Mr. Benny Kline of ‘Tenacious Toys‘ outta New York, USA is one of the many gods – most likely Thor – in the pantheon of the art-toy and new-pop-art spheres. A man who does all that he can both privately, and publicly to promote, grow and nurture the new pop art scene on a global level.
I could not think of any person more apt to be the first Shop Talk for ‘Art Whore‘.
Why? For all the reasons above, and because Benny is a man constantly living out his personal motto:
“Learn, evolve, reach. Do it all yourself. Don’t quit.”
(Picture below of one of the many ‘Tenacious Toys’ logos – this one by Sou John)
As man always on the move, and with his pulse well and truly attuned to the contemporary pop art scene, now is the right time to get to know Mr. Benny Kline of ‘Tenacious Toys’, by reading the Shop Talk, below…
Basics/Getting to Know
Name + D.O.B?
Benny Kline, born in ’78.
A year of automobiles of questionable design.
(Picture below of Benny Kline as a cat loving child)
City, State n Country you’re Repping?
Repping NYC now.
Describe a memory from three stages of yr life ….basically trying to piece together Mr. Kline’s pivotal moments. Concerts, art, action-figures, women, school, politics… ANYTHING man.
* age 10 – the beginnings:
Hey now, in your other interviews, don’t you call this section “before pubes”? [Editor’s note: ‘Art Whore’ is getting serious in 2014 Benny!]
This is the weird ethereal age where I have only vague memories… building R/C cars, riding my Mongoose, playing little league baseball.
I wish I had something concrete in this time to remember, but I don’t. Is that weird? It’s like a dream I had last night on the edge of my consciousness…
* age 15 – getting serious:
15 is about the age I was when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Which probably explains the suppressed memories of childhood, as well as my perpetual boyhood and failure to grow up and join adulthood.
This time in my life there was a dark cloud hanging above me no matter how peachy everything seemed.
* age 20 – adult mode:
At 20 I was in college. I think I was a sophomore.
This involved studying and partying hard, and ultimate Frisbee. I was on the team for my school. That was actually something I enjoyed very much.
Learn, evolve, reach. Do it all yourself. Don’t quit.
(Picture below of a tribute Benny Kline as Thor figure alongside custom figures of Steph and their loyal pitbull, by Kris Dulfer of ‘Kid Ink Industries’)
I like weird electronica: Hybrid, Cedric Gervais, anything put out by Reid Speed’s Play Me Records, Jo-S, Tiesto, Singularity.
A ton more.Mostly solo artists or duos, mixing bleeps and samples in a lab…
Favorite TV show(s)?
The Wire was a great one.
South Park, the Simpsons of course, Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Space Ghost & Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Getting into Bob’s Burgers and Game of Thrones too.
Loved the Sopranos. And Top Gear… the real Top Gear, not the one with the American jackoffs.
Favorite sport(s) + teams?
I like playing sports but I don’t follow any teams. Such a waste of time. I’d rather play basketball than watch it.
I dunno why but watching ball sports on TV is like the biggest waste of time I can think of.
I like snowboarding, skateboarding, street biking, rollerblading. Anything I can do on my own, without a team.
I’d rather go to the gym and lift weights than watch a baseball game.
All the modern comic book movies: Dark Knight, my cousin’s Spiderman movies, all the Marvel movies. Labyrinth, the Dark Crystal, The Princess Bride, The Shawshank Redemption, LA Confidential, The Cell, Silence of the Lambs.
I can watch all of those all day long.
(Picture below of a painting of Benny as Thor, done by Jason Chalker AKA ‘Manly Art’)
Favorite books and comics?
Comics: see my movie selection above.
Books: Anything sci-fi. I was particularly entranced by Barlow’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.
And I never laughed so hard as I did while reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide books…
Hieronymous Bosch is pretty bad-ass, and you really can’t front with DaVinci… dude had some serious sketching abilities, among many other things.
And I’m gonna go wide here: I really dig the work of Battista “Pinin” Farina. That’s the guy behind Pininfarina, the design firm that produced some of the most beautiful cars ever made.
And I suppose you might have meant who are my favorite “toy artists” but you’ll have to settle for above answer.
Worst aspect of the contemporary art-hustle?
I am constantly stimulated by the work of the artists, so I am constantly driven to continue participating in this scene… but there really isn’t enough money in it for me to cover my own costs of life in Manhattan…
Best aspect of the contemporary art-hustle?
