Rotofugi Toy Store & Gallery, Chicago

Published: 26 February, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 222, March, 2013

If you find yourself in the Windy City and happen to run into a 47-year-old former computer industry consultant whose arms are covered with designer toys, feel free to gawk and ask questions about his jaw-dropping ink, courtesy of the über talented Hannah Aitchison. Lord knows you won’t be the first or the last to examine toy and tattoo collector, Ron Hollatz’s, sleeve with utter jealousy. After all, that’s exactly what we did…

Meeting Ron Hollatz at one of his favorite places in Chicago, Rotofugi Designer Toy Store & Gallery, which is home to more art than your heart could ever desire and has proudly played host to travelling tattoo show, Quick & Painful, organised by Joe Capobianco’s Hope Gallery. I soon discover that store owners, Kirby and Whitney Kerr, are partly to blame for Hollatz’s escalating love of toys and his decision to start commemorating them in ink with Aitchison’s help. Naturally, Kirby had to be interrogated as well.

The Man With the Sleeve

“I had an accident about four years ago where I slipped on some ice and missed my steps, so Shawn Smith – he lives here in Chicago; we’re good friends with him – drew the Ninja Klutz for me with the cast,” says Hollatz, pointing to his first ever tattoo, which he got on his 45th birthday after years of trying to decide on the perfect design.

“I wanted it to be colorful and to kind of flow, but not be, you know, a dragon. I didn’t wanna just have your typical sleeve, I wanted something completely different. Something that I love is designer toys, and it stands out so much because it is so bright and people have never seen anything like it.

“If I walk around with a sleeveless shirt on, I have people stop me on the street. There are a couple of other people that I know of that have designer toys in their sleeves, but it’s not just toys.”

Fueled by Rotofugi – “they used to be about five blocks from my house and I was in the store a lot!” – not only did Hollatz’s interest in the toy world grow because of it, but when it came time to find a tattoo artist to transfer his favorite pieces to skin, the Kerrs were there to help with that too.

“Kirby and Whitney are friends with Hannah and they got me in to see her; usually she’s got like a year-long waiting list and another year’s waiting list to be on the waiting list,” says Hollatz. “Then, once I did the first one, Hannah goes, ‘Well, we’re gonna have to do more then that…’ and we started looking at different designer toys that I liked and just started working at it. Now, I usually go in once a month.”

Welcome to Baby Tattooville

From Frank Kozik to Joe Ledbetter, Kathie Olivas and Nathan Jurevicius, Hollatz’s sleeve is like a meeting point for the elite of the designer toy world. And now that his right arm is complete, he’s wasted no time in starting his left sleeve, with a massive work by Kathie Olivas and Brandt Peters.

“We did this one real quick over a period of two weeks,” says Hollatz to my amazement. “We go to an art event out in California every October that’s like this secret society type thing; it’s all pop art people, and they were gonna be there this year, so we wanted to get it on there and get it healed before we went.”

What’s this intriguing mystery event, you ask? It’s Baby Tattooville, a gathering Hollatz and Aitchison have been attending for years. One where, “you have to know what’s going on to get into it”.

“What they do is they get anywhere from 10-12 artists and it’s limited to 50 participants,” explains Hollatz. “It’s at this beautiful hotel in Riverside, California, the Mission Inn, that’s like an Old Mission with hallways that end in strange places. It starts at three o’clock on Friday afternoon and ends after brunch on Sunday. It’s not like going to a signing or a show where you get to talk to the artist for five minutes, you sit and drink with an artist for two hours.

“One of the coolest things they do is what’s called the Art Jam. They take a canvas and all the artists are expected to contribute; it can come out really interesting, then they make a copy for all of the attendees.”

In addition to yearly trips down to Baby Tattooville, continuing his unique tattoo journey is another certainty in Hollatz’s future.

“We’re actually talking about a back piece to tie the two arms together, maybe use broken toys with the heads busted off ’em,” he says and adds, “I don’t think there’s a point when I would stop.”

When Pets Turn to Toys

“My wife and I had done a bunch of planning with the idea that we were gonna open a pet goods boutique in Little Rock, Arkansas,” starts Kerr, joining in on the interview, accompanied by store greeter and the cutest dog on the planet, Fugi.

“That ended up not happening and we moved back to Chicago for my job,” he continues. “Right around the same time, we both started getting into this designer toy thing and we were very much new collectors. But when we couldn’t find a place in Chicago with what we wanted to purchase, we kind of took all this research we had done towards opening a different retail business and went, ‘You know what? Let’s open a toy store’. Eight-and-a-half years later, we’re still going strong.

