“Here’s my Jaguar Warrior.” Jesse Hernandez pulls out his toy, and sets it on our café table with a broad smile. Two women at the next table over are immediately intrigued. “Oh, that’s beautiful! What is that?” they coo. Hernandez seems flattered by the compliments, and patiently explains that it’s a vinyl toy and that he designed the elaborate yellow cat figurine with the sweeping blue plumes and fierce, fanged skull peering out of its face. And yes, it’s pretty cool.
One gets the impression that, as host of MYX TV’s new show “Vinyl Addiction,”  (who celebrates its launch party and the release of an exclusive Hernandez toy Sat/3 at New People) Hernandez is used to explaining to people just what these cute/creepy little dolls are. He certainly got me to understand their appeal.
“There’s a multi-faceted quality to [vinyl toys],” Hernandez explains. The toys, which are often designed by well known artists, are manufactured in runs ranging from the mass release to the limited edition, to the one-off “custom,” hand painted by the artist themselves. Springing initially from the heavy character culture in Japan and Hong Kong in the late nineties, their designs can range from precious to unsettling, from manga to menacing. “They’re usually both,” says Hernandez “they’re cute, but really messed up. Or it’s dangerous and cute.”
It’s easy to see why the seniors at the next table were intrigued by Hernandez’s design. The “jaguar” design is painted onto a bunny doll, the cat ears superimposed on the floppy rabbit ones. Though simplified from many of his custom runs, the artwork on the doll is at once, fierce, tribal and modern. It’s only slightly adorable when taken in with its globular cartoon rabbit form.
Hernandez has dubbed his style “urban Aztec,” and he deploys it in a dizzying array of mediums . He creates beautiful drawings (“everything I do is based on drawing,” he says) and fine art paintings of Aztec warriors and mythological figures, reflecting his Yaqui/Chicano heritage. “You have to push the limits,” he says. “I wanna make something timeless.”
He shows a slightly more city-oriented side in his animated sequences, painting a picture of life in the Bay Area, where he grew up, with “The Nutshack,” his original MYX series that he art directs and co-created. Hernandez says many artists come to vinyl toys as an offshoot of their production of other kinds of art. “Vinyl toys can be a stepping stone, a rite of passage for an artist to have something [mass produced].”
With all these projects, it baffles the mind that Hernandez could take on another job. But it’s clear that “Vinyl Addiction” sprang from his respect for the vinyl toy movement- and a desire that an artist be the one to tell their story.
Most episode shoots, it’s just him and the cameraman. Though he now holds the titles of the show’s host/producer/creater/director/editor/animator, Hernandez was loathe, at first, to become the oncamera host of “Vinyl Addiction.” But now that two years after shooting the pilot with co-field producer Roland Posadas, he sees his involvement as key to part of the show’s effectiveness. “I think it brings out that level of authenticity,” he says. “This is my culture. Everyone knows I’m a part of it, and I want everyone to be shown in the best light possible.”
His expertise of the topic is evident in the preview reels of the program, which will air nationwide through On Demand and in MYX’s three urban markets of the Bay, Orange County and Northern Virginia. Hernandez goes to his colleagues’ gallery and custom shows, profiling artists and companies involved in making the toys.
“The hardest challenge,” he says, was to figure out a way to cover the topic in a way that made sense to people who didn’t know much about vinyl toys, to educate them on the art form. He resoved the issue with “Vinyl Vocab” segments, which take a moment to teach viewers the definition of one of the scene’s specialty terms. Hernandez’s voiceovers during the lessons are done in a faux British accent, which seems to poke fun at the concept of codifying a scene that, up to now, has been pretty esoteric.
But Hernandez is sure that the popularity of vinyl toy art is on the rise in America. He says mainstream companies are picking up on the toys’ aesthetic to appeal to consumers. “So many people are into the look [of vinyl toys], even if they don’t understand it. It’s an unknown art form.” Two years ago, he told MYX that they had to produce “Vinyl Addiction” to be in on the first wave of the toys’ growing US popularity.
I’m going to have to agree with him that it’s hard not to love the vinyl doll. Even I, with whom the verb “collect” and the concept of the “collectible” sit poorly due to my inveterate nomadism, couldn’t help but paw at some of the more striking pieces. Hernandez met me at Kidrobot, a store on Haight street that’s been selling it’s own line of vinyl toy figurines and T-shirts since 2002. He tells me he always used to love coming here to see the new releases.
Inside, the stark white walls are lined with glass cases full of nicely displayed vinyl friends. Here, a couple of blasé kids sumple, only their shaggy heads and limbs protruding from cans labeled “Boring Juice,” there, an adorable rhino brandishing a revolver. Not to mention all the spikey, snarling things that are just… so cute.
Suddenly, I can understand the motivation of all the friends I have with vast toy collections. They’re witty. They’re creative. They’re art. I like them. And, judging from the drive of Hernandez and “Vinyl Addiction,” I don’t think I’ll be the only one.
“Vinyl Addiction” launch party
Sat/3 7-10 p.m., free
1740 Post, SF