Watching artists grow- both in terms of their own art, and in terms of their general acceptance and success. That’s why I push up & coming artists much more than I do established artists.
Established artists, with large customer bases, don’t need or want my help.
Newer artists thrive on the help I give them, so it’s symbiotic relationship.
Any formal art training? Or pivotal moment/influence?
Before college I took a year off to go to an Ecole de Beaux Arts in the south of France. When I came back, I majored in Fine Art at Vassar.
I’ve been an artist since childhood. I’d wake up really early and get out the markers and create a drawing for my parents to discover when they woke up.
A pivotal moment for me is when I randomly entered a local art show and won the top prize. I think I was like 16 or so.
I took a photo of a farm down the street, in a snowstorm… there’s a leaning tree and a ramshackle barn and I still think it’s the most beautiful piece I’ve ever created. You can see the snowflakes. A perfect image.
I’ve lost the negative so the only copy is hanging framed in my dad’s house.
(Picture below of a painting by Benny from his Ecole de Beaux days)
Why + when did you decide to go in on the art hustle?
I suppose you mean trying to make money off of art to support myself. We decided to sell art toys in 2004 when my wife and I discovered Toy2R.
Entering the “art hustle” happened very slowly as I began to understand that there were actual artists behind all of these pieces, and that each of those people had their own thing going on aside from the vinyl production toys.
The more I sold, the deeper I got. I’m not sure when it was, but around 2008 I started dealing with custom toys, and some resin here and there. And I think my eagerness to promote this niche art form was well-received and everything sort of snowballed from there.
What factors are constants, in art that you love?
Either slick/clean design, or something severely f**ked-up. Or both.
You are a huge fan and promoter of Scott Kinnebrew aka ‘Forces of Dorkness’… What led to your infatuation with Scott’s work?
Ha! Well, Scott is a friend of mine, first and foremost. He’d still be my friend if he never made another piece of toy art ever again.
That being said, I think what I like about Scott is that he doesn’t give a crap, doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules.
He is fortunate to have a pretty cool “real” job so he never has to make art decisions based on what he thinks will sell the best.
He creates whatever the f**k he feels like creating. And I support that logic, so I give Scott a venue in which to sell his creations. But I do the same for dozens of other artists as well.
(Picture below of a Benny as Thor tribute figure, by Scott Kinnebrew)
How do you discover new artists?
Social media mostly… just screwing around, seeing who posts what.
Usually it’s an artist I know who collabs with a lesser-known artist, and they get tagged on IG or FB or something. That opens the door. Collabs are important!
Also, many people simply email me. Seriously, pick who you’d like to work with and simply email them. A lot of the artists I work with just basically contacted me out of the blue one day, I liked their work, and the rest is history.
I hear from a lot of artists that they hate promoting themselves. Well, listen guys and gals: how am I supposed to find out about you if you don’t put in the effort to reach out?
You either need to do this sort of direct outreach yourself, or get someone to do it for you. I can’t spend 12 hours a day on Behance, searching randomly for new artists.
The people I work with are the ones who directly reached out to me via email and proposed a project.
What is your role within ‘Tenacious Toys’ both officially and un-officially?
Officially? I’m a 50% partner/owner alongside my wife.
Unofficially? Steph has a full-time job, so I run the shop.
We couldn’t have it any other way- her job is important for us as a family.
So I am: Chief Financial Officer, Accountant, Payroll, Accounts Receivable, Head of Marketing, Head Blogger, Website Designer, Manager, blah blah blah.
(Picture below of Benny, Steph and one of their pitbulls – Photo by Matt Siegalbaum)
What does your average work day involve? (dot point all o.k)
• wake up at 7
• coffee and breakfast
• Tenacious Toys & freelance from 8-11
• freelance for main client 12-5
• computer work 6-7
• dinner at 7
• relax with wifey 8-11, then bed
Weekends I try not to work as much. Try to spend time with wifey, go to the park, walk the dogs, watch movies, hang out. I spent like 5 years working 7 days a week and it’s not healthy.
A motto? I’m supposed to have a motto?
Sheesh. Umm… man it’s been weeks and I still can’t come up with one. Everything I’ve thought of sounds douchy, egocentric or cheesy.
