You may not know who Johanna Toruño is, but chances are, you’ve probably seen her artwork on street corners around Bushwick, Ridgewood, and even Manhattan. Who is she? Johanna Toruño is honest—blatantly so. But, she’s also humble. And that mix of characteristics has led her where she is today—to starting The Unapologetically Brown Series, a street art series all about making space for the representation of people of color.
Toruño herself knows this issue firsthand, having immigrated from El Salvador to Virginia before she was ten years old. And her roots in El Salvador serve as inspiration for her art: she grew up surrounded by streets full of art, much of it guerrilla art. “I’m just used to that, and I think messages should be on the street,” she said.
As an activist and an artist, Toruño has always noticed the underrepresentation of people of color, especially in the media. That’s what led her to start Unapologetically Brown.
“The series came out of kind of messing around and feeling like there’s not a lot of representation in media and art that’s done truthfully around people of color—and for the empowerment of people of color,” she said.
She moved to Ridgewood from Virginia on November 10, two days after the election. Though inequity of people of color has always been a problem, Toruño credits the political climate as a catalyst in pushing her to really make something happen. So she began designing art pieces and writing poetry, which she posts around the city. Toruño even wanted the name of her project to get right to the point.
“What am I doing wrong? Nothing. Like, I was born. So, [Unapologetically Brown] came from just liking the boldness of ‘I’m not sorry,'” Toruño said. (And partially from Rihanna’s “Unapologetic” album. “Rihanna can do no wrong,” Toruño added.)
Toruño hopes her street art will help people find a place to connect with and be heard—that women and men of color will see her art on the streets and see themselves through it.
“I just want people to feel like they resonate with it, because that’s all I ever wanted to do, was create content that I see myself in,” she said. So that’s what she’s been doing, creating solidarity with every step she takes. And the Ridgewood and Bushwick neighborhood has been just the place she needs to foster the main pillar of her project: community.
“The community here is really beautiful and…I’ve met a lot of people through the work I’ve done that are like ‘Wow, that’s so dope.’ It creates spaces and that’s what’s really beautiful to me,” she said.
The goal of her project, she said, is to create “ripples” in her own community, that move outward, inviting others to take part in the initiative, bringing the series to their own communities.
To do this, she says art has to be accessible and free. That’s what led her to create an Instagram account for the series, so people in other communities can see her art and connect with her mission. She also puts many of her posters on her website, where they can be downloaded for free, encouraging others to take part in spreading her message.
Paraphrasing Chance the Rapper, Toruño said, “If you don’t make your art accessible to everybody, then what are you doing? It’s not revolutionary if all people can’t access it.”
Since starting her series and Instagram account, Toruño has been able to connect with others, who’ve told her they put up her art in other communities, like Washington D.C. and Chicago.
Sadly, some people are choosing not to receive Toruño’s message. She’s had some pushback, from the people that remove her signs, or paste other signs on top of hers, but she doesn’t let it deter her progress. She knows that street art, in general, is time sensitive. The city often comes through to clean up, and part of that means removing all posted signs.
“What I love about street art, and what is also the double-edged sword, is that it has a very limited time, before somebody comes and takes it down, no matter what it is. But especially shit like that—because they don’t like it. I mean not everybody likes it,” she said.
She can tell if her posters have been removed by the city, or by individuals who hate her work. One sign, for example, has been regularly removed by someone, each time Toruño puts it up. To fight back, Toruño made a special sign, to encourage the defiler to think about their actions.
Though her series is a one-woman show, she would love to have people rallied behind her cause in an effort to grow her community.
“My dream is to have a collective of badass women of color that want to create the sickest work,” she said.
So, Bushwick and Ridgewood, if you’re looking for a cause, print out a poster, put it up, even if it’s on your wall. Spread art to spread equity. Let’s come together to create a community of support and equality. As Toruño said: “Collaboration? It’s everything. You can’t do it alone. You really, really can’t do it alone.”
All photos by Alannah Banks, courtesy of Johanna Toruño.