It's safe to say Josh Mayhem loves toys.
The Los Angeles-based artist started collecting when he was young. There were Transformers, Hot Wheels and Micro Machines. Later on, he moved to G.I. Joes. He collected hundreds of those figures and still has many of them. “I’ve always loved action figures because they’re just bad ass,” says Mayhem in a recent email interview, “and I think that translates quite a bit into my art.”
It doesn’t stop there. Mayhem has a fondness for a variety of toys, from Dunnys and Fatcaps to anime figures and anything related to Nightmare Before Christmas. “Basically, I’m just a big geek at heart,” he says. This is the core of Mayhem’s work. He grew up as a toy collector and became a toy customizer.
Mayhem hadn’t been collecting designer toys for long when he got into customizing them. Inspired by an image of a squirrel with a jet pack and machine gun, he created The Askew Rangers. Those appeared in a 2011 group show at Crewest Gallery in Los Angeles. He got a job at Melrose Avenue emporium Toy Art Gallery, an experience he refers to as a “paid internship.” While at TAG, he learned a lot about the designer toy scene and landed a spot in one of the gallery’s group shows. His contribution to that exhibition sold. After that, The Askew Rangers sold as well. Mayhem began racking up commissions and more spots in art shows. Eventually, he left TAG, but it was on good terms. He still participates in a number of the gallery’s exhibitions.
Today, Mayhem’s intricate, clever adaptations of figures turn up in galleries across the U.S. and at pop culture events like San Diego Comic-Con. He has a piece called Acid Rain. In it, psychedelic colors drip off a 7″ Munny figure. It’s a face-melting trip. In Play Me, an 8″ Dunny morphs into an old phonograph. But, the projects that he’s best known for are the ones that make ample use of old Gundam figure kits. Mayhem repurposes the model mecha pieces to his customs. When he works with Dunny figures, the end results are called Gunnys and they often retain some of the giant robot elements of the kit’s original purpose.
Those Gundam kits had been holding Mayhem’s interest for quite some time. “When I was into comics I’d always see Gundam kits displayed and sold at comic book stores,” says Mayhem, “and I wanted to collect them so bad because they were so bad ass, but they were always just too expensive.”
Mayhem had been using old toys and other odds and ends for customs before the Gunny series. Friends gave him their castoffs. One stumbled upon a cardboard box labeled “Transformers.” There weren’t any Transformers inside it, though. Instead, the box was filled with Gundam parts, including some complete kits. That was the inspiration Mayhem needed to get the first Gunny series off the ground. He debuted it at the Tenacious Toys booth at New York Comic-Con in 2012.
“The plan was to just use the spare parts and keep the complete sets for myself since I’ve always wanted them,” he says, “but the Gunnys were a hit and soon afterwards I was being asked to make Gunny commissions and received invites to more shows so I eventually ended up using the rest of the parts including complete kits.”
Now, Mayhem buys kits mostly to use the pieces in his projects, but he has also become quite a fan of them and so he occasionally picks up extras for personal use.
His process varies from project to project. Maybe there’s a specific toy that he has to use, as was the case with a Power Rangers group show at Toy Art Gallery last December. Maybe he has to stick with a theme.
“Sometimes I’m inspired to come up with something completely different from my normal style,” he says. He cites “Music to My Ears,” a TAG show that focused on music, as an example. That was the genesis of his piece, Play Me. Acid Rain, a piece that eventually launched a series, developed because of another theme. It was for a show called “Spring Forward” held at Kidrobot L.A.
Mayhem keeps an assortment of items on hand for potential projects. “I have one of the most organized ‘junk’ collections you’ve ever seen,” he says. He takes apart toys and actions figures. He’ll buy toys specifically for a part. He’ll scour for bits with square or round edges to use in the projects that have an “aged metal and mechanical look.” Watch and clock parts are good for steampunk customs, he says. He reuses old wires. He’ll take leftovers from previously-used Gundam kits.
“With each of the different styles I get a general idea of where I’m going to put the larger pieces before I begin,” he says, “but once everything is painted and ready to assemble I pretty much just free flow it and somehow, some way, the parts just end up falling into the right places.”
With Acid Rain toys, he plays loose with the color. “I pretty much just let gravity do all the work,” he says. Mayhem says those projects are “quite relaxing” for him. “I tend to be over meticulous towards my attention to detail and symmetry in my other work,” he says. “I guess you can say it’s my version of throwing paint at a canvas.”
Using found objects has it’s advantages. For Mayhem, this means that he doesn’t have to do as much sculpting on his customizations. However, this is also what makes the projects difficult. He has to make all those pieces look like they fit together. “it’s kind of like sculpting with clay that has already hardened, and it’s pre-shaped,” he says. Mayhem uses tools and X-acto knives to make it all work. He also has to remain mindful of how securely the new bits are fastened to the original toy.
Recently, Mayhem finished The Mundam Wing Redux. It was originally The Mundam Wing, based on a 7″ Munny and made for a show at Washington D.C. gallery Art Whino. “The piece arrived at the gallery with a few pieces that had fallen off during shipping, which luckily they were able to repair before the show,” he says. But, the trouble didn’t end there. More pieces fell off when it was shipped to the collector who purchased it. When Mayhem received the toy to make repairs, it had fallen apart. “The entire thing needed to be completed disassembled, repainted, and rebuilt in order to fully restore it,” he says.
Mayhem wanted to do a new customization and the collector was alright with that. “After a long while the new and improved version ended up being a lot cooler and more refined then the original,” he says.
The artist learned an important lesson. “This incident forced me to start reinforcing nearly every piece on all of my following toys by drilling a hole in both the piece, and the toy, then placing a small metal bar to connect the two,” he says. “This is a very time consuming process but it has proven to be absolutely necessary.”
All images courtesy of Josh Mayhem