What role do you see art galleries playing in today’s increasingly direct-sales market were artists can post a work to Instagram, and have fans buy it direct via Paypal?
Well, same as they always did: exposure to a larger group of clients who have money. That part hasn’t changed. It’s a gallery’s job to bring in their network of clients to their openings and promote the artists. Artist can sell direct, sure. And that’s great, if you have the network. If you do, screw the galleries!!!
Why the decision to move into producing toys for artists, and not just selling and showing them?
I kinda don’t produce toys on my own. I have a certain skill set and it’s valuable to people so I tend to help out in toy production instead of literally producing the toys myself. Although I think each person’s role in the project might not be immediately obvious to the casual buyer…. I’ve paid for exclusive colorways but never for an entire manufacturing run.
(Pictures below of Season 1 of the ‘Resin is King’ blind-box series by ‘Tenacious Toys’ x ‘Dead Hand Toys‘)
What to you makes a good company?
Excellent customer service. Even more important than an excellent product.
Keep the customer happy and they will keep coming back.
What to you makes a bad company?
Shitty CS. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve been violated online.
What advice would you give to any one out there thinking of opening their own store or gallery?
I hope you’re rich cuz you’re gonna be burning thru cash pretty fast.
Don’t borrow from banks or use credit cards. Find private investors or use your own savings. Don’t quit your day job. Build it slowly and organically. Don’t throw money at it and expect to be an overnight success.
The only reason you are interviewing me is because I’ve been selling art toys for nearly 10 years.
You gotta put in work, for a long-ass time, before anyone notices.
What are the best and worst parts of being based outta New York, aka The Rotten Apple?
The worst is the high cost of living. And the crowds. I swear there is someone out on every block at any hour. At least one person.
Sometimes I ride the train and it’s so crowded that I can barely breathe. For like half an hour, standing room only, people elbowing you in the ribs. No privacy, everything is a struggle. The best part is my wife, who is from here and who I love dearly. She loves NYC so most likely we will never leave. She makes the city bearable.
I’m not from here, so if it were entirely up to me, I’d live in the country on a farm so my pitties could run free and I could walk outside and see absolutely not one other person or house.
Resin Vs. Vinyl toys – who wins and why?
There’s a fundamental difference: vinyl toys cannot be produced in America, so they must be made in factories overseas.
Making a toy in a factory, in many cases, removes the artist from direct control over the piece. The costs are so high that it takes a large company to pay for the production, and often that company has to alter the piece to make it work, and then make 10,000 of them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a factory-made vinyl toy.
But any artist can buy a pressure pot and learn how to cast their own resin figures, and THAT is a product directly from the hands of the artist. Doesn’t get any more genuine than a resin figure.
(Picture below of Benny + Steph in their ‘Tenacious Toys’ Art Hustle card – from Series 3)
Are art-toys for the kids?
NO! They’re poisonous and deadly. They have penises, vaginas and they are all godless serial killers. Seriously, though, kids tend to put stuff in their mouths, and that is just NOT good with art toys. Some of the materials are toxic.
What are your thoughts on ‘The Sucklord’, and his role in the art-toy scene?
Am I the only person on Earth that sees Morgan as a normal guy? I’ve hung out with him in private, briefly. We talked about taxes. It was the most normal conversation I’ve ever had.
He has a public persona which is the Sucklord, that’s what confuses people… or enthralls them?
He’s been on TV and he’s made movies and toys all kinds of cool shit like that, but I once caught a pic of him hanging out with his Mom, looking like the most normal person ever.
Is that bad to say? Did I ruin the illusion he has created?
I have a public persona too, nobody seems to realize that I don’t like crowds, socializing or even putting myself out there in any way. It’s uncomfortable for me to have people looking at me.
Most of us have a public persona that’s different than our private persona.
As for his role in the art-toy scene, I guess he can be credited for shining a light on resin figures and bootleg action figures, which have gotten really popular lately. I mean, he’s outspoken, brash and people notice him and follow what he does. In that sense, he’s great. Essential for us.
I wish we had 10 people as famous as Morgan, our little scene would be more popular…
(Picture below of Benny + Steph posing with Morgan AKA ‘The Sucklord’)
Is the rise of ‘art’ toys an indication of the changing nature of ‘art’? OR just a bunch of nerds with too much $$$ and time?
I just think it’s a natural extension of the acceptance of pop art as a legitimate art form. The art toys are art objects, really.
