It’s funny and depressing to recall the few vivid memories we cherish, some far less sentimental than others. The majority of mine seem to have something to do with unboxing transformers or shooting pizza disks out of a Ninja Turtles abdomen. I close my eyes and almost see my greasy little fingers caressing the foil of a new pack of trading cards…or digging in the dirt to find the remains of a knock off GI Joe that couldn’t handle the heat of battle…
I am now 24 and would legitimately sell you my girlfriend for a trip to Toys R Us. No cheap grandma shit though. I’m talking all access, no shelves barred, and definitely no mom hands guarding the cart. That said, it may not surprise you to know that when Peter Goral, founder of Killer Bootlegs explained how he and his kids got down for play time I almost ditched everything and bought a plane ticket to Illinois.
What Pete creates blows my mind and satiates every corner of my being. His insane attention to detail, dedication to the process, and ability to bridge the gap between more traditional styles of art with toy bootlegging, make him one of the most sought after artists in his industry, not to mention lands him a top spot in the list of people I wish were my neighbor.
“I dump a big bucket of action figures out, that’s how we get down man.”
“I’m casting four hundred fifty little parts and then sanding them all perfectly smooth.”
“It becomes art in the form of repetition.”
First off, where are you currently operating out of?
Rockford, Illinois. It’s about forty five minutes outside of Chicago, closer to the Wisconsin border.
Is that where you’ve pretty much lived your whole life?
Yep. I grew up in a town called Cherry Valley which is a little township right outside of Rockford where I currently reside with my family and kids.
How old are you?
I’m thirty years old as of Valentine’s Day this year.
And you have two little guys?
Yep, a boy and a girl.
As a dad and as a toy bootlegger how do you think play has changed? Can you compare how you played when you were younger with how you see your kids playing now? Is it directly relatable to rapid changes in technology?
It all depends on the parent in my eyes. I play with my kids with figures and action figures just like I did when I was a kid. Even though they tend to pick up little things, like my son is more interested in the weapons, more so than the actual toys. He’s always turning something into a knife or some kind of weapon to chase his sister around with. Technology too, a lot of parents, just sit their kids in front of the television with iPads. I have thousands and thousands of toys. I dump a big bucket of action figures out, that’s how we get down man.
Dude! I am flying out and coming over, I am all about that. When I was younger the most ultimate thing was that trip to the toy store. Do you think that extreme craving for toys still exists? Or is it all about big ticket electronics now? What were some of your favorite toys growing up?
Oh… Star Wars, GI Joe’s, mainly Boba Fett and Storm Shadow. I really had a thing for the bad guys, always. My main focal point was collecting Boba Fett up until about 2009 when I decided I wanted to make my own toys as opposed to buying them.. But, I don’t know if it is the same anymore. I was trying to go over memories and stuff that I wanted to bring up in this interview. One that really sticks out was when I was younger, I wanted a 1988 version of Storm Shadow, I was born in ‘85. I couldn’t find one on the shelves in stores and I remember crying when I got it, out of joy and happiness. One of the best memories of my life. Getting that one figure at a garage sale with my nana. It was unobtainable at the time. Now with eBay and stuff you can just type it in and find something. Back then it was the pursuit, the hunt; ‘96, ‘97 I was looking for Princess Leia. That man face Princess Leia that came out in Power of the Force 2.
Would you consider yourself a collector?
Yeah, I still do go after some things. Currently I’ve been going after a lot of Polish bootlegs. It’s like real production toys that were manufactured without the license or license approval. I have a Polish heritage, so it’s cool for me to go and track these toys down that are basically from where my family hails.
What are some of your most prized pieces in your collection?
Well, we had a tornado here in the midwest last week. The few things that I was grabbing were my ASA 80′s Return of the Jedi Boba Fett, and a blue Snaggletooth. A few things like that which are irreplaceable in my mind. I got a Boba Fett, probably five or six years ago, mint, perfectly mint and it has this one little hangar tear from where you would hang it on the rack at the toy store. A little kid must have pulled it down and made that little tiny tear. I got a hell of a deal on it. That’s my one white whale pretty much. That Boba Fett, I love it.
Do you normally pull inspiration from toys that are currently being manufactured? Are you hitting toy stores and local shops for inspiration?
Not necessarily. It actually seems like the big companies are doing that with my scene. Watching some of the bigger players and watching what they are doing. Whether it be somebody making toys for movies that never had toy lines, or mismatching parts. They are doing these match em’s, where it’s like you can get a turtle and you can take them all apart limb by limb and mash them together. They are borrowing from us. Which is neat. It means they are paying attention.
