Los Angeles Artist Tolliver on Creating ‘Sinister and Childlike’ Work

From a rosé-swilling Urkel to an upcoming publicity company, Tolliver is gleefully riffing on beloved institutions.

Tolliver is not here for your easy nostalgia.

The multi-hyphenate, whose varied output could best be filed under the umbrella term spiky performance art, finds comfort in the relics of childhood, like sitcom theme songs. But that doesn’t mean they emerge unscathed through the filter of his singular sensibility.

Take his rendition of the Family Matters theme song. Slowing it way down to a whisper, Tolliver recreates the high-water pants and awkward gait of Urkel—but this Urkel has been through hell and back. Fueled by convenience store rosé, cocaine, and pills, the riff on a beloved ’90s character feels both millennial approved and also a fuck you to those who find comfort in it. It’s a delicate balancing act that Tolliver navigates effortlessly.

“At the beginning of [December] I was feeling ultra mega down, and my therapist was like, ‘Sit with your feelings!'” Tolliver says about the impetus behind that particular video. “I was really suffering, trying to do that. What actually makes me feel better is making something. It’s like a cat dragging in a dead bird: ‘Look what I did!’ And then I’m proud. So I thought, ‘I’ll just do these ’90s theme songs that have some emotional weight for me. And Urkel in particular was tough, because I got mocked incessantly for looking like Urkel. So I was like, ‘I’ll just somehow reclaim this thing. Become Urkel and process my childhood through this video.'”

He pauses. “But everything I do is kind of childlike and sinister.”

In many ways, Tolliver’s creations are what children could create if they had access to editing equipment and gin, dark little creatures that they are. There’s also a streak of unerring confidence in Tolliver’s approach to his work that hearkens back to the days before we’re all taught to second-guess ourselves. Over the course of our conversation, he nonchalantly set a launch date for a new publicity company and spoke often about just getting up and creating. 

Partly that’s possible because Tolliver is a self-described clothes hoarder—”Jess, my neighbor, was moving out and posting on IG, ‘I’m getting rid of all this shit.’ And that was priced to move, baby”—who can quickly lay hands on multiple looks, and partly because he’s helped create a collective of like-minded artists.

“We were going out to Joshua Tree this spring to get away from it all and shooting little shorts about death,” he says, a period that bore fruit later in the year when it came time to film the music video for his song “Say What,” though Tolliver laughingly admits that he ran the show on that particular production.

“We’ve shot a million tiny little things so you start to get a certain language with people,” he says. “And I can’t have any downtime, so we’re literally running for no reason. The process is usually pretty jazzy. And I like that. I don’t know why, but it really works for us to go super fast.”

Less fast was Tolliver’s recent video interview for Doc Marten about artists who have continued to create during the pandemic, in which he was filmed in his favorite Los Angeles locations, including Chinatown and beloved gay bar Akbar. And of course Tolliver had kept busy, because as he says, “I get really sad if I’m not constantly doing stuff. And I’ve heard RuPaul say, ‘I have to work a lot or the demons come.'”

That kind of imprimatur comes with a rush of dopamine and then an inevitable crash, and Tolliver wasn’t immune to it once the video premiered. Thus his fresh take on ’90s theme songs, including his recent Sister, Sister. But even in the pandemic, he’s still looking for new ways to create, most happily with his collective.

“My therapist is always saying to me I’m always looking for a family, and that’s definitely what’s happening with this group,” he says. “Under the guise of us working, I just really want you to be my friends!”

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