When Toshi Salvino met me at a café in East Williamsburg, she sported wide-striped tights, chunky platform boots, black shorts, and a black t-shirt portraying an aurora-colored robotic goddess courtesy of Heather Hermann, an artist who worked under Yoshitaka Amano. Her bubblegum-pink hair was coiffed in a casual updo, and embellished by several ribbon-shaped barrettes. She had dotted her face with freckles and her eye makeup was vaguely reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s Black Swan; she wore a mauve metallic lipstick, which would make any other person look like Laura Palmer’s corpse.
“I’m super casual today,” she had texted me.
Salvino has no eyebrows, which is both an aesthetic and a practical choice. “I figured that if I shaved them off, I could always draw them exactly how I would want them,” she explained.The 23-year-old is part of the “living doll” lifestyle. The term brings to mind people like Amanda Lepore or those who’ve made headlines trying to look like Barbie replicas. But the first thing I learn upon talking to Salvino is that there is no canon defining a living doll. “It varies from person to person,” she explained. “That’s the main thing that differentiates it from subcultures such as Lolita fashion.”
For Salvino, a multidisciplinary artist, being a living doll means being adaptable. “If you make a doll, you can make it look however you want, you can have it express whatever you want,” she said. “I am using my own body as my canvas to become my own art.”
Salvino got her biggest following and fan base by going to anime and comic-book conventions sporting hyper-elaborate looks such as a fairy princess, a personification of cotton candy, and an aurora-faced, bunny-eared girl wearing a harness over her white minidress. Whenever she does an actual cosplay about a specific character– whether it be a blood-spattered nurse from Silent Hill, Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, or the femme, yet androgynous Great Fairy of the Zelda series– she feels like she’s dressing down.
Salvino is a professional hair stylist and make-up artist by trade– she works at Hello Beautiful Salon in Williamsburg and is the lead make-up artist for special events at the McKittrick Hotel– so she has a firm grasp on how to use the body and hair to make a piece of art. She discovered how to be art when she got hired at the Pennhurst Asylum, a haunted house, in 2014. Originally, she was supposed to just be a make-up artist, then she was told to “go entertain people.”
“..and she just happened naturally,” Salvino said.
“Toshi” is her cutesy, crazy alterego, who likes climbing things and doing contortionism. Salvino is hyperflexible, which she happily demonstrated by nonchalantly popping her index finger out of its socket and putting it back in. “There is real-life me and what people perceive me to be. The art vs. the artist,” she said. When she is modeling at conventions, she naturally slips into her character’s headspace.
Yet both her character self and her everyday self go by Toshi. That’s the only name Salvino has been responding to since she was nine and fell in love with Japanese culture. She chose it because she thought it meant “mirror image.”
“It’s very important to me because my reflection, when I dressed up, was my true self. That was how I wanted the world to see me, that was how I wanted to see myself,” she said. “When I put on the makeup and the outfit, that was when it was really me. It was an Alice in Wonderland kind of thing: Toshi came out of the mirror and started acting in real life.”
Japanese culture and fashion have been central in defining Salvino’s identity. She has now been studying the language for several years and she thinks that its cadence and its vocabulary help her express concepts better than English does. Her favorite word? Utsukushii, which means heavenly beauty.
Her love affair with Japan started during childhood, when, by her own admission, she dressed like a freak and got made fun of a lot. Teachers from her public school in rural Pennsylvania weren’t impressed by the fact that she wanted to wear blue lipstick and cat ears. “I would wear striped tights that were two different colors, two different shoes, a tutu and belts across my chest, and my hair in pigtails,” she reminisced. “My hair was pink, even when I was that young. I was eight years old when I dyed it the first time.”When she and her brother behaved well, her dad would take them to Barnes & Noble. On one of those occasions, she stumbled upon Fruits, a magazine dedicated to the frilly, candy-colored Harajuku subculture. “Oh my god, there are people who dress like me. I could have friends,” she remembers thinking. “It was the first time I remember feeling I had a community and I was included and there are people like me.”
Yet, liberating as it was to finally find her scene and to move to an alternative school that encouraged artistic personalities, Salvino realized that wearing a full face of makeup eventually became a compulsion. She wouldn’t leave the house unless her “own canvas” was decorated to the nines. So she participated in the make-under program Love, Lust or Run on TLC with Stacy London. “When I was younger, it had become a compulsion, it was my identity. It was about the character, the image, never about me. It was about the art and not about the artist,” she admitted. Now she easily goes to work either wearing minimal makeup or sporting fully made-up doll eyes. It makes barely any difference to her.
Speaking of work, her looks have garnered a massive social media following. Yet, even though her highly saturated kawaii aesthetic is highly Instagrammable and despite the fact that she occasionally collaborates with make-up brands she admires, Salvino wants to make it clear that she is not a social-media personality. “Being a social media artist is a completely different thing from what I do,” she said. “It’s a whole thing.” Having studied make-up on a professional level, she can reproduce hyperrealistic wounds, sores and boils and can style a Sephora campaign. Oh, and she can easily do full-face drag makeup in 15 minutes– that’s how she got her job at the McKittrick Hotel.
As an artist, Salvino found a community of like-minded creatives in Bushwick when she moved around 18 months ago. She performed as a gogo dancer at House of Yes and also worked at its Beauty Bar, she collaborated with Tara McPherson during Comic-Con, where she did make-up inspired by the looks of McPherson’s characters; she regularly poses for photo artist Kassandra Leigh, with whom she staged a black-light photoshoot in the middle of the night; and she’s now friends with members of Anamanaguchi, whose music helped her get through a rough relationship. “I don’t know if they know how much they changed my life and influenced me,” Salvino said. “Fuck to never meet your idols.”
In Brooklyn, she’s the happiest and most stable she’s ever been after a lifetime of mental health struggles. In fact, right before our meeting, she was looking through old photos. “I would cut my hair, bleach it, chop at it, and do these dark makeups,” she said, referring to the stream of black, rust-colored or dark-glitter-speckled tears she used to paint on her face. “It was almost like I was cutting myself.” Now the black tears have been largely substituted by sparkling double sets of eyes, hearts and turquoise-colored curlicues.
Yet, Salvino sees beauty in disfigurement. Over the years, she has created a conspicuous portfolio of drawings portraying girls or ephebic male youths who were regularly missing a limb and/or an eye, had a lot of exposed scar tissue or were anorexic. “Something that people think of as something that’s wrong with someone is actually what makes them beautiful,” she said. However, she would never recreate mutilation for her in-character looks, as she fears it would involuntarily glorify something that those who are affected by it cannot help. So, she uses one of her ball-jointed dolls, named Emi, as her creative outlet for that purpose.
Emi naturally lent herself to it. “The first day I got her, she fell off the shelf–I say she jumped– so her middle finger broke off and I had to glue it back,” said Salvino. The finger broke off again, so she bandaged her hand. It was not until the bandage turned dirty that artistic inspiration hit her fully. “Wouldn’t it be interesting, as a character thing,” Salvino remembered thinking, “if I made it infected?” So she gave the gauze wrapped around Emi’s hand a greenish-reddish hue. As years passed, Salvino made Emi lose her hand, her arm and then the doll started displaying signs of gangrene in the shoulder area. Oh, and she ended up missing an eye, too.
“Now she is dead, my little corpse-y girl.” To her, a living doll, dolls are not an assemblage of plastic and other materials. “Dolls are spirits, there is a soul in there. It just can’t move,” she said. “It’s like a pet, it’s an art piece, something to love and share emotion with, an extension of yourself.”