Greg “Mishka” Rivera is one of my best friends and the finest hoarder I have ever known. I’ve watched Greg’s collection outgrow his apartment and spill in to his office, then into the Mishka stores, into his brother’s spare bedroom and a storage locker in Florida. I think he also has some of his shit possibly stashed around various secret locations around America. What makes Greg’s hoarding so fine is that the things he collects are more unique and bizarre than the stacks of newspapers or Star Wars figurines the average collectors stockpile. In his possession is an animatronic E.T. puppet arm from this old Pepsi commercial. He also has a mummified human hand and various body parts, a lot of obscure old Japanese toys, and a baseball signed by disgraced baseball star and tremendous gambling addict Pete Rose that says, “I’m sorry I shot JFK.” Greg's an expert on and collector of realms of things most people have never heard of. His obsessive collecting became so over the top that Johnny Ryan made a comic about it for VICE.
In Greg's possession are some of the most bizarre and beautiful objects that I have ever beheld with my own eyes, but the crowning jewel of his collections is every piece of Mr. T merchandise ever made. When I met Greg, I thought I was a Mr. T collector. I had a few of the Mr. T & Me children’s book series and the Mr. T’s Commandments album, but that wasn’t even the tip of the T iceberg. Greg has every goddamn commercially available object that Mr. T ever allowed his name and face to be stamped on, as well as all the bootleg merchandise too. He owns concept art that Jack Kirby drew for a never-produced Mr. T cartoon show. He owns the promotional standee for Mr. T cereal that once encouraged the parents of the 1980s to feed their kids cereal with a large ostentatious man who yelled at everyone on the box.
The highlight of Greg’s Mr. T stuff is his collection of more than 100 handmade Mr. T dolls, all custom sewn for sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews by parents or relatives with too much free time on their hands. The doll pattern was sold in the wake of Cabbage Patch Kid mania, and there are a surprising number of these dolls floating around. They’re amazing and very kitschy folk art. Despite all having been produced using the same pattern, each doll is unique. Assembling the doll wasn’t all that easy, and the recommended fabric used to make the doll’s skin isn’t that easy to come by. Each Mr. T doll is differently imperfect from the next, and the imperfections are what make them so beautiful.
Greg got the idea to make a book that documents his collection in the fall, and since then he’s been busy retrieving his Mr. T collection from it’s various storage locations, photographing it and writing about Mr. T. He’s got a Kickstarter to fund the book which has some pretty unique incentives for those who choose to contribute.
Here, I talk to Greg about his collection, Mr. T, and—well, that about covers it.
VICE: How much do you know about Mr. T?
Greg "Mishka" Rivera: I think I know enough.
What's his real name?
Laurence Tureaud. But I heard a story once about a guy who saw him and started chatting with him at an LA supermarket. As they were parting, he said to Mr. T, "All right, see you later, Laurence." And Mr. T told him, "Nobody calls me that but my mama." As far as I'm concerned, his name's Mr. T, except to his mama, he's Laurence.
That's a good story. What year was he born?
May 21, 1952. I’m not sure how many more facts I can rattle off. I was always more fascinated with collecting his stuff more than enamored with the man himself. At the end of the day, he's just a person. I still to this day haven't met him.
What?! You've met all kinds of people at autograph shows and you haven’t met Mr. T?
Yeah. When I was younger I was really excited to meet him and tell him about my collection. I think if I met him now, I probably wouldn't mention it. I would never want to think that Mr. T would care or be excited that I collected his stuff. I'd like to meet him, but it wasn't ever a situation where I was, "Oh, I'm obsessed with this guy."
There's not a lot of Mr. T collectors. I only know, including myself, four. One of the guys that we know, he collects a lot of autographs and original clothing Mr. T wore in movies and stuff and that never really interested me.
You like the image of Mr. T?
I like the image of Mr. T. I like the artwork associated with him.
Was there anything from your childhood that made you really want to start collecting Mr. T memorabilia?
I remember really wanting the 12-inch Mr. T doll as a kid. I remember my cousin had it, and I was really jealous. I also remembered today when I moved from Connecticut, my mom made me sell all my toys.
Did we just discover the root of your problem?
Probably... I remember being in middle school and going to the flea market in Florida and finding a life-size Mr. T Cereal cardboard standee display. It's actually one of the rarest pieces I own. That's the first thing I remember having and thinking this could be the start of a collection.
How much did you pay for that?
How much do you think it's worth now?
A few hundred bucks.
So Mr. T stuff's not really all that valuable?
No, it's not really that valuable. That was part of the appeal when I first started buying it on eBay. It was something that was pretty easily obtainable because there was really no one else buying it.
Until you came across—
Until I came across Mike Essl, who became my main rival in online bids for Mr. T stuff.
Had he been collecting Mr T stuff for longer than you?
No, I’d started getting serious about it long before meeting Mike, while I was still in college. There was this store called Populuxe. Brian, who owned the store, had two or three shelves of Mr. T stuff, and I had I bought a lot of it from him. Then eBay came along, and I started buying stuff there.
How big was his collection at the time?
It was nowhere near the size of mine. His was maybe one bookshelf full of stuff and mine was almost two walls filled with stuff. This was around 1998. Then we decided to make an eBay truce instead of bid against each other.