What is it that you’re looking for specifically in a toy? What is perfect mint versus tainted, and how does that compare to when you are personally designing a piece?
Attention to detail. I’m not just turning them out and pushing them out as fast as I can. I sit there and literally sand them and sand them for hours. It’s really blood, sweat, and tears when it comes to my work. I’m trying to push it to that next level. Some guys are doing that and some guys are just comfortable with where they are at. I’ll never be comfortable, I always need to push it to that next level. To get it better than factory quality. That’s where I feel I’m getting really close to obtaining that. Where my work is better than you could get from the store. Whether it be the paint lines, that there’s no seams, any of that.
For my collection, it’s not always about quality. A lot of times it’s about concept and if it catches my eye. It could be the cheapest little piece of resin that some guy made on his first pour. But, when it comes to my work, it’s about the quality.
So what are some of the toy genres? I know there are knock off’s, bootlegs, and art toys…what else? Are there specific names for figure styles and characteristics?
There is Sofubi and Japanese vinyl, which is soft vinyl that is produced in Japan. Reminiscent of the old Mazinger Z toys and Kamen Riders in the 70′s. They are soft vinyl produced from steel molds in Japan. That’s really big now. I have a figure in development, a couple of figures actually, that we are working on getting produced over in Japan right now. There’s that and there’s like Keshi which are Muscle Men. If you remember them from the 80′s. The little one inch, one and a half inch men.
Are these all in the bootleg realm or is there a specific term for that?
People like the term art toy, I guess. It all falls under the art collectible. Some of them are toys, some aren’t. I feel like mine, even though they may look like toys, aren’t really meant to be played with. They are meant to be put up and displayed. Some are meant to be played with and have more articulation. Something I’m envious of and I strive for is to eventually have a toy that is made in vinyl with full articulation. Something that you can throw in a backpack and head to Comic Con with, as opposed to having to pack and ship them, all fragile like. A knock off would be, I guess, like a straight rip off of something. If you didn’t change or alter it one bit. You were to say take a Boba Fett figure and just re-mold it. It’s like a rip, just a complete copy.
Ok so what exactly is a bootleg toy then?
I guess a bootleg toy would be a toy that is made without the licensing approval from whoever the concept belongs too. The difference is if it was mass produced, like I was saying with the Polish bootlegs, the ones that were manufactured as opposed to the DIY vibe, which is what I do. I do more of an art bootleg. It’s kind of confusing. A bootleg toy, you would buy at a Dollar General. Like a Spider-man, it looks like Spider-man…but it says Man-Spider on it. You know what I mean?
When did you officially start bootlegging toys?
What were some of the first figures or projects you were working on?
I did an R2D2 spray paint can. I did a Boba Fett without his helmet unmasked. I had them signed by the actor that played Boba Fett. Those are maybe more around 2008, 2009.
Were you working out of your garage at that time? What was your studio space like?
Yeah. Working out of the kitchen, the garage, and my grandma’s basement. I had set up shop and worked there for a while.
What was your setup like?
Pretty much like a workbench and a stool. Now it’s gotten a little more involved with all the pressure pots and vacuum chambers.
Was there a point where you felt like things were going to take off? When did you start the Killer Bootleg brand?
Killer Bootleg started in 2008, I think. Before that I was called Wheatstraw Wars after the old Rudy Ray Moore Film, Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son in law. A lot of the people I would run into would call me Petey Wheatstraw after I introduced myself so I was like, all right, I’ll just start calling myself that. So instead of Star Wars it was Wheatstraw Wars. I rolled with that for a couple of years and then after looking at the Kenner logo, Killer was just switching the letters around. I made the logo in MS Paint, I had no idea how to use illustrator at that point or anything so I blew it up and started moving the pixels around till I got it where I liked it. Then I gave that to my brother, he vectored it and made the Killer logo. That’s history I guess.
The figure that really made me go, ‘wow, this is something’ was a figure I did called Franken Fett. Which was Boba Fett with a Frankenstein head basically. That one sold out. That’s when I was like, it’s not me just farting around, it was a hobby. After that is was like, ‘okay dude, this is something I should pursue.’ At the time, I was working at a factory making a little over minimum wage. It was hindering me a lot more, I was having to turn down jobs and opportunities. Two years ago it got to where Killer Bootleg became my primary focus and my full time job.
