Here at InfiniteHollywood.com we love to look at all aspects of the toy collector, but today’s post is particularly important because it not only shines a light on one of the brightest parts of the community, but also one of the most unique. Private First Class Rupert Valero seems just like an average guy on the toy forums. You may have seen some of his posts if you visit TheFwoosh.com regularly. It was there that I first recall seeing some of his work.
His customs are pretty impressive under any circumstances, but when you find out that Rupert is literally in the middle of a battlefield in Afghanistan, his dedication to the hobby and his ingenuity take an entirely different meaning. He’s not just a regular guy hanging out in his PJs posting up photos of his customs. Instead he’s living under constant threat, in a foreign land, manning a huge artillery gun. Today I’d like to share his story with you, so that we all as a community can not only enjoy his work in toys, but be thankful that there are people out there willing to sacrifice so much more. A special thanks goes out to Rupert Valero for granting us this interview and of course, all his brethren in the US Armed Forces around the world for all their service.
Rupert, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your customs and your experiences in collecting in general while serving in the armed forces. You’re currently deployed in Afghanistan, is that correct? How long have you been there?
I am wrapping up my year-long tour in Khandahar Providence, one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan. I’m part of a US Army artillery team attached to 2 different Army units. We’ve taken out a lot of Taliban, and we are still at it, even 45 days til we leave.
Before going overseas, what toy lines did you like to collect?
I’m a big fan of super-articulation and great sculpts. So I’m big on old school Marvel Legends and some newer Hasbro stuff like the 6” IM stuff. The bulk of my current collection is DCUC, followed closely by other 6” scale figures. I try to keep my universe one scale, but the Revoltech/ Robot Spirits lines are my exceptions.
Us collectors often gripe about not being able to find certain toys, but you’re literally in a situation that prevents you from getting the stuff we take for granted. Is there anything out there right now that you’d really love to get your hands on toy wise, but can’t because well, I suspect there’s a lack of Wal-Marts in Afghanistan?
If there is anything I miss from the state- that is how much I miss walking into Wal-Mart’s. The convenience of just inspecting a figure’s QC is just aweing. I am fortunate enough to be now stationed on a FOB (Forward Operation Base) that has a post office. Combined with online stores like Amazon and my hobby-supporting wife- I am very blessed. There really isn’t anything I’m lacking. How many collectors can say that?
On that note, I suspect while you’ve seen your fair share of horrors, have you seen anything interesting or inspiring in the toy sense on that side of the world? Monte Williams had an interesting article a while back about the toys he saw while in Africa. Do the kids in Afghanistan have anything to play with or is that idea just not existent in that area?
(Pictured above: Custom toys distributed to local Afghan kids. Spreading toy love across the globe.)
I love to create and inspire. Plus, I love kids. So the hobbyist in me started making highly durable and colorful toys for local kids whenever we roll out the FOB. Toys are universal. They bring out happiness and joy on so many levels. Kids here have nothing but rocks and bad habits. I paint on hearts the toys I make for them to associate that with the heart patches sewn on 101st airborne units’ helmets. So when kids who get these toys see the same hearts on US Soldiers, it will click in him ‘these are friends.’
Throughout this post I’ve been showing off some of your incredible customs. I think people are really going to be blown away when they see them. I know I was. You’ve built a ton of “bottle cap” robots and monsters. Tell us a little bit about what goes into that process.
I’m always creating and planning; It’s part of who I am and what I used to be before joining the army. An engineer has to make a prototype, and then find ways to reproduce the item efficiently, yet with a personal touch to all that is done. That’s my creed. I see toys parts in everything around me. Armed with my Gerber multi-tool, 5/50 chord- I pick up bottle caps, lids, pretty much anything and string it together. As time went, my wife started sending me more hobby resources which now allows me to paint and personalize my creations.
How long did it take before you started making the little guys? Was it instant or was it something that took you a while to come up with?
It was a trial and error method. My earlier creations were very raw and unrefined. As time went, I came up with better building methods and techniques. Even my weathering techniques took some time. I don’t have it down yet, but I’m always improving.
Okay, how about your homemade World War Robots? I mean, seriously… Those guys are incredible. You built a freaking Bertie out of a Dr. Scholl’s foot powder bottle that looks as good as anything Ashley Wood has made. Tell us a little bit about those creations.