He was like, ”Look man, I can tell you're a real tough customer and you have a lot of T lust in your heart, and I got some too. We'll get out of each other's way." He had a full-time job so he had more money than me. I was still in college so I would also let him get more of the high-ticket items. The goal was to make sure that at least one of us won whatever Mr. T auctions appeared. It got to a point where it didn't matter who owned it because it was a mutual collection.
Eventually I moved to New York where Mike and I became friends. We started a website called Mr. T and Me. For a while it was a big part of who I was. I was this Mr. T guy that had this collection, and we were on different TV shows like Totally Obsessed, a VH1 show hosted by Fred Willard.
What was it like appearing on TV to talk about your Mr. T collection?
I really liked it. I think Mike was a little embarrassed to appear on TV talking about our collection. I was just some dumb punk kid and more of a ham. We had to send a video into VH1 of why we wanted to be on the show, which I think is still online.
When was the first time you saw one of the handmade Mr. T dolls?
Brian, who owned Populuxe, eventually sold me his entire collection. I had ended up working there and in lieu of getting paid I got Mr. T stuff. The one thing he wouldn’t sell me was his handmade Mr. T doll that looked like a bootleg Cabbage Patch Kid. He also introduced me to eBay, and as soon as he did, I literally started buying any and all custom Mr. T dolls that I saw.
How common were they at the time?
A couple would pop up every month, and I'd always win the auctions for between ten and 20 bucks.
They're all handmade, and I appreciated how different each one was. Each one was a labor of love, and each one represented the level of craftsmanship of each person who made them. I loved that some adhered to the pattern, potentially made by a professional doll maker. Then there were some that were just made for their kids as best they could manage.
When I was buying them on eBay, a lot of the descriptions would mention how the seller had made the doll for their son and he hated it and left it in the closet. Now he was off to college and their parent was just trying to get rid of it.
Why did so many people think, I know what my kid needs: a really soft cuddly Mr. T doll?
It's a grown man doll that looks like George Jefferson.
Everybody wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid doll and couldn’t get them... All these companies were making their own doll patterns. Then Martha Holcombe came up with the idea of making a Mr. T version. Cabbage Patch was popular, and Mr. T was popular so she combined them.
It's actually really hard to make the doll exactly the way the pattern book instructs you to. I think that's why they look so unique. Some people couldn’t get the exact fabric. Some people painted the eyes, some people embroidered the eyes, some people got the transfer eyes. Some people handmade the clothes, other people just went and bought baby clothes which didn’t fit right.
Thousands of parents investing all this time to hand make dolls that looked like Mr. T is very odd to me.
I think that's what probably attracted me to it. I was talking to Martha Holcombe the other day, and she mentioned that at one time Walmart was one of her biggest customers, and she was selling them thousands of doll patterns a month.
Which of the dolls are your favorites?
There's a few that we've kind of given names to. There's Sinbad. He looks like Sinbad, Gary Coleman, John Belushi and Eric Wareheim. There's one that looks like a Bollywood star. He's got orange skin and he's got this really flashy outfit on. There's another guy who has bushy eyebrows. We call him Evil T. There's also a lot of Baby Ts. There’s the ones that have the beard but no mustache, I call them the Amish Ts. Then there's a few that are anatomically correct.
How many have dicks? And how many of them also have dicks and balls?
I think all the ones that have dicks also have balls. There's not just a dick coming out of it.
That wasn’t in the original pattern, was it?
No, somebody decided to do that, and I'm still trying to figure out why. Martha thinks there was a point where people were making the dolls for adults. But I wanted to think that it was more like hippie sex-positivity.
Do you collect the dolls even if they don't have a complete outfit?
I like to leave the dolls as they are. Occasionally over the years when I’ve seen toddler Nikes or little boots at a thrift store I’ve bought them for the dolls. But, generally, all the dolls that I have are as I found them. A lot of times people ask “Why is this doll naked?” or “Why doesn't this doll have pants?” At some point the pants were lost, and this is just how it is.
How many of those Mr. T dolls have you got?
I think about 200.
Do you still buy them?
I've been trying not to buy anymore because I feel it's kind of pointless. There was a time where I thought I was going to collect them all, but I've collected enough of them and who knows how many were made? If you just had one people would be amazed, and then if you had 50, people would be even more blown away. Having 200, people respond with, “Wow, this is kind of crazy.”
I wouldn't describe you as kind of crazy, Greg. Do you think you have a disease called T-mania perhaps?
Do you think of these Mr. T dolls as folk art?
I do. The American Folk Art magazine interviewed me about them ten years ago. In the issue I’m in there's a weathervane and a really oddly shaped girl with her dog painted, and then there's me and my dolls. My collection was recognized by the American Folk Art Museum as modern-day folk art. I would love for my dolls to be in the American Folk Art Museum’s permanent collection, but we'll see what happens.
So where are all the dolls now, your house?
They are actually at Quang Le’s house in Santa Ana. They take up an entire room while he’s photographing them all for the book.
Now that the dolls are out of storage are they going to come back and live with you and your wife, Lesa, in your home?
No, I think Lesa would kill me if I brought all that stuff back now! I have to remember Mr. T’s words. “Don’t be possessed by your possessions!”