Can you explain your process a bit? What goes down after the inspiration hits? Are you sketching, what kinds of tools and material are you working with, and how long does the whole process take?
A lot of times it depends on the figure. The CZARFACE figure, which I’m working on right now, for Esoteric, 7L, and Inspectah Deck has taken me two years of figuring out. Before they even asked me, I knew what parts I would use. It was almost destined. When Esoteric e-mailed me I was like, I already know what I’m doing. To tell you quite frankly, this figure is my best work. I’m about at the end. It looks great. The process is a lot of times me focusing in on the artwork. Then I’ll make the figure. If I collaborate with somebody I will say ‘hey, I’m using this part, I really want to use this part, I want to use this leg.’ I’ll draw something up. I’ve given artist the parts I’m going to use and they draw something. Then we go. Sometimes I just need to look at the parts and I start piecing them together, whether it’s lower half of this arm or this torso or this head. Sometimes it really often just sparks from one piece of one toy that I want to flip.
I’ll take figures and I’ll cut them all apart. Some of them come apart more easily than others. Throw it into a little bit of boiling water and a lot of toys will just pop right apart. Over the years I have parted tons of toys. I have bins of three hundred arms, a bin of one hundred fifty torsos, five hundred heads. I just set all that stuff out and start going. As I glue here, cut pieces off, I’ll fill in with sculptee, boil it, take it out, sand it. A lot of times I will take my sculpt of a bunch of toys, whether it be like, five, six, seven parts to make one chest. I will make a mold of that and then take my casting and work on my casting. I sand it too so it’s perfectly smooth. A lot of times it’s easier to work on the resin as opposed to something that’s like a Frankenstein, seven toys in clay, holding it together with super glue. Once I have a stable enough piece I will mold it and then work off that, recycle the mold and mold it again; to where it is perfectly perfect.
Then you end up with a finished molded piece. What is the post process like?
Sanding them. All my figures are unique, like how they made old action figures. Whether it moves or not, the arms don’t move, the legs don’t move, the head doesn’t move. I want them to look like they do, that’s just my personal preference. Some guys do fill in all the spots and then mold it so it’s one solid piece. If I’m doing a run of figures that’s nine pieces, and I’ve got to make fifty figures, I’m casting four hundred and fifty little parts and then sanding them all perfectly smooth.
Then there’s assembling them, cleaning them, painting them. A lot of my paint applications are forty steps. I’ll do a wash on it to get all the nooks and crannies and crevices. I want them to be like flesh tones. I take hot pink and I will do a hot pink wash on the figures so that in the ears and the nose, the eyelids and the creases of all, that’s all hot pink and real deep. Then I’ll take that part, mask it all off and airbrush it with flesh tone, and dust it lightly so that it actually does look like human flesh as opposed to being a flat flesh tone. I really do go the extra mile. My work speaks for itself in my opinion.
Can you talk a bit about bridging the gap between toy and art? I know some of your work is more abstract and really seems to exist as both.
Yeah, definitely. I definitely strive more for the art. I know they are in essence supposed to be toys despite the amount of craftsmanship and talent that goes into each and every one of them. A lot of people paint one picture, they draw one picture, or take one photo, or paint one wall. I do that but then I have to do that over and over and over and over and over and over. It becomes art in the form of repetition. There is a big process that goes along with it. I see it becoming more and more accepted in the art world as time goes on. Where people are holding gallery shows that are solely devoted to art toys, whether it be the genre I work in or others.
How do you feel the medium of toy making transcends two dimensional illustrative art or painting?
You can pick it up and hold it. It is tangible. Not that a painting isn’t tangible, it harkens back to those childhood memories in my opinion. It’s that, for me, it was that want, that need, that desire to get that figure, to have that one. I started off doing two dimensional art and was very comfortable with the paint and a brush, pen and paper.
It just wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to make something that you can hold in your hand and you get that feeling of, ‘wow, look at this, I made this thing.’ It’s the same when you paint something but it’s like to hold it in my hand and set it on a shelf and compare it against what I’m interested in. I live and breathe action figures. I wake up, morning, noon, and night, it’s everything I think about. Besides my kids and stuff. For me to move into this medium, it was really a natural progression. In my mind, what I’m here to do is to fulfill this mission that I started with Killer Bootlegs.
Interview: Michael Connolly
This interview originally ran in Steez Magazine #35, Spring of 2015