In 2008, a very talented toy customizer named Tam, or virtually as okedoki, modified an 8-inch Kidrobot Dunny to look like Hitler. This was a commissioned piece. She went on to make more Hitlers on other platforms. Raise your hand if you want to know how many Hitlers: “I’ve done a total of 8 Hitler customs on different vinyl platforms,” Tam said. “One Hitler had a peace sign on the arm band and was holding a flower.”
You might wonder, what does the person who’s conquered the craft of cartooning the Führer do next? When you look at her entire body of work, the answer is revealed. Tam makes (sometimes overt, sometimes subtle) commentary on pop culture using toys as her medium. For instance, her Flavor Flavism of Kim Jong Il is a way to defuse the dictator. In Tam’s hands, fast food mascots rendered as cute goshoslook squat and sinister. She tackles current events through toy customization. See Recession Mickey and Pimpnochio, for examples.
But I digress. Back to Adolf. What type of person commissions an Adolf Hitler Dunny?
“The collectors varied,” says Tam. “But most were male, and most were from Europe and Asia. One was a Buddhist, and we spoke in depth about the meaning behind the swastika. All were toy fanatics! And as far as I know, none were zealous Nazis.”
That’s partly reassuring. I do wonder how people display toy homages to Hitler, because that would never fly in my house. I asked Tam, who was raised a Buddhist, if she sees painting Hitler as a conflict of interest. Here’s what she said:
I’m always happy when someone wants a custom from me. If the custom happens to be political in nature, then I see it as a social commentary, and the figure is the medium of expression. I’ve had people ask me why I would paint Hitler and get really angry at me. If they really knew me, and my background, they would understand my message behind it. I don’t promote Nazism or want to glorify it. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s to examine a very dark phase of our social consciousness, and perhaps by seeing the evil, we can see the light/love.
Tam’s precision, style and subject matter really set her apart in the custom toy game. A thread containing all of her figures from 2008 can be seen on the Kidrobot forumhere. You can also see more of her custom toys on Flickr here.
Take the time machine from 2008 to this past Wednesday when a flurry of noise on Twitter directed me to this post on SpankyStokes’ site. The controversy-causing custom was an Ashley Wood Bertie customized by Dr. Mugg. The images were initially posted here on the 3A Discussion Board. Its creation, in part, was meant to pose the questions: What would happen if the Third Reich joined the war? And then, more directly, what would happen if Berties fought for the Axis Powers?
Dr. Mugg answered the initial upset about the subject matter like this: “I have to agree, the Nazi theme is tough to stomach for some… however, I will paint for $$$, and when they say ‘I want a Nazi Bertie’, I deliver.”
The Dr. Mugg soundbyte picked up in the SpankyStokes post went like this: “While I am not in support of the subject matter, I was not going to pass up the opportunity to customize it.”
Lots of people had lots to say. The commentary traversed the forums and the blogosphere, arriving at the natural destination of Twitter. A sampling:
Gatchabert: That’s the worst excuse ever to paint a swastika…not there is ever a good excuse.
Rustedhalo: It’s art and if people aren’t talking about it, then it’s not worth doing.
@eccentrina: Hey, I like swastikas just as much as the next Jew… did the guy really have to defile a Bertie?
Geckodroog: Would I want to own this? No. I can appreciate the work, but it’s not to my taste. The paintjob is really good though, regardless of the source.
Edstuff: Yeah we can all agree Nazis suck. And yes the swastika once had a better meaning before the Nazis perverted it. O.k. now that we’re past that, beautiful paint job doc.
YesterdayKid: Were talking Toys here period. I think you did an outstanding job bro!
Naturally I had something to say: Painting a toy w/ a swastika b/c “I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to customize it” = the “art” of an IDIOT.
