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At an after-hours adult art event in June, Children’s Fairyland welcomed three new costumed characters to the park. HoodFoot, Fuzzy, and Mr. WePulls were a hit with the crowd. Their creator, Roy Miles, aka the Ghetto Geppetto, was in attendance sporting oversized gold chains and a bigger-than-life persona. The 51-year East Oakland resident was not new to Fairyland; he’s been visiting the park since he was a child in the 1970s when his dad worked as a gardener in Lakeside Park.

Miles’ characters are based on his “Hoodland” rap-related toys that he created decades ago to honor and give back to Oakland’s culture.  Expanded into brands including licensed physical and digital products, they now live in the form of vinyl toys, puppets, music, and videos. The successful entrepreneur, artist, animator, and collector considers himself a storyteller—his artisan name, Ghetto Geppetto, is a nod to the creator of Pinocchio, Mr. Geppetto—and his own remarkable story reflects both Oakland’s pains and potential. 

In an interview held inside his outwardly unassuming studio near Foothill and 38th Avenue, Miles talked about his challenging upbringing, how his passions invariably led him to work across a variety of media (including animation, 3-D animation, live action, green screen, virtual sets, and music videos) and the projects he’s currently working on, including a collaboration with rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, and an upcoming convention for vinyl artists and enthusiasts. 

“This is like looking inside my head,” Miles said about his studio brimming with books, puppets, and toys reflecting his quirky, childlike approach to art and life.

Overcoming adversity as an inspired child artist

Born to teen parents, with a Mexican mother and Black father, Miles attended an offshoot of the Black Panther Party’s elementary schools. Oakland was different then in the 1970s. It was “a chocolate city, a Black place with lots of events,” he said. 

In the 80s, the city changed. Factories like Del Monte and Sunshine Bakery closed and an overwhelming drug epidemic fractured the community. Miles’ mother got caught up and served time in prison from when he was in third grade until the end of high school. But like many Oakland residents, his family overcame the city’s economic collapse, rising violence, and other harms.

“My parents are pretty incredible people,” Miles said. 

His father became one of the first Black firefighters in Oakland and his mother has been sober since the 90s.

Miles’ love of art came early. “From the time I was able to hold a crayon, I was drawing.” He saw Star Wars when he was in kindergarten. “It became my thing—still is.”

By the time he was seven, Miles began wondering how films were made. He spent most weekends at the Dimond and Main libraries—and at comic book stores. In middle school, he read George Lucas’ autobiography and was inspired to check out every book from the library about filmmaking, including cinematography, makeup, and scene building. “I ended up being a super nerd,” he said.

His middle school was “rough and wild, with lots of fights.” At one point, he was invited to put on a jacket; unbeknownst to him, it was an invitation to join a gang. Concerned about his safety, Miles’ family managed to transfer him to Montera, a hills school, where he met his future wife on the first day. “A lot of things changed for me that day,” he recalled.

He also discovered his musical talent at Montera. Miles had a four-octave vocal range and got leads in operettas and musicals. “It was the first time someone told me I was doing well in school,” he said.

Miles in his studio where he films, animates, and designs puppets, cartoons, vinyl figurines, and more. Credit: Amir Aziz

At Skyline High School he was drawing and replicating characters from Star Wars and Jaws and becoming more involved in music. Outside of school, he listened to a lot of rap and Prince, and in school, he pursued gospel, chorus, and musicals. “I was almost wearing a tuxedo to school every day,” Miles said. It was in his senior year that he met fellow Oaklander Teren Delvon Jones, now a rapper performing as Del the Funky Homosapien. Miles loved Del’s music and became part of a crew of like-minded youth who honed their artistic skills.

Music provided an escape and enabled Miles to visit Japan in 11th grade, which was heaven for someone into anime—Japan’s take on the art form. Unfortunately, he was “doing horribly” in most of his other classes. 

He had been making excuses for years about his mother’s absence in his life, but in high school Miles was finally able to meet other kids living with the reality of an incarcerated parent. With all of the good to come out of his high school experience, the ending was excruciating.

He describes the 1990 Skyline High School graduation as “one of the worst days of my life,” since he did not have the grades to join his peers in the ceremony, including his brother and girlfriend.

“In real life, I was headed nowhere,” Miles said about how he felt at the time. That summer, with 20 dollars in his pocket, he drove Del to Los Angeles to live with Del’s cousin, rapper, actor, and filmmaker Ice Cube. Miles started working with Del’s crew, making music videos, assisting producers and directors, marketing, and writing. 

Bootstrapping his career as an animator

Some of Miles’ colorful characters. The name “Ghetto Geppetto” is a not to Mr. Geppetto, the creator and father to the puppet Pinocchio. Credit: Amir Aziz

He felt the pull to further his education, so he returned to the Bay in the 90s to attend the Academy of Art University with a focus on digital editing. In his first year, he was getting all As. “For the first time in my life, I was kicking ass,” he said. But when he needed approval from the school to direct a film, they declined, claiming that he wasn’t ready, and it would be too hard for him.  Miles is convinced this was due to racial discrimination. “So destroyed,” is how he felt at the time.

He remembered feeling that he couldn’t let anyone else determine his future. “I just have to go for it myself,” he thought. And he did, working the night shift on various jobs, he continued to pursue his passions.