The fact that they are made of plastic and look somewhat toy-like I think sometimes works against the niche, because outsiders might actually compare an art toy to, say, a toy they’d buy in Toys R Us for this kids.
Art toys are sort of a different thing altogether… then again, The Loyal Subjects just got picked up by Toys R Us, so maybe the two disparate concepts of “toy” and “art” are indeed meshing together now.
What are your thoughts on the current rise of mass-production in the resin-art world, and the move away from hand made pieces? The 2012 Designer Con Suck-con figures as an example…
Resin figures have been mass-produced for decades.
My buddy NEMO was sculpting prototypes for resin garage kits a long, long time ago. Those pieces were put into limited production.
It’s nothing new at all, and the perception of a “rise” in this practice is simply due to a lack of knowledge of the history of resin collectibles. I had no idea about any of this till NEMO told me, showed me old-ass pics of pieces he did for garage kits before the rise of what we now call “art toys.” Now’s he’s urging me to attend Resintopia every year. Gotta get there.
As for the move away from hand-made pieces: I actually disagree that the art toy community is moving away from hand-made resin. In fact, I see more and more artists learning how to cast in their own homes. Another one every week!
What I really think is happening is that the collectors are now much more accepting of resin as a material for their art toy collectibles. This acceptance leads to more resin collectible purchases, and more manufacturers making “art toys” in resin in factories in China.
It also depends on what you call a factory, or mass-production. When We Are Not Toys produces 100+ pieces of a sculpt right here in the US, by hand, does that qualify as mass production? Depends on how you define the term.
Do you think once an artist has re-used a piece of pop-culture, it becomes haram for another artist to use it/spoof too? …I am thinking of ‘The Sucklord’ + Boba Fett; ‘The Mark Ultra’ + the hangman mask head; ‘Buff Monster’ and ice-cream etc.
(OK I had to look up “haram”) Nah dude, any piece of pop culture is by definition popular, so I support any artist who wants to put forth their take on any given theme or character. Isn’t that the fun part? Seeing how artists spin a familiar character?
You’ll know that character is over-exposed and oversaturated because all of sudden, the pieces won’t sell! THEN it’s time to move on. But I say: if stuff keeps selling, you should keep making it!
What does your family make of the whole perpetual adolescence/Peter Pan aspect of toy art + toy collecting?
Umm, well. First off, my mom’s passing in 2001 was what allowed me to build a business. I have a feeling I’d never have started TT if she didn’t pass. Too expensive, and she’d have steered me away from that. Although her father, my grandfather, was in business for himself as well, quite successfully.
The rest of my family are all lawyers. They’re all very smart, and successful.
So for a long time I pretty much assumed that they all thought I was an idiot for wasting my time and money like this… but recently I learned that my Dad is proud of what I’ve accomplished thus far. He thinks I’m courageous for setting out on a path which is much harder and scarier (less certain) than the path he walked.
But honestly I am an idiot for not going to law school. At least I’d have a good job if I did. Then again, I’d have to read documents for 40 years if I were a lawyer, and that doesn’t sound fun to me.
My nephews and niece think I’m the coolest guy ever though!
You are extremely outspoken on social media – why such a willingness to put both your self and your brand out there?
Umm, you know… I just met up with an old friend from college who I haven’t seen in 14 years. He’s not on FB much but he said he does see my posts, and they seem a little “ranty.” And I don’t really wanna be the “ranty” guy. Sometimes I just need to vent.
In theory, my FB account should be filled with only people who care about what I say. In reality, it’s 90% strangers. So me venting and ranting probably isn’t that great.
I don’t keep a journal, so I rant on my personal FB page I dunno. It’s not very smart but it is what it is.
Honestly I never would have even started doing all this social media stuff if I didn’t run TT. I read several years ago that when people buy things online, they like to know who they are buying from. Up until that point I was really hiding online. Hiding myself. To protect myself and my family from… whatever could hurt them.
Once I read that article (I read a lot about marketing businesses online) I decided to drop the veil and show people who I am, in the theory that more people would buy art toys from me. Most people like me, some people hate me, but at least no one is confused about my opinions and feelings. There are no surprises here. It still makes me a bit uncomfortable to share so much- which directly conflicts with my need to share my feelings- but I do it anyway.
