Tinkerer turns customized toymaker
If you asked him to describe himself, Jan Carmichael Calleja would likely answer: “Mahilig magbutingting.”
Tinkering was what he loved most doing as a child. He’d build airplanes from illustration boards, folders and other objects lying around.
At the UP College of Fine Arts, tinkering gave him a bit of pin money. People, some of them representatives of companies, would approach him and other students to do creative work—designs, adaptation of designs, prototypes, murals.
“‘Can you do this,’ they’d ask us. Even if we didn’t, we’d say yes.” We’d learn in no time with a bit of butingting.” This was how they did their first gigs as designers, body painters, scenographers.
He was already working with Redworks, Ogilvy & Mather as graphic designer when a colleague asked him if he’d take a sideline to build a unique toy for a client of hers.
He was unfamiliar with toy-customizing then but the prospect of doing something new excited him.
It took two weeks of nocturnal tinkering to finish his first commission: a Ghost Rider. His base was a blank Munny—a vinyl figure with movable joints which can be bought blank and then embellished. For studs and spikes, he used Bensia pencil cartridges. To sculpt the rider’s fiery hair, he used melted glue sticks, spray-painted with orange and yellow.
The client liked what he did and followed up with reorders. Jan more than liked the experience. It was like he found the thing for which he was intended.
For several years, even as he rose up to art director in the advertising agency he was working for, Jan would always look forward to going home to his alternate life as toy-customizer.
His workshop is the living room of his Quezon City home. He doesn’t require too much space as he uses only a few small tools: A cutter, precision tools, sand paper, spray paint, instant glue. What he needs more is silence, complete silence. And this is only to be had by midnight until 4 a.m.
He likes working with “found” materials. “My rule is not to buy but make do with existing found objects mostly donated by friends.”
His favorite material aside from vinyl toy: Old computer mouse bound for the junkyard. “Instead of sculpting a chassis for a car, I use these. Its inherent shape is ideal for a car or even a part of a robot head.”
He also uses old, discarded toys, insulated wires from broken laptops and computers, plugs from hardware equipment. He could wield his magic on anything shiny and industrial looking.
Not too often, he would buy washers, wires, nuts and bolts from Ace Hardware.
Soon, he discovered others like him. “They are the graffiti and urban artists engaged in street art.” He found them at Secret Fresh and Vinyl on Vinyl galleries. They were generous with helping newcomers like him.
Among these like-minded guys, he got acquainted with Spencer and Stephen Ong who designed the Celsius vinyl toy. “They held a contest and asked me to join. I placed second.”
The competition was followed by an exhibit participated in by 15 toymakers. It was very successful, with support from the guys at Vinyl on Vinyl.
His winning entry was brought to Toy Art Gallery in the US. The owner liked his work and sent him blank figures to work on for the owner’s own collection and for selling at the gallery.
Since then, he has been recognized both here and abroad, including two successive years’ nomination as Best Toy Customizer by Clutter Magazine of New York.
He describes the market for toy art as a small, elite niche, but growing. They’re the businessmen, yuppies, collectors who put premium on the “wow” factor and the high that goes with “ako lang ang may ganito.” Some regard the toys as investments.
Jan quit his job early this year, banking on the growing opportunities in the market niche.
There is still no distribution outlet for limited-edition toys other than galleries.
Since he resigned, he had to work faster so he could make more toys and realize a bigger turnover.
His current project is a 30-inch high VW Kombi tribute robot for an art gallery opening in Taguig City late this year.
He wants to prepare for the Christmas season by doing a robot series. This time, he will use casting to achieve cost efficiency.
Jan is technically a businessman but seems unmindful of what enterprise entails.
Asked if he does costing, he shakes his head and smiles sheepishly. He gives the same response to questions on pricing, cash flow, financial record-keeping, sales projections.
“I have never been realistic when it comes to money. Pag inatupag ko ang pera, I may not be able to level up in my craft. ”
In the mean time, he’s just happy to have found the butingting he loves, which he could at the same time cash on.
His dream is to show that toy art is not necessarily low-brow but can level up to mainstream art.
Another is to share his craft to young people—those with patience, creative flair, eye for detail. “Those who, on seeing a prospective material, know its possibilities. Is it going to be an eye, a wing, an arm, a head?”
And not to forget, they have to love butingting.
(Jan Calleja may be reached through 09204238610. For more stories on starting and growing in business, visit the Small Enterprises Research and Development Foundation website at www.serdef.org.)