It was a random encounter that altered the course of his life: at a MacWorld convention line Miles encountered a man he describes as an older, white hippie. “I don’t know who he was, but he changed my trajectory.” The stranger told him the studio that just produced the hit movie Toy Story was local and hiring. 

“I’m gonna work at Pixar,” Miles thought. He sent the company a reel of weird music videos and effects but was told that he needed additional skills. He wasn’t about to give up though.

A couple of other fortuitous events followed. Miles says that he’s always had these sorts of seemingly random things happen to him. He worked for Sybase in Emeryville, in charge of their security cameras. When the firm moved away, they asked him to show the building to potential buyers. He was introduced to the leadership at Ex’pression Center for New Media, which created a college in the space.

Miles took out loans to pay for their accelerated two-year program and started working nights as a janitor for the entire building, which included a deli.  One night, as he was mopping the deli room floor, a woman noticed the book he had. “What does the janitor know about Maya 3-D interactive software,” she asked him. It turned out she worked at Pixar, where she introduced him to animation legends. He was told he could probably get a job as a technical director, but he chose to follow his heart—and interests—to Amsterdam, where he collaborated on projects with a community of like-minded animators, designers, and collectors.

With the knowledge and skills he gained in Europe, Miles returned to Oakland, where he taught media at Youth Uprising, Ex’pression, and later at Pixar University.

At one point he stepped away from teaching to focus on video production, special effects, and low-budget music videos. He’s produced titles for a Bobby Brown show and directed six music videos with Green Day’s Adeline record label. He also worked on documentaries out of the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley. 

Growing as an artist and mentoring youth

Roy Miles is currently working on a project with rapper Del the Funky Homosapien and a vinyl arts expo. Credit: Amir Aziz

One constant in Miles’ life has been his passion for collectible vinyl toys. It started in the 80s with Happy Meal figurines, and then vinyl action figures, some hip-hop influenced. In 1999, when he discovered that there were artists out there making toys and getting paid for it, Miles visited Hong Kong to teach himself about their production and started making his own figurines.

His creations, called Biddies, are mini hip-hop action figures. At the time he began selling them there were no rap toys, just Flintstones and Ronald McDonald franchise characters doing bad rap in a very commercial context. 

Biddies faced an uphill battle to become popular, Miles said. They were “too black” and didn’t have a cartoon or movie connection. Even so, they took off and he started selling 20,000 toys a month. He created media content featuring the characters. 

Eventually, he cut back on the mass market approach and now works on limited edition Mega Biddie prototypes, which are 3-D printed modular resin mold art pieces that stand three feet tall.

There was only one time when he lost his creative momentum. In 2014, while working at Youth Uprising, a girl was shot near where his family was huddled to avoid being struck. His youngest daughter was terrified. Miles described the shooting as “beyond close to home,” and said he was only able to re-emerge after time and therapy. That’s when he built his first puppet–HoodFoot, followed by five others, in styles that range from full-body hand puppets operated by one or two people, to those managed mechanically, similar to how ventriloquist’s dummies work. He has designs for “about forty” more, with two currently in the design fabrication phase. “My therapy was making things with an idea behind them and letting my heart go through it. I didn’t let the event sour me on Oakland or the world.”

At every step along his journey, Miles has been committed to mentoring youth, including Nathan Hadden, who met Miles a little over 10 years ago when he was teaching a crew how to use audio recorders. Reached recently in Los Angeles while on a feature film shoot where he’s serving as a video assistant, Hadden talked about Miles’ impact on his life and current career as a photographer, director, actor, and stuntman. Hadden knew he wanted to get into film work, but he had “no clue, no nepotism, and no one in his community” who could help. Roy showed him how he could do things for himself to move his career forward. 

“He might not have all the answers, but he’ll point you in the right direction,” said Hadden. “He tells you what it is—all the time, and in the most positive way. Roy has a spider web of influence that goes beyond his physical reach, and the connections always lead to great and amazing things.”

Hadden said he still calls Miles today for recommendations about life, skills, and relationships. 

“He’s like a hood therapist,” Hadden said.  

Miles estimates he’s worked with thousands of Bay Area kids over the years. “I try to be a light for people to do better, bigger, and brighter than I’ve ever been able to do,” he said.

His own children from his partner of 32 years and wife of 20 years are thriving: one daughter is following in his footsteps by attending film school at Cal State Northridge. The other is in 11th grade at her parents’ alma mater, Skyline High. 

What’s next for Miles? Most recently, Del the Funky Homosapien asked if he could combine his music with Miles’ art. They’re currently in the process of storyboarding a project, an extended play-length record with videos for every song. Miles described the theme of the project as “a day in Hoodland.”

Another project he’s working on is a new convention to be held in Oakland next spring called VinylVinyl Expo, a curated marketplace for vinyl toys and records. He anticipates that it will take place over one day with close to 60 vendors. He’s attended a lot of shows, including Comic-Con, and DesignerCon, and said that his new event “definitely won’t be mainstream, like what you can buy at Walmart.” Instead, it will feature artist-owned toy companies. He and his business partner Ian Davis believe they’re tapping into a new golden era that showcases the artifacts of culture. 

Roy Miles’ journey from Oakland to Hoodland has been a hell of a story. “Storytelling—that’s everything I’m about now,” Miles said. “I think I’m the most Oakland thing around.”

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.