Honestly the whole reason I share on social media to support my brand. My brand = me, essentially, so if people have a full picture of who I am, I think it’s better. Also, about the frequent posting: you can never reach everyone with every post, so you gotta post a lot to reach your network.
My social media motto is “be everywhere, all the time.”
(Picture below of a pile of ‘Tenacious Toys’ stickers, made by Renone Lab)
You have spoken online about your gradual loss of faith in ‘Kid Robot’. In your opinion, what led to the demise in ‘Kid Robot’s reputation and commercial viability?
I’d like to clear something up: I love Kidrobot’s products. I love Dunnys, all those crazy blind box series, and especially the high-end art pieces.
Initially, I didn’t lose faith in Kidrobot. Kidrobot expressed a lack of willingness to work with me by creating a toxic retail/wholesale relationship with the online-only retail shops.
By systematically cutting me off from being able profit off their product line through a series of 4 or 5 rule/policy changes, they destroyed my ability to sell their products.
They did this, I expressed my displeasure, they told me they weren’t gonna change their rules, end of story.
Obviously, when a major manufacturer turns its back on you, THEN you start to lose faith.
And I am fortunate to have cultivated a bit of good will in this small community. So when a new artist or new small company pops up, they usually reach out to me to ask me if I will work with them. When I have that happening pretty frequently, why do I need to deal with a company like KR that really doesn’t seem to have any interest in helping Tenacious Toys succeed?
So: you tell me whether you think I lost faith in Kidrobot, or whether Kidrobot lost faith in the art toy community?
Multiply that by 1000 and you see what led to loss of reputation.
I know that Kidrobot has recently been refocusing, changing direction, streamlining. I bet you they have a very distinct plan which has not been adequately communicated to the rest of the community.
My parting of ways with Kidrobot is a direct and unfortunate result of their refocusing. I think they probably knew this would happen. It’s just business and the smartest thing I can do is just evolve in my own direction.
(Picture below of the ‘Tenacious Toys’ x ‘Killer Bootlegs‘ Man Inside the Mask resin)
Any collaborations on the horizon?
Renone turned me onto Credenda Studios. Beau is a horror fan so I got a couple horror figures in the works with him.
I got Kid Ink Industries, Jason Chalker, Small Angry Monster & Sidekick Labs working on a secret project for NYCC. A bootleg-style action figure of a well-known cosplayer.
I got Hugh Rose working on some pieces for my shop.
I am discussing a very interesting idea with Joshua Mason, Playful Gorilla & Rsin.
About 10 other collab projects in the works too.
And it should probably go without saying at this point, but I have a long-standing partnership with Task One (We Are Not Toys) in retailing the various resin projects he’s doing for artists.
Any major projects you want to hype man?
My next custom show is going to be a little bit different. Rollin Gobis is an extension of the very first show I put on with NEMO like 5 or 6 years ago at All the Right in Corona, Queens. The Rollie show featured customs based on Avon-brand roll-on deodorant bottles. It was a fundamentally important event for me as Tenacious Toys grew up, partially because it was an open-call show. We had people participating from all over the place, totally new faces and names. So incredibly cool to see what everyone came up with. NEMO and I have been talking about the Rollie Show 2 for years.
(Picture below of the flyer for the original Rollie show from 2008)
Recently I purchased a bunch of the remaining MuttPop Gobi figures- sized and shaped a whole lot like those Avon deodorant bottles (Rollies). I was struck with this idea: why not do another open-call show, using the Gobis as a platform, and put it up online on Tenacious Toys… but have the releases on a rolling basis- like a new wave of customs every couple weeks. So… Rollin Gobis!
Entrants in the show will be able to get a Gobi from me at a really cheap price, customize it, shoot pics and get it up on Tenacious Toys. The idea is to have a lot of less well-known names involved, alongside the bigger names. That is the kind of show that is fun to me.
Look for more info on that soon.
I’d also like to hype NYCC, which takes place in October. I am again managing a 600-square-foot collective-style booth in The Block. Members of this year’s collective: 123KLAN, Kid Ink Industries, Suburban Vinyl, Ian Ziobrowski, Manly Art, Rampage Toys, TruTek, Cash Cannon, Playful Gorilla.
Booth 208, the place to be. Ask anyone who came last year.
(Picture below of the teaser for the upcoming Rollin Gobis custom show curated by ‘Tenacious Toys’)
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