When Life Imitates Art (Toy)

Finding aspiration and emotional needs through material obsession

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
10 min readApr 30, 2024

All I could think about these days is art toys.

Official Popmart Thailand store. Source: Thairath

In the 24 hours before writing the first draft of this reflection, I visited 3 official stores, 3 vending machines, and perused at least 2 other general concept stores that happens to sell art toys. Between these retail outlets, my friends who were visiting from another SEAsian country bought a total of 10 blind boxes, and I bought 2. We were, by any measure, gambling through blind boxes, eagerly anticipating to see what cartoon characters we would unwrap. But we are also very happy with our purchases, like capitalism finally gave us meaning.

At the risk of intellectualizing every little thing in my life, I wanted to reflect on how this phenomenon of art toys came into my life and helped me see myself a little clearer.

What are art toys, anyways? These are small- to medium-sized figurines of well-known characters or new IP owned by independent artists created as collectibles accessible to the masses.

Priced on the lower end in the range of THB 350 to 700 (USD 10 to 20), these art toys are produced in series of 12 figures (give or take) under the same theme, sometimes in collaboration between artists, and very often sold in blind boxes where you don’t know which figure you will get (and there’s a low but real probably of unearthing a secret, hidden character!). Gambling, one might say, but make it kawaii. For example, one of the latest craze, at least in Thailand, is the Cry Baby x Powerpuff Girls series where our local artist’s unique style (a teary-eyed trait) is imposed on the characters of the popular cartoon.

These sold out immediately. Source: Popmart

There’s more history and cultural significance to this category of art, of course — read here and here — but as an economic actor in late-stage capitalism, all I could think about is my next hit. Where can I get so-and-so series of this or that popular character? Can I get a limited edition of my favourite figure (without a ridiculous mark-up)?

Why am I obsessed with art toys all of a sudden?

I recently had a dream where I went in search of blind boxes from a collection that are sold out in the official online stores… so even in my wildest slumber adventures, I couldn’t get my hands on it and had to resort to resellers on 3rd party websites. What a convoluted but very real situation to dream about. So naturally, I am taking this opportunity to make sense of the designed mechanism in the commercialism of art toys that got me so hooked.

I was introduced to art toys as an industry through my cousin — an illustrator and art toy designer — when I wrote copy for his solo exhibition several years ago. I immersed myself in the storytelling then, but didn’t think much of this emerging category of art since then. At the time, pre-Covid, art toy was a fringe part of the art world, itself already a fringe of Thai society. Though the community is small, the creators showed up for each other.

Since his exhibition, I became aware of art toy expos happening in Bangkok, where the news showed people queuing up for limited edition models and both mainstream studios and independent artists are showcasing their work. I attended one of these events for the very first time to see my cousin, and to my surprise I kind of enjoyed the vibe; a modern art museum where concepts are embodied through a unique physicality of (mostly) humanoid gestalt and the plaques were replaced with a vignette of the characters’ brief but emotional backstory.

That was when I first encountered Jelly Girl, the work of a Hong Kong-based artist Pucky, who caught my eye with its (her?) peacefulness, floating on clear plastic stand in narrative, figurative, and physical space and protected by a clear plastic shell.

Source: One Little Planet

Jelly Girl looked the part of a capybara at an onsen with floating orange peels or an orange cat lying on a carpet bathing in the sun on a lazy Sunday.

At the time, I was feeling burned out and restless, so the sight of this figure in semi-fetal position struck some harmonic chord in my psyche. I didn’t make a purchase (I doubt that the figure was even available given the artist’s reputation) but there was an emotional investment. Walking by Jelly Girl was almost healing.

After that, I stumbled upon a Thai artist WK.studio who makes feline figurines inspired by various occasions, festive and religious. The designs reminded me of a cute yet fierce version of my childhood stuffed animal — a tiger — and so I bought quite a few.

From my collection of WK.studio works.

My first real blind box was of Skull Panda. I was waiting for someone at the Popmart shop and couldn’t help myself. The character, an intergalactic being with a punk/goth edge, has this backstory:

SKULLPANDA emerged as a distinctive kind of existence. As a universal symbiont, it travels freely between planets, looks for itself in fission, plays different roles and experiences different lives. The first time you see. SKULLPANDA, you are gripped by an inexplicable force. It dwells in dark, empty and endless space, so what strikes you the most is a kind of wide openness, as if it could never land.

I bought a box from the Warmth series where all of the figures have their eyes closed, resting in various positions and shining in bleached pastel colours. It was emanating warmth and inducing rest. I opened the package to find a figure sleeping on a pillow, kicking its feet in the air. Ah, Jelly Girl vibes.

Source: Popmart

I was making an purchase of a feeling I don’t have, as an attempt to make an intangible aspiration more tangible.

Jelly Girl represented a kind of peace that I seek, and Skull Panda was the physical manifestation that I can own and look at, on display in a cheap plastic case next to the wall in front of my bedroom. The cats and tigers of WK.studio represented the warm connection I have to my stuffed animal and perhaps (perhaps!) an inner tiger waiting to roar to greatness.

