Photos by Laurel Golio
As the weather gets warmer, visual artist Johanna Toruño heads out onto the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with her trusty glue-stained, torn-up book bag filled with posters on her back.
When Toruño finds a blank spot on a wall, or a light post, or a mailbox in an area that gets a lot of foot traffic, she stops. She takes out a can of wheat paste, a paintbrush and bunches of rose-colored posters from her bag.
While she puts her art up, she reminisces on the LGBTQ heroes of the past. She says the queer people of color who have come before her helped give her the courage to speak up. Like them, her art is brave and unapologetic.
“Pride, initially, was not about a rainbow. It was about a brick being thrown,” Toruño said, referring to the Stonewall riots of 1969, which have been called the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. “Pride was about black and brown trans women resisting the police state and resisting the political identities that people were trying to place on them.”
Toruño is the founder, creative director and proud Latina who runs “The Unapologetic Street Series.” She takes on the streets of New York City to confront people with her messages of pride and rebellion, whether they like it or not.
By using these public spaces to showcase her art, she hopes to start a conversation within the community and pay homage to brown and black women in an open-air, free exhibit.
“To a certain level, we aren’t acknowledging that [the LGBTQ movement] was done on the backs of black and brown trans women of color,” Toruño said. “My privilege in having that knowledge is important …. I’ve made posters with Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who have done the work,” she added, speaking of the two trans icons who took part in the Stonewall riots.
Toruño, who is of Salvadoran descent, was displaced by war at a young age in her home country. She doesn’t know who many of her ancestors were, so she’s often inspired and motivated by that displacement, as well as by the women of color who act as role models for her art.
Toruño doesn’t have much of a set daily routine. She drinks tea every morning and brushes her teeth every night, just like most of us. But it’s what transpires in the hours between those moments that sets Toruño apart from others.
She can often be found selling her art, including T-shirts and prints with her images on it, at pop-up shops around the country while local DJs of color spin and the smell of tamales tempts shoppers.
She also hosts workshops, participates in panel discussions and makes college visits across the country to spread her message beyond New York City. Her work has taken her to Texas, Illinois, California and other states, and she now has a global audience, thanks to social media like Instagram, where more than 107,000 followers eagerly like and share her art.
Wherever Toruño goes, you can usually find her girlfriend, Amy Quichiz, alongside her.
“We’re ride or die for each other,” Toruño says. “I don’t think we see a lot of that being talked about with queer relationships. You’re used to seeing the ride or die only in heteronormative couples, like Beyoncé and Jay-Z.”
And their love isn’t something they keep to themselves ― they intentionally share it everywhere, including social media, making their relationship another part of Toruño’s work.
Being honest about the trials and tribulations of their life together — as well as the beautiful, healthy aspects of their relationship — is in and of itself a kind of revolutionary act, and Toruño’s fans are grateful to witness and share in the couple’s love.
In fact, Toruño has gotten messages from people who say that her posts on social media and her Niñas Sin Vergüenza (Girls Without Shame) series about her relationship with Quichiz have helped them understand and value their own queerness. Toruño and Quichiz have even received fan art that others have made for them in appreciation of their relationship.
“That gets you choked up,” Toruño said. “When I was younger, I would have wanted queer representation with couples like me and Amy. Why do you think people are so affected in a positive, beautiful way? It’s because we haven’t had the representation.”
No matter what she is making or putting out into the world, Toruño emphasizes she is dedicated to practicing what she preaches, even if that means reapproaching some aspects of her work. She recently realized the original name of her brand, “The Unapologetically Brown Series,” was co-opting the “Unapologetically Black” movement’s title. Now the series is simply the “Unapologetic Street Series.”
“While not my intention, the easiest and ethical solution is to change its name,” Toruño wrote in an Instagram post. She was happy to make the change ― just another example of her dedication to sharing her vision while uplifting the work and advocacy of others.
“I woke up brown, the way my mother and her mother made me. The way the goddesses laid the sun on my skin like a shield,” reads one of Toruño’s posters. She says the military-style font is supposed to act as a harsh contrast to the delicate flowers that appear to be growing underneath the text.
“I’m a student of the people before me,” she said, acknowledging her desire to have her work be as proud and disruptive as her idols. “I know I’m not nearly as revolutionary. It’s OK to acknowledge that … but it’s also important to acknowledge how far queer people have come. We’re alive, existing in this world, and loving unapologetically.”