Calling someone an idiot is a pretty serious allegation. As an afterthought, I decided to drop Dr. Mugg a line and check the accuracy of my idiocy diagnosis. What I found was a highly articulate, non-defensive guy who explained his background, said “I have great empathy for the innocent lives lost to the Nazi death camps, and for those who gave their lives to fight the Nazi scourge” and wanted to explain a misunderstanding. The following comments were sent to me via email by Dr. Mugg:
I’ll start with the statement, ["While I am not in support of the subject matter, I was not going to pass up the opportunity to customize it"!] which should have read: “While I do not support the ideology of the Nazi party, I was not going to pass up my first paid opportunity to customize a WWRP Bertie.” I can see where folks may have misinterpreted my words to mean: “Even though I am opposed to the subject matter, I couldn’t wait to paint said subject matter”. I was excited to paint the toy, not the subject matter, which was dictated by the client who commissioned it. It took a great deal of thought to come to grips with the subject matter, and to frame the intent of the piece as fantasy art instead of ideology or celebrating Nazism.
Beyond the misunderstanding over his eagerness to paint the toy, there’s also the issue of context. Most people have a gut reaction to the swastika. To Dr. Mugg, the custom makes sense in the world of WWR as laid out by Ashley Wood.
As far as I understand it, [WWR] is a future where men have inhabited the moon and Mars…and subsequently, humans being human, initiate a war to end all wars between the planets (and possibly warring occurs between nations of the earth??). This is a work of fiction, set in the future, but it is using the earth as we know it as a starting point. Robots are created to aid in the conflict, and in Wood’s’ most recent toys he has been exploring many different ‘colorways’ indicative of the individual campaigns or theatres of the war. Though Wood has not mentioned it (so far as I know) Dissident/Terrorist groups, occults, and other nations or factions, either potential or past threats to humanity, would no doubt seize such an opportunity to attempt to carve a foothold for themselves amidst the battlegrounds of earth. The Nazi party may well be one of them. The person who commissioned this piece certainly thought they would be, along with many other groups.
Is this too much realism for the so-called fantasy realm of WWR? Since painting plastic scale models as a kid, Dr. Mugg has honed his skills in realism. He admits that, in retrospect, this may have been a detriment to the figure. Some of you may disagree, as the hyper-realistic details of the original Ashley Wood Bertie is one of its most attractive qualities.
I felt the theme would be based in the fantasy world of WWR, during a fictional future war, and not be seen as a means of idolizing the Nazi party’s grizzly past. To me, the terror of giant warring robots is heightened by the thought of who would be controlling them, and using them to their own ends. As an avid role-player, I can appreciate the potential of this set-up, and the possibility of it’s occurrence in such a reality…The piece already rides a fine line, and I do think the realism pulls it away from its intent to be perceived as fantasy art.
As with Tam’s Hitler Dunnys, I was curious about the person who commissioned this. “The client is a toy collector, who’s favorite theme’s are zombies, robots, Nazis, villains, & Star Wars,” said Dr. Mugg. “In their words ‘These things I like, I know they’re wrong… but I can’t stop liking them… It’s my right to like what I want and want what I like.’” Fair enough, I suppose, though it sounds like something a member of the Tea Party might say about his collection of Sambo dolls. As for the geographic location of this collector, he’s probably not in Germany, where owning such paraphernalia is illegal. Back to Dr. Mugg:
I do not shy from controversy. In this case, what I perceived as fantasy art has sparked a heated and very polarized conversation everywhere it has been posted on the web. In many ways I am surprised that a toy could produce such a stir, but I am also well aware of the sensitivity to the subject matter. I have been impressed by the healthy dialogue that some people have brought to the table. We can all agree the Nazis sucked. Now can we move past that in order to appreciate the art? Nazi theme aside, I feel this is honestly some of the best work I’ve done as a customizer.
Yes. In both Tam’s case and Dr. Mugg’s case, the swastika wields a double-edged sword. People are quick to offer the opinion that these artists clearly got what they want, alternately described as “hype,” “controversy,” and “attention”. Point proven for Dr. Mugg, who I had never heard of prior, and whose MuggLab website focuses on the Mighty Mugg toy platform that I tend to steer clear of. But does that controversy also result in tunnel vision? When our eyes catch the swastika, do we turn away and not look at the piece as a whole?
I suppose I’m still pondering the idea of making art in the form of a subject for which you have to issue disclaimers. Certainly, “controversial” art has existed for eons. And just like the respected movie stars who end up shilling watches or cosmetics, everybody needs to pay their rent. Commercial artists deal with this struggle daily. I recently recall Tristan Eaton posing this question of ethics and art via Twitter. This article is simply an in-progress exploration of how these topics are infiltrating our toy art niche. It will be continued. For now: you can’t argue with the execution of the Dr. Mugg piece. Actually, you can if you want to, but take it to the threeA forum thread, OK?
Want to know what we’re looking at above?
Moving away from the customs that lead us down this road, the swastika has also been incorporated into several collectible production toys throughout the years.@Gatchabert and @Abelincolnjr called my attention to this Syujinkou toy by Japanese company, Zollmen. The Skullbrain forum has a 7-page thread on this figure. Most of the discussion was based around who was and who wasn’t dying to get this wacky figure.
A person named Krudler with a Joy Division lyric in his signature wrote “I couldn’t display it because I’d need to explain ancient Asian symbolism, that the real swastika rotates to the left (the other path; signifying evil intent), that the symbol was misappropriated by the Third Reich, and then I’d still be left trying to account for the helmet and pseudo Nazi youth uniform. A loaded large caliber handgun left lying on a coffee table would be far easier for me to explain away than that toy.”
That pretty much sums it up for me, too. Although, I can’t get through this post without commenting that when you remove the toy’s helmet, this figure is, literally, a dickhead (see image above, right).
From Japan to Taiwan, and back in time again. In 2008, I purchased and reviewed the swastika-emblazoned toy you see below. It’s called Buddha’s Delight by Mi2 Studios. I opened with this:
Buddha’s Delight is a remarkable piece in that it transcends just being a toy to provoke thought. It combines spirituality, technology and social commentary into a unique and beautiful figure. Between the afro, swastika and stylized amplifier, there’s a lot to take in and talk about. It’s worth stating the first feature I noticed on this figure was the swastika–a loaded icon indeed. While the swastika was once an ancient symbol used freely without stigma, its role in Nazi Germany permanently altered its meaning. Since then, the swastika became the go-to logo for punk rock provocation and shock-goth antics, as well as a symbol for hate groups worldwide. In America, among my generation, few people are aware of the less controversial uses of the swastika around the world, including its role in Buddhist cultures.
You can still find the full feature on Buddha’s Delight here. A quick perusal of Wikipedia, however, will learn you this:
The symbol as it is used in Buddhist art and scripture is known in Japanese as a manji (literally, “the character for eternality”), and represents Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites. When facing left, it represents love and mercy. Facing right, it represents strength and intelligence….Because of the association of the right-facing swastika with Nazism, Buddhist manji (outside India only) after the mid-20th century are almost universally left-facing. This form of the manji is often found on Chinese food packaging to signify that the product is vegetarian and can be consumed by strict Buddhists. It is often sewn into the collars of Chinese children’s clothing to protect them from evil spirits.
Well, what do you know? Two toy artists who use swastika symbols in their toy art, are, themselves, in fact Buddhists. In both cases, Mi2 Studios and Okedoki hope their toys make other people happy. But as is the case with all art, you can’t make everyone happy. But you can make lots of people talk. Talking about art is good. Let’s all keep talking. Let’s also try to look at the art beyond the controversy. There’s bound to be more as the small world of toy art continues to expand and grow.
I’ll close with some words from the non-idiot toy artist known as Dr. Mugg: “It’s a toy, and it’s art. It’s up for discussion and critique – and I welcome both.”
This article originally appeared on the NM blog on June 10, 2010. Click HERE to view comments on the story.