The next purchase I made was the aforementioned Cry Baby collaboration with Powerpuff Girls, which hit my sweet spot of supporting a popular Thai artist and nostalgia. I followed the trend this time rather than seeking an emotional high. I opened a box to find the Mayor, who is “quite dim witted and cowardly, but cares deeply about his city” according to Wikipedia. I am a big fan of serendipity so naturally, I wonder if some unknown force was trying to tell me something about my competence or passion in life. (I’m joking. Kind of.)

It was at this point that I find myself highly, over-rationalizing my purchases and making up stories about myself from the objects that I did not have a choice in owning through the blind boxes. So which is it…

Does art imitate life, and reflects my day-to-day reality? Or is it life that imitates art, its presence an aspiration that I could strive for?

Not a week went by after buying the Cry Baby collection, I walked by the official Pop Mart store and spotted Molly, a character created by another Hong Kong-based artist, in a new series called My Instant Superpower. In it, there is a cool blue ice queen incarnate kind of figure that caught my attention, purely for aesthetics reasons. When I opened the one blind box I impulsed bought, I got the electricity gal instead. No matter, a superpower is a super power and when I was feeling down, I kept looking at her as if she would give me actual powers to write work proposals and attend meetings in my daily professional life. Much like the lazy, restful Sunday vibes I got from Skull Panda, this one came loaded with emotional fuel, a static cheer of support from the sideline of the arena of my struggles.

After that, as if endorsed by some celestial alignment, I found out from my cousin there is an art toy expo happening. Of course I attended, in search of the works of Pucky, the artist whose Jelly Girl figurine opened my Pandora (blind) Box. I walked around the fair, passing the artist’s booth several times before buying a box from the Relax Beanie series, little creatures in various poses of sleep or rest — a return to my streak of finding peaceful things to reflect good vibes back to me.

The purchases grew and grew, making one thing very clear — that my life imitates art. I’ve been desperately seeking for the kind of art that I can get inspired by. These art toys — colourful characters sold in small boxes with an obvious theme at an accessible price point through commercial retail outlets — are bridging the divide between high art and everyday inspiration, for the commoner like me who aren’t always surrounded with artistic expression or equipped with the knowledge. The way I spent thousands of Baht on art toys have finally convinced me what marketers have known since the birth of money: we buy things with the force of our emotions and the lure of our aspirations.

Speaking of purchasing habits, art toys — or at least the introductory level of commitment that I’ve gotten into through blind boxes — presents a uniquely addictive and sometimes frustrating experience. As I mentioned, each character comes in a series of a dozen or so unique poses, with at least 1 secret “hidden” figure to unlock at a much lower probability. These blind boxes, with its clear statistics of winning or not winning a given model, is surely designed to be habit-forming, a cute and mother-approved version of gambling, or a lottery system for the art enthusiasts. I don’t think it’s a vice by any means, but it speaks volumes about my own need for serendipity and aversion to risk.

When you purchase the box, you don’t really know which figure you’re getting and so far this seems to fit with the life imitating art approach to buying that I’ve unconsciously used to part with my hard-earned cash.

I will buy the aspirational feeling of the series as a whole, and the specific character that I get does not matter to me.

Oh, so this one is a naive, sedantary farmer adventuring into the wilderness of different careers? I’d like to try on a new job, too. This one’s a girl gaining superpowers and being a hero? Yea, I’d like to do some good with my skills! Now it’s a hardcore gothic character taking a break wearing cozy colours? Check. What about a polar-esque bear going camping to destress? You bet.

You bet.

Through these figures, I get to take a little gamble on the surprise elements of the toy, while resting in the comforts of owning an aspiration that I will definitely get to display on my wall.

After a few unboxing though, I started to wonder if I should get a very specific figure from a given series in the secondary market instead, like the ice queen invsibility girl from My Instant Superpower, so that I could align my preference object and the broader aspiration it carries. Treat it like any other purchase in the economy, if you will, where a certain market price will fetch a certain product, no randomness involved.

I wrestled with this decision quite a bit. The price isn’t a major issue; it varies only by popularity and rarity of a given figure but not by an egregious amount. On the one hand, the secondary market guarantees a certain aesthic choice on my wall. But on the other, I could lose the wonder that came with blind boxes, a commodity of the imagination that is much harder to pin down. Thus far, I’ve chosen to buy an aspirational feeling of the theme and tolerate the models I initially didn’t care for (though I ended up liking in the end), essentially treating the purchase like a gamble. Is this a mentally healthy buying decision?

This train of thought raised a lot of questions that straddles the economics and the arts: How many blind boxes in a series should I buy? Would buying a specific model spoil the journey of wonder that comes with art? What purpose do art toys serve, really, in my life? Where is the line between a work of art and a collectible? Am I addicted?

A part of my collection of art toys.

As of this writing, I have 12 figures sitting on my shelf, 6 of them unopened, 2 boxes having just arrived after clearing customs. Writing this out loud knocked some sense into me that I am not collecting this for profit but for inspiration; the value of these toys is thus to realize its emotional value as soon as possible.

Which suggests that I should open all the boxes instead of clouding them in over thinking the meaning and hiding this obsession.

Life is not meant to live in suspense and future value isn’t as value unless it pays dividends today, money or otherwise.

I shall open all the boxes and let my life imitate the art toys.



Paricha 'Bomb' D.

Socially-conscious design educator and instigator in search of challenges that will help us thrive in the 22nd century.