Thank you. I really like the simple Ashley Wood designs. So with the amounts of trash here, finding use of this trash was easy for me. Like I mentioned, the weathering process was the hardest part. I was able to acquire a 3A Bertie on Fwoosh. In hand, I thought the figure felt to PVCish, but I had a reference that allowed me to refine my technique. I have since branched off to similar type designs using Lego parts.
Have you ever thought about selling them? Seriously, you should consider it when you come home. I think they’d be a big hit. There is a pretty big scene for this kind of stuff these days and your story, I think, is one that really captures that classic American ingenuity. You’re not the pretentious designer doing high art, you’re the real deal and that’s truly admirable.
Thank you again. I do sell some of my products on Etsy.com. Ever since Noah Scalin from Skull-a-Day.com interviewed me, I have been on a good number of online sites, on UK magazines and in a few days- NewsWeek. Sales have been off the roof. I’m humbled by all the attention and interest.
How do your friends in the service feel about your creations and your hobby in general? Have you infected anyone with the bug to collect and create?
Oh yes. Toys are infectious. It has inspired lots of my fellow soldiers and leaders to make their own creations and others to buy online. I’m touched that so many that are not even in our unit, knock on my blanket door wanting to see the ‘workshop.’ Officers and soldiers come in and look around as if I run a museum. Eyes open wide and smiles run across faces. People are inspired, so my job is done.
You’ve basically been stripped of most the basic customizer tools and tricks of the trade. Do you feel as though this experience has enriched your creativity?
Yes it has. Back home I have power drills, proper lighting, fresh air, etc. here, its backwater and dim lighting. My trusty wife has sent me hobby resources, but I still go back to my Gerber multi-tool and a block of wood I have used ever since I got to Afghanistan. If you look close enough at some pictures, you’ll see that one carved up piece of wood. Less is more, and in this sense, it has made me appricate the building process even more.
Will your collection of custom robots and monsters be coming back with you when you return home? Do you think you’ll continue to build these sorts of creations when you’re back in Texas or do you never want to see a Gatorade cap again?
Everything is pretty much shipped back to my duty station in Germany with the exception of my supplies, bottle caps and hobby tools. With sales being good, I will continue to create with any time of bottle cap I can find. Gatorade bottle caps are my bread and butter. Thank you.
I would imagine space is somewhat limited. I’ve always heard that one of the reasons that Japanese toys tend to be on the small side, is a space issue. I’ve also noticed that you’ve acquired some Japanese toys like Revoltech. Is that a space issue, or just a personal preference?
Its both. I live in a 5 ft. by 7ft. space in a tent. There is little room, so I have to send off my finish products to my wife at my deployment base in Germany. It’s cramped, but I still have room for all my Army gear, weapons, and toys. I love 6” figures, but they take up so much space- especially in action poses. You are right about Japanese toy space. Its beneficial here. Plus, I love Revoltech!! Great durable stuff combined with Revoltech joints. I’m in heaven-even while stationed in hell.
You’re on your way home soon I hear and I think all of us other collectors out there wish you and your fellow soldiers a safe and peaceful return. However, while you’re still there is there anything you need or somewhere we can send you stuff?
Many thanks. So many people have blessed me and my unit. I am truly beside myself. Yes, we are at risk of getting salary cuts from the government and live in harsh environments, but what always amazes me is the American Spirit of our people. Since we are leaving shortly, we can’t receive any more mail. However, we do covet your support and prayers.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to those of us here who haven’t had these experiences or anything in general you’d like to say in closing?
Yes, appreciate the little things and details in life. Don’t take for granted freedoms and luxuries. I miss pizza, Wal-marts, driving without a .50 Cal Cannon in front of my chest, real water, clean showers, hot water, civilian clothes, etc. Even moderate internet connection and Skype are God-sents. People you don’t know are out here risking life and limb so you don’t have to.
I just want to thank Rupert again for taking the time to let me interview him. He seems like an incredibly humble and talented guy. Perspective is an amazing thing and I think hearing and seeing what he’s doing out there, will certainly give us a lot of it.
If you want to see some more of Rupert’s incredible photos, visit his Flickr stream. There are tons of fascinating photos there to look at. While he can’t get anymore packages in the mail, you can order one of his unique creations from his Etsy store. I should add that Rupert didn’t ask me to plug his web store, but I think people will be interested in purchasing some of this amazing stuff from an incredible guy.