Scattered throughout New York’s grimiest ‘hoods and most expensive neighborhoods are public messages to black and Latina women. The signs, with words that both uplift the disenfranchised and disrupt spaces where racism and xenophobia thrive, are part of the Unapologetically Brown Series – a street art project by Queens-based artist-activist Johanna Toruño.
Tired of advertisements throughout communities of color that rarely reflect the people in them, Johanna Toruño a queer salvadoreña, created this series of pop-up posters for black and brown people to feel acknowledged and empowered.
“I just want brown women to know that I see you, we’re here, we’re resilient and this space belongs to you,” Toruño, 27, told mitú.
She does this by posting dozens of signs throughout New York’s five boroughs about three to five times a week, all speaking to people of color directly.
Other signs, like one reading “Dismantle ICE” and another declaring “Black Lives Matter,” are located throughout the Upper East Side, one of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The placement is intentional. Toruño believes that the city’s most powerful need to be reminded of the everyday struggles of the most vulnerable. Sadly, and revealingly, the posters are usually quickly removed in these areas.
Toruño knows firsthand what it’s like to feel powerless in this country. She moved from El Salvador to Virginia when she was nine years old, unaware of the language and unfamiliar with the culture.
“I felt displaced because of that, and that will make you feel powerless,” she said. “I always felt that unsureness of my space. I still do.”
Toruño, who was incarcerated as a teenager and remains entangled in the U.S.’ broken immigration system, uses her self-taught art to empower her community because she understands how debilitating it is to feel othered, less than and defenseless all the time and everywhere – including in your own home.
She launched the Unapologetically Brown Series one year ago. Initially, it was a space for spoken word poetry, then it turned into a photo series and ultimately it became the community poster project it is today.
“I was playing with different ways to spread this message, but when I started the posters I knew that I had finally found the right approach,” she said.
Street art is a part of everyday life in El Salvador. When coming to the United States, she brought her fascination of murals and public posters with her. As a teenager, she often hung signs around her Virginia neighborhood, making it a natural way for her to execute her activism in her adulthood. But as someone who describes herself as “socially anxious,” she also preferred this avenue because it allowed her to decenter herself from the work.
“I’m not good with crowds. It’s easy for me to put up a poster and for it to have a life of its own after I leave. It tells a story for me. People see it and I don’t have to be there for it,” she said.
For Toruño, it’s always about the community first, and she is using her posters to give back in more tangible ways as well.
?COMMUNITY GIVEAWAY!? LISTEN UP! I came up with a cool way to give back to you guys and help out my favorite people in the hood! The people that keep me fed, SO Don Victor pictured here who runs the ice cart by the L on Myrtle Wyckoff for my NY followers has a nice little bundle of prints and a sticker for the first person to ask for it WITH A PURCHASE of one of his ices! So get a cone and a free print with it! So go go go! He's there everyday! If you go get it let me know! ✨? thank you for your support and remember this is about community- our people first always!
The artist, who sells her prints online, teams up with street vendors for poster giveaways. Here’s how it works: Toruño posts a photo of a local brown vendor on her Instagram, telling her more than 11,000 followers about their service or good and informing them that the next person who purchases one of their items can get a free print.
Toruño has done four giveaways like this, and each one has been a success.
“These people are the backbone of this community, the ones who keep us fed. They’re busting their asses and people talk shit about them. I want to use my platform to give them some publicity, to help put more money in their pocket, because they deserve it,” she said.
This month, the Unapologetically Brown Series also held its first pop-up shoot and social, an event for black and brown people to get together, take photos, create art and discuss the ways they can reclaim spaces. Toruño expected about 15 to 20 people. Instead, more than 100 guests showed up.
The series’ thousands of social media followers and packed first event show just how hungry people of color are to see themselves represented – and not solely in the media, politics or higher education, but in their own neighborhoods as well. It illustrates how unseen many of us feel even in our own communities and how powerless we think we are in our own homes.
Through her series, Toruño is trying to change that. In the face of gentrification, she is reminding everyone that historically black and brown spaces belong to us, that we are valuable, our presence is beautiful and our community is essential. And while Toruño is New York-based, her message is being felt across the nation, as people have printed and placed her signs throughout neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Seattle and more.
“I create for and around my community, and I want to shine a light on it because we are beautiful and special,” she said.
Find a powerful floral dispatch from Toruño throughout New York, and for those outside of the city, catch them on Instagram. To purchase prints and spread them around your ‘hood, visit the Unapologetically Brown Series’ website.