Ten Reasons We Love Julie Tolentino


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Photo: Eden Batki

Julie Tolentino is an artist of Filipino and Salvadorian heritage who has been working for lesbian visibility for two decades. Tolentino first came onto the scene in 1989 as a figure in the “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” campaign by the AIDS awareness artist-activist collective Gran Fury. The ads ran on buses and billboards across the country and were later displayed at the Whitney Museum. In 1990, Tolentino founded the Clit Club, the legendary New York City nightclub where punk, queer and pro-sex girls danced and got very hot-and-bothered for over a decade. Tolentino also posed with Madonna in a series of homo-erotic photos in the superstar’s controversial book, SEX. These days, she is most visible as a durational performance artist, performing pieces for many hours at a time. But it usually only takes 15 seconds to seriously crush out on her, so be warned. Here are the top 10 reasons we love her.

1. Julie is a live artist trained in yoga. From the early ’90s, Tolentino studied Ashtanga yoga with Eddie Stern, the guru some credit with introducing this super-athletic form of yoga to the West. She was a member of David Rousseve’s dance company REALITY for 12 years and she collaborated and performed with Ron Athey. She now creates what she calls sculptural endurance events—solo. Her latest large-scale work, CRY OF LOVE, commissioned by the House of World Cultures in Berlin, came out last month.

2. She knows lesbian sex. An ACT UP AIDS activist in the 1980s and ’90s, Tolentino co-wrote the first Lesbian Safer Sex Handbook in 1993 (with Cynthia Madansky) and was responsible for grassroots education in the dyke community. She appeared in the “Safe Sex Is Hot Sex” Red Hot & Blue posters shot by Steven Meisel. “We were the most consumed couple image, to everyone’s surprise,” she remembers. “Being tattooed and pierced, androgynous, bald, kinky—these were major, on and off the gay scene.”

3. She runs a boot camp. Each summer, she and Ron Athey run the PRAXIS Mojave Boot Camp For Performance Artists. Her 5 a.m. punk-rock yoga is the best.

4. She reads Walt Whitman. The art critic Jennifer Doyle has described Tolentino as “a literary artist”—and for good reason. There is a classic Tom of Finland drawing tattooed on her calf, her surname across her abs and poetry by Whitman along her bicep. “Look closely,” Tolentino teases. “There is also ‘yes,’ another ‘yes’ and a hidden ‘more.’ ”

5. Her colleagues gush about her—truly gush. David Rousseve says, “She is not only one of my favorite people on the planet, she is a deep-seeking artist of utterly profound capabilities.” DJ Aldo Hernandez agrees: “She is a woman for all times, elegantly turning survival into a rich source of do-or-die activism.”

6. She is to the point. “Fierce, brutally honest, lovable, gets things done,” says artist Franko B.

7. She does solar. Tolentino designed and is building a home in California’s Mojave Desert emphasizing low-impact, long-term sustainablity using solar energy, native plants and tankless, propane-charged heat and refrigeration. She educates visitors while she builds, and everyone who stops by lends a hand, contributing toward green-living practices.

8. She’s found water in the desert. A practitioner of Watsu (a form of aquatic bodywork) and the manager of a natural mineral springs spa on the western edge of California’s Joshua Tree National Park, Miracle Manor Retreat, Tolentino offers a destination for queer travelers and artists.

9. She is loyal. The Sky Remains The Same is an ongoing performance project in which Tolentino creates a performative archive of other artists’ work by mirroring it as they perform. This means housing, holding and discussing the information from a safe place—her body. “I will preserve their archives until my last breath,” she vows.

10. She’s got savoir faire. Far be it from us to say who has shared her bed, but by her own account, Tolentino has wholeheartedly supported, collaborated with or partnered some of the most edgy, culture-shaking butches in queer and trans history. One glimpse of her smile will show you why. 

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