HUCK × VANS
THE BOOTLEG TOYMAKERS CREATING COLLECTABLES FOR A MASHED-UP GENERATION

Driven by a desire to destroy and rebuild, a new generation of comic, film and music obsessives are creating twisted tributes to their favourite pop culture moments.

TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY: Zach Sebastian
ARTWORK: Pendragon, Underworld Muscle, Steve Seeley & Lukasza Kowalczuk

“There’s this character in Toy Story called Sid”, says Pendragon – a Mexican-born, Cologne-based ‘bootleg toy’ maker, whose real name remains a mystery.

“He’s this brilliant, edgy little kid with a black t-shirt. He destroys his toys and rips them apart and creates these mutant monsters who terrorise all the normal toy characters in the film. I am exactly like Sid.”  

Pendragon is at the forefront of a free-spirited DIY movement that sees creators destroy and rebuild their own collectables. The goal is to mash together their favourite cultural influences – often from cult or superhero films from the 1980s – to make toys that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

When it comes to their creations, the stranger the better: think Homer Simpson mashed up with your favourite horror movie baddie, unhinged tributes to cult musicians, and mad reimaginings of characters from the likes of Star Wars to Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“What people want in the end is a sick idea, not a flawless cast, so everyone can join in,” says Luke Rellecke, a fellow independent toymaker who operates under the title Underworld Muscle. He is heavily influenced by WWF, thrash metal and 80s action flicks from his home studio in Berlin.

“As a kid, I was really into He-Man and Masters of the Universe,” he says. “But I liked the cheap knock-offs that my grandmother bought far me better than the real things. They looked weirder, crazier.”  

In fittingly enigmatic fashion, no one knows exactly when, where or how the concept of bootleg toymaking was born. But one theory is that it began with The Sucklord, a New York artist who turned unlicensed action figures into highly sought-after collectables as part of a 2011 exhibition. Since then, many – like Pendragon and Rellecke – have followed in his footsteps. Made in small batches, each figure is lovingly moulded, painted and boxed, then sold at fringe meetings during DIY toy markets, Comic-Con, as well as to a thriving toy community on Instagram all year round.

For the makers, it’s about chewing up popular culture and spitting out something completely new. Nothing is off limits, or out of bounds.

“I think I'm connected to my figures on an emotional level,” adds Pendragon, affectionately. “For me, they are not toys anymore because I actually don't play with them. I just like to see them, it's a visual thing.”

See more of Pendragon and Luke Relleke’s work on Instagram: @p_e_n_d_r_a_g_o_n and @UnderworldMuscle.

Music: ‘Temps Perdu’ & ‘Finite Automata’ by Underground Communications Centre and ‘Axel F’ & ‘Danger Zone’ by Tency Music.

Additional artwork on Instagram: @steveseeleyart and @elkowalczuk

Find more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.