In my first story for PUNCH way back in October 2013, I wrote about my friend, writer and illustrator Andrew Bohrer, and his obsession: creating custom LEGO mini-figures (minifigs) of his favorite bartenders and drinks world personalities, and his particular skill of casting through his collection of thousands of disembodied (but very organized) LEGO body parts and accessories to Frankenstein together disparate legs, torsos, arms, hands and heads to distinctly capture the look and spirit of his subjects in 1.5-inch scale.
After writing that story I caught the AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) bug myself, and now carry a LEGO VIP card in my wallet next to my MetroCard. I read LEGO blogs and frequent the Flatiron LEGO store here in New York to check up on new releases and download “Feel Guides” to my phone so I can cherry-pick the minifigs I’m after and avoid any dupes from the blind-bag assortments on display. (After that original story was published, my young nephew Jack tracked down on eBay the disparate LEGO pieces Bohrer had used to create the BTP minfig—LEGO Leprechaun head, Ron Weasley’s ginger hair and an old Sea Captain’s jacket—and presented me with the best Christmas gift ever.)
The first modern, articulated LEGO minifig came out in 1978. As with OG emojis, yellow was used to represent a universal ethnicity and facial expressions were limited to simple black dots for eyes and a straight line denoting a mouth. In 1989, the LEGO Pirates line was the first to include a variety of facial expressions and other identifiers; thereafter, other themes included faces with glasses, feminine features, facial hair, and, in the case of those seafaring pirates, eye patches. But it wasn’t until 2003, with the release of a LEGO Basketball set depicting NBA All-Stars like Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Vince Carter, that representation of nonyellow skin tones became more frequent. That same year, the Lando Calrissian minifig in the Star Wars Cloud City set captured the likeness of actor Billy Dee Williams. After that, LEGO created skin colors representing the actors featured in licensed products, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Marvel.
While LEGO’s representation is better than many toy companies, Bohrer admits that 90 percent of the minifig heads in his collection skew yellow and typically male. He tries to counter that trend by purchasing any set with female minifigs and BIPOC representation, and even seeks out unlicensed custom pieces online. “I think we are raised by movies, music, comics, our neighborhood. … I want everyone to see themselves,” he says.
Bohrer, who lives in West Seattle with his wife, Michelle Broderick, and their adorable Pekachi (Pekingese Chihuahua) Pippin Waffles, received his first LEGO set (a Space theme) when he was six years old. but didn’t start seriously collecting until high school. Over three decades, he has amassed a LEGO collection that clocks in at over 50,000 pieces, filling by volume approximately 93 gallons worth of large plastic tubs. Since 2018, these had been wrapped in plastic in his garage until PUNCH reached out to him about updating the LEGO Bartender Collection.
In the interim years, a wave of collectors—of which Bohrer acknowledges his part—have turned the toys into commodified goods. He grew disillusioned with LEGO resellers asking $15 apiece for unopened blind-bag minifigs—three times their retail value—along with newly discontinued LEGO sets marked at twice their list price. But he left LEGO in the rearview entirely in 2018 when he went to click “buy” on a 1,295-piece James Bond Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger (complete with ejection seat) on the morning of its release only to find that it was already sold out from after-market hoarders scooping them up and selling them for double the list price (or more) on eBay. “Scarcity makes me uninterested,” says Bohrer, who started to get the same feeling about LEGO as he did about the collateral damage of the modern bourbon craze.
“When I was coming up you could get these amazing, underappreciated bourbons and then the bloggers got after it, something I’m guilty of too,” he says. “Shit, man, I used to basically wash my car with Weller. And now you’ve got to know a secret handshake to give someone a hundred dollars for a bottle.”
But Bohrer appreciates that even as these old whiskeys he used to be able to scoop up for a song are now “stupidly expensive,” there are also far more people genuinely interested in bourbon. And the same can be said for the LEGO market. Just because someone’s doing something I don’t like doesn’t mean that I think it’s wrong. I actually think it’s good,” he says. “More people are interested in LEGO and more people are taking LEGO ‘seriously’—not that they should be taken seriously. The popularity is a good thing.”
While talking, texting and emailing with Bohrer for this story I could sense the mood changing in his perspective as he surveyed the many duplicate sets and minifigs he had been harboring in dry dock.
“I will say that opening everything back up, and digging around, and finding all the parts to make these bartenders and seeing their portraits come together really brought back all the joy I ever got playing with LEGO.”