The message is scattered throughout New York City – on random phone booths, M15 bus stops, the Brooklyn Bridge and store fronts of giant retailers like Victoria’s Secret.
It’s a simple phrase, scrawled in capital block letters with a blue felt pen. Other times, the words are spray painted with a stencil or handwritten on stickers and plastered on the walls.
Many people see it, but only a handful pay enough attention to wonder who’s responsible. Those who do put it up on Instagram to relay the big question: “Are you helping? Are you hurting?”
Toni, a 27-year-old queer writer from Ohio, is the person behind the mystery. Toni’s preferred pronoun is “they.” They are also a playwright, a spoken-word poet and a photographer. They keep their name private to avoid being arrested for vandalism. Toni’s mission: to help New Yorkers with whatever they’re facing by starting an introspective conversation about morality and self-love.
“I am criminally apt,” Toni jokes with a mischievous smile. “Street art is my outlet for darker instincts.”
It’s a slow Tuesday evening at New Wave Café, Toni’s favorite hole-in-the-wall diner. It’s the kind of place with dull, maroon chairs and tacky mugs from the 90s. Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross is playing back to back.
Toni is wearing a generic, black down jacket, a striking contrast to their washed-out jeans speckled with paint. Tattoos adorn the spaces between their knuckles: a Scorpio M, an anarchy A, two parentheticals that make an O, and a little K, adding up to spell “amok.” Toni is sipping on their black tea with extra milk and honey, mentally preparing their self before their mission.
Tonight, they’re going to leave their mark on “Hammer Boy,” a famous graffiti work by Banksy. Banksy is a renowned graffiti artist whose drawings have long been considered a form of art, which is why a food emporium store on 80th Street and Broadway decided to preserve one of his street works under plexiglass.
“Graffiti is supposed to be ethereal, it’s not supposed to be permanent.” Toni says. “I’m gonna put a little mark on that and let them know I have a question about it.”
Behind Toni’s rebellious front is a more vulnerable side they aren’t afraid to hide any more – their sexuality, previous addiction to drugs, and the fact that they were raped in their freshman year of college.
Toni says they began street art to talk to their broken self.
“At 26, I realized I’ve been a liar to myself for 13 years,” they say. “I would lie to myself about things I am ashamed of, so I could move on – but I ran out of corners to escape to.”
Toni didn’t think they would survive their 26th year for many reasons. They were alone. They were full of self-hatred. They had hit rock-bottom as an addict. Although Toni was mostly addicted to marijuana, they went through a phase with almost everything except heroin and meth.
“I almost killed myself on acid. Cocaine ruined my life,” Toni says. “I quit one thing at a time until there was nothing left to quit, including drinking.”
Toni began street art in August 2017. They have been sober since September 2, 2017.
“I didn’t know how to talk about what was wrong with me for a long time,” Toni says. “We turn to religion, therapists, friends, television and movies, but the person to talk about this is you. What hurts you or helps you feel okay?”
Now, Toni aims for a bigger goal: to help others heal too by asking them to measure their own decisions or feelings, especially for those getting over an addiction.
It’s not intended to judge or criticize, Toni says. They want people to communicate with themselves.
So far, Toni’s liking what they hear. One person told them the message is like a mantra, that it stays in his head all the time. Another friend said they put up the phrase on the fridge.
Toni says they always believed in the magic of words and its ability to cast spells, especially in the darkest hours of their life.
They point to an Ernest Hemingway quote inscribed on their forearm: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.”
“I got this a week after [I was raped], as a way to reclaim my body,” they say.
The shirt Toni is wearing hides a message that unravels itself when they look in the mirror: “Please do not smoke cigarettes, I love you darling.”
“It’s preventing myself with self-love,” Toni says. “It’s looking at myself in the mirror every day and loving myself enough to not do this anymore.”
Toni’s been broke for a while. They went from couch to couch in Flatbush and Newark two years ago, then upgraded to sleeping on a mattress in Harlem. Now, Toni lives in an actual apartment.
On top of writing and photography gigs, Toni works odd jobs like clowning and painting theaters in the East Village.
Even so, Toni doesn’t intend to make money off this project. “As a person who doesn’t have money to give to charity at the moment, this is my attempt to giving,”
A snow storm had been issued for midnight. At 9 p.m., Toni takes off into the dark.
In a tattered reusable tote bag, Toni carries a stencil, blue tape, a spray can, two king sized Sharpies and an even thicker felt pen they bought for $5.
Toni stops abruptly on the corner of 79th Street and Broadway, in front of Banksy’s celebrated creation – a boy aiming his hammer at the fire hydrant. After making sure no one is paying them any attention, they crouch down and tapes the stencil on top of the boy’s head.
Amidst the adrenaline, Toni must not let their excitement take the better of them. With more