From super tiny to supersized, art toys are the hottest new trend in Toronto

Unbeknownst to many, Toronto has become a hub for art toy collectors to feed their hobby. In September, the Art Gallery of Ontario ushered in the KAWS collection on the second floor. Designed by Brian Donnelly, the KAWS series of toys bridges the worlds of art and pop culture. The art toy brand is one of many that have become ubiquitous among collectors of sneakers and streetwear connoisseurs. However, the average Torontonian doesn’t know much about the rapid-growing industry.

While art toys began as a niche interest known to only a select few ahead of the curve, thanks to wider accessibility and celebrity endorsements (everyone from Drake to Kylie Jenner to Pharrell have been known to possess their own collections), art toy collection has now become the city’s hottest new trend.

The term itself is difficult to define, even by experts. Chris Tsang is the co-owner of Mindzai, an art toy shop that is innovating art toy consumption through content creation. When asked to define art toys, Tsang says, “It’s a funny question because it also deserves a funny answer.”

Art toys first appeared in the public eye in the early 1990s in Hong Kong and Japan. Artists would use materials like plastic, vinyl and metal to produce toys intended for display. The industry has grown rapidly since then, with brands such as Medicom Toy, KAWS, Mighty Jaxx and Pop Mart demanding most of the market share. 

Thirty years later, we can’t define the term. As the industry has progressed, so have the types of toys being released. 

Tsang, however, loosely defines art toys under characteristics such as not being produced for mass markets and toys that are made to serve a similar purpose as art. Although some art toys feature mechanics that allow them to move, they’re not meant to be played with. 

Take a look at Bearbricks (or Be@rbricks), for example. Created by Medicom Toy in 2001, the Bearbrick is one of the most popular art toys among non-collectors. They’re shaped like toy bears, with ears and all, and can be mistaken for something intended for children. However, the brand stamps all their Bearbricks with aged 15+ stickers to ensure proper use. 

When you look at the price points attached to these toys, it makes sense. Medicom Toy sells the Bearbrick in a range of sizes. The 100 per cent is just 7 cm tall and is seen by most collectors as a great entry point into collecting due to its price point only being $10-15. From there, prices soar as the 28 cm 400 per cent starts at about $160 and can inflate to four or five figures. The final size, 1,000 per cent, is 70 cm, or the size of the average 2-year-old in Canada. Those begin around $700 and can be easily found around the $10,000 range.

While the latter is an intimidating figure, there are much more cost-effective ways to begin collecting. Tsang believes that all you need is $13 to start.

“I’m all about cheap and cheerful. Bearbrick blind boxes are only 13 bucks. Sure, they’re smaller figures but it’s a great method of collecting. If you only have one, then you know what, it doesn’t really make an impact. But, once you get, like,  10 and line them up on your shelf, it’ll seem like more than enough,” says Tsang. 

Collectors of art toys generally fall into two categories. On one end, there are collectors who purchase art toys for the sake of reselling them. The growth in popularity has produced a secondary market where popular toys may be resold above retail — joining another beloved streetwear item, sneakers, where the love of collecting has been eclipsed by legions of sneaker sellers looking to make some cash.

On the other end, there are art toy collectors who are hooked on the chase and growing their collections. Stephen Richards is one of them — he’s an avid collector from the GTA who purchased his first Bearbrick in 2002 after collecting other toys like Beanie Babies.

Stephen Richards and an art toy.

Today, Richards’ collection is unimaginably large. It’s so big, in fact, that there is a whole room dedicated to housing boxed and unboxed toys. Richards has seen exponential consumer growth since the pandemic, which he calls the “explosion.”

Part of Richards’ collection

“I know a bunch of people who collected before the explosion. But during it, there were a lot of people that I wouldn’t have thought of as collectors. Before, they would ask if I was buying all of these toys for my kid. Now, all of a sudden, they’re buying them all the time,” says Richards.

Since the pandemic, collectors both new and old are able to purchase art toys at a multitude of stores across the city. 

Toronto Collective, a self-proclaimed “sub-culture hidden in the urban core of Toronto,” supplies artists with spray paints, art supplies and art toys from various brands. 

Resale stores such as Hotbox and Essential offer art toys, especially KAWS dolls, in their brick-and-mortar locations. Both stores operate with resale market pricing, while stores like Mindzai and Toronto Collective price their toys at retail pricing. 

And Tsang and Mindzai have innovated the way consumers purchase toys through live streams. Their website showcases five different shows that give consumers the chance to purchase goods live. Toy Shop Live is their own, in-house shopping service, while they also advertise a live stream on NTWRK. 

“With the creation of companies like NTWRK, the consumption of toys exploded. These shows are sort of like Twitch streams, but you can leave with toys. Especially when they’re undercutting the price,” said Richards. 

Beginning your art toy collecting is just a few clicks away.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO