valuable stuff. A gallery in New York once gave me something that was like $10,000 USD as an acknowledgment for what you did for them. Or, they just want it to be part of your collection because they know important people come to your house and they would see that. Last night I was on a radio show and they gave me some really cool stuff.
This week I got some weird product boxes from a long time ago that were very similar to what I do. Every day, stuff is coming in and it’s cool to archive them and see what the likes of Ron English was on that certain day with these packages.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever gotten?
Hajime Sorayama gave me a black Future Mickey figure and when people go to my house they adjust its hands to flip you off. Give you the middle finger. Also, Jeff Krelitz from Heavy Metal magazine gave me a ton of rare books and interesting past issues.
What’s the most challenging aspect of creating a vinyl toy?
I don’t get to sculpt it. If you were to sculpt it, you get to manipulate the clay right in front of your face and twist it the way you want it. I don’t get to do that so I have to conceptualize the toy from every angle and it hurts my brain sometimes.
What’s your favorite vinyl toy that you’ve ever created? MC Supersized?
Well, most people like MC because he got so famous. So, it’s like saying if you were in a band and maybe your favorite song isn’t your number one hit, but of course, you have a special affection for that song because it keeps you in business. Like most artists, I like the last thing I did. Right now, I’m trying to do the Lady Lips and it will be a year before it releases.
One sculpture that I really loved from my own is Mousemask Murphy. His eyes are just the right size to make him empathetic and still creepy. I think it made the perfect statement.
Vinyl toys were super popular in the early to mid-2000s. Do you think collectible toys are making a comeback?
It definitely hit a recession, but I think that’s ended. It reminds me very much of an art movement where it gets super saturated and then it clouds like the overall vision. A lot of people come into the world and they’re not bringing anything new to the table, they’re just imitating other people they see or who they think is the most successful. Once those people fall out, there’s a lot more clarity of who’s who, who’s making what and what kind of statements are being made. Which ones are really generating the culture and which ones are just riding along. Once you get rid of the excess baggage then it has more of a focus. The art of vinyl toys is not curated. Overall, I think it’s making a huge comeback now.
Is that what you’re aiming to do with the POPaganda pop-ups? More of a spotlight on vinyl toys?
POPaganda is more of just our store, our branding. We’re like bad boy Gucci or something.
How do you feel about people reappropriating your work?
Of course, it’s happened. I’ve had people straight-up bootlegging my work in China. However, there was one moment I was really proud of. This one company in China started putting out fat MC as a mini-figure in a box set, but they made it seem as if McDonald’s was putting it out and it went BIG. So, tons of kids were buying these and in their mind, they thought that this was a product of McDonald’s. Ultimately, a ton of kids had the idea that Ronald McDonald was fat. That company was stealing from me, but it was really brilliant. They achieved what I was trying to achieve even though their purpose was trying to make money. My purpose is to send a message out with whatever I create.