Photoshopping a meme is easy. But hunting through thrift stores, finding the perfect action figure to Frankenstein with another toy, designing and packaging it into a slightly off but believable product, and sneaking it onto a store shelf takes a little bit more work. Both have the potential to go viral, but memes are lost to the unforgiving sands of internet time, while the bizarre, bespoke toys can live on as a story for the next person who stumbles upon them.
Since 2015, Jeff Wysaski has been making fake signs and toys and leaving them out in the real world for people to find. Going by the name Obvious Plant, some of his recent creations range from believable bootleg dollar store finds, like Mobile Suit Garfield, to the more conceptual, like an empty plastic bag filled with Muppet screams.
The project has amassed over 600,000 followers online, and it’s turned into Wysaski’s full-time job. He sells his favorites on an online shop, but for the past several months, Wysaski has been working on over 100 items to display at his upcoming Museum of Toys pop-up in Los Angeles where he’s based. I talked to Wysaski about how he creates his toys, prepared for his first in-person event, and deals with creating fake products in a fake news society.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How many of the toys that you make do you actually leave on the shelves?
I leave almost everything, except for food because FDA laws are pretty crazy. So I’ll just take a picture of a food item and take them with me. If it’s an item I’m selling, I’ll just take the photo and take it with me. But I originally left some of the early toys in a store.
Have you ever been caught by anyone?
I’ve been doing this since 2015, and no one’s ever said anything to me. It just makes you realize how oblivious people are. Like, I’ll walk in with a bag of some giant product and put it on the shelf, and no one says anything to me. People aren’t expecting someone to bring something into a store.
What in God’s green hell is this? pic.twitter.com/ZM1W2JzzS9— obvious plant (@obviousplant_) November 2, 2018
How many of your items do you actually sell?
I don’t sell that many, actually. It’ll just be certain special ones that I’m really happy with. If I have the means to make 15 or 20 of something, I’ll make that. But the majority of the toys are just one-offs. And for the past several months, I’ve been working toward this museum, so I just need the one piece to put in there.
How did the idea for the museum come about?
It’s been kind of an evolution of Obvious Plant. I started out making fake signs and leaving them on street poles. And then I moved the signs into stores, and it evolved into making fake products and leaving them in stores. So thinking about challenging myself about how I can take this to the next level, the idea was an entire fake store full of fake products. But then I thought, “Oh, that’s a lot of products to make. What if I do like a fake museum instead where I could just have to make one of each thing?” It was just the next evolution of the trajectory I’ve been going with fake items.
All of the toys are going to have little placards next to them. The idea is that it’s like a fake history of toys. So you walk in, and chronologically, there’s the first toy in history, a stick.
I kind of got the sense that it’s different from a lot of other things that are calling themselves museums these days, like the Museum of Ice Cream.
In a way, it is one of those fake pop-up museums. In some ways, I’m sort of making fun of how relentless these have become. Either way, it follows that model in a lot of ways. There will be a couple of Instagram moments, but in a subversive way. So the Obvious Plant take on a pop-up like the Museum of Ice Cream.
I feel like there’s probably a really big audience for people who are into toys, and then also another audience that’s into memes. Those two audiences might not always be the same group of people. Do you ever hear from vintage toy collectors and people who are disappointed that something’s not actually real?
I’ve been using a lot of older toys, and every once in a while, some of the comments will be like, “I can’t believe you ruined that.” Whatever it is, you know? Like a $10 thing. Or if they recognize it from their childhood, most people are like, “Oh, I remember that!” but they’re not upset or anything.
So do you go thrifting a lot to look for toys?
Yeah, I go to thrift stores, and if I’m inspired by something I find, I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this, but it looks really cool. I’m gonna take it home and pay $3 for it.” And then turn it into something really weird and fun.
Have you ever bought something that you were going to make into something else, but then you Googled it, and you found out it was actually really expensive or a collector’s item?
No, I don’t think so. Thrift stores generally have newer toys from the past 15 years. But I’ll also go to flea markets, I definitely got a few deals there. I’ll do a lot of eBay searches if I’m looking for something specific and I have an idea already.
Who do you expect to be the audience for this museum?
I’m kind of curious to see. It’s an experiment because I have a pretty large following, but how many of them are in LA? And then I kind of have a little bit of a bootleg toy community. I’m definitely going to be doing a little promotion for getting a wider audience of people who don’t know my work, or who are maybe a little less knowledgeable about what the actual idea is. I’m curious to see if people are going to come and think it’s an actual museum of toys and then be disappointed when it’s made-up stuff.
I mean, if you advertise in local magazines, people who don’t know your work might come.
It doesn’t bother me because that’s kind of what I do generally: leave something out in public. And then for people to find and discover it as something that it actually isn’t. I won’t have a problem if people come, and I won’t have a problem if they’re disappointed.
Your Obvious Plant work is very lighthearted, and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. But do you sometimes feel like when you’re making these fake things and presenting them as real that you’re contributing to a culture where people are falling for fake things online?
Yeah, that has occurred to me. The whole idea of Obvious Plant is to make the world more weird. So the idea is to make things a little more surreal in people’s everyday lives — give them a good laugh, like while they’re grocery shopping or doing something really boring. I really do enjoy when people online are tricked into thinking something is real. That’s fun for me because that means I did my job right.
But in the end, I don’t want to contribute to a bad fake news society. I put my label on everything so someone will point out that this is fake. I want people to be in on the joke that these things that I’m creating are fake. And so people who know me and follow me are in on the joke, and they get to visualize along with me that someone is finding this in the real world. And then on the back of the package, like someone finds it in the in the store. I write something like, “This product is not real, nothing is real.” So if someone looks at it hard enough, they’ll realize that it’s not real.
The Museum of Toys will run from March 1st to March 17th at 2270 Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Tickets are $10.