“It all goes back to an article in Wired magazine about the new hot thing coming out of Hong Kong, which, kudos to them, they noticed the trend really early,” says Kerr of his first introduction to the art form.

“I just remember being like, ‘wow, this is exactly for me!’ The idea of toys and art combined, and then you throw in the collectability and the chase – I was instantly attracted. Combining playfulness with something that’s supposed to be serious, it’s that dichotomy – it’s both art and toy; it’s cute yet somehow dark, or it’s dark but somehow cute. That push and pull of opposing forces is what, for me, keeps it interesting.”

Ink Gallery

“The gallery kinda was there from the beginning, although somewhat by accident,” says Kerr. “When we named the store – ‘Roto’ stands for rotocasting, which is kind of how vinyl toys are made, and ‘Fugi’ is obviously our dog – we called it Rotofugi Designer Toy Store & Gallery, and I put the ‘& Gallery’ at the end ’cause I kinda wanted to get the idea across that toys were art. It turns out, though, if you tell people you have a gallery, you start getting suggestions for shows and artists wanting to show in your space pretty much immediately.”

Putting on a constant array of art shows, one of the greatest to date has to have been Quick & Painful, which brought together flash designed by 19 of today’s best low brow and pop artists and the unrivaled tattoo talents of Joe Capobianco, Eric Merrill, Tim Harris, and many others who tattooed said flash on attendees for the unbelievable bargain price of $40.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll try and mount that tour again. And if they don’t, maybe I’ll try and do it myself because it was a lot of fun,” says Kerr excitedly. “That was almost like three worlds combining, because a lot of the toy artists aren’t necessarily toy designers by trade, they just kinda get drawn into the world of toys. So to have that get turned back around, back into flat art and then put on somebody’s skin is just amazing.”

Although unable to get tattooed that day, Kerr admits, “toy-related tattoos are inevitably in my future. I’ve been toying with the idea… there’s a character by Gargamel called Zagoran, this kind of big, goofy-looking cross between a dinosaur and a Godzilla-type character. But I wanna make sure that this works out before I get a nice three-quarter sleeve of designer toys. I don’t necessarily wanna commemorate something that doesn’t work,” he laughs.

So, for now, he’s happy with the sleeve he does have, courtesy of James Kern, who also played a big role in exposing Kerr to tattoos.

"My interest in tattooing started in the early ’90s. One of my good friends at the time, Tim Kern, was starting to tattoo, and his twin brother, James, was also exploring tattooing, so I’ve been around it for over 20 years now. My three-quarter sleeve came from sitting in a shop when James was tattooing in Chicago and looking at an art book. I think I was waiting for him to finish a tattoo so we could go get dinner, and saw a painting by Italian futurist, Severini. I was like, ‘Hey, James, this would make an amazing tattoo for someone!’ and he was like, ‘It would… why don’t we do it on you?’

“The top half is more or less a direct copy of the painting from the 1920s, maybe the teens; I should know more about that, to be honest,” he laughs.

“But I know the title! Spherical Expansion of Light (Centrifugal). Then James kinda extrapolated the rest. The funny part is, after all these years, the part that James just did as an homage or an inspiration from the original, I like that more than I like the part that’s a copy of the painting.”

It’s this long-lived appreciation for tattooers and the art they create that suggests that while Kerr waits for the perfect moment to grow his ink collection with toys, it wouldn’t be surprising to find tattooing seeping more and more into Rotofugi.

“I’m constantly trying to think of new things we can do,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Tattoo shop and toy store… wonder if we can make that work?!’”

Baby Tattooville’s Philosophy

“People always ask, ‘How much money do I need to bring to buy all this stuff?’ but that’s not the whole philosophy,” says Hollatz. “The philosophy is that you are just with the artists; [like] the first night we go to kind of a decent Mexican place down the street that’s got the most bizarre backyard you’ve ever seen that’s full of car parts, then we come back and the artists get going on Art Jam. They usually have an exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum too, so Saturday night we have pizza up on the roof of the museum.”

The Merits of Hannah Aitchison

“This one time I was in there and I wasn’t feeling that great,” remembers Hollatz. “I’ve got Crohn’s disease – an autoimmune disease – and I just wasn’t really feeling up to it, so I’m like, ‘Can you do something small, maybe do a little bit of touch-up?’ Well, six hours later she had completely redone my arm!”

Kirby Kerr on Collecting

We’ve slowed down as personal collectors for the same reason that many other collectors slow down – you run out of room. We’ve got toys tucked into every cubbyhole and on top of the refrigerator and on the windowsills and on top of the microwave – we’ve got more toys at home than I know what to do with!

Rotofugi Designer Toy Store & Gallery

2780 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL
60614, USA


Text & Photography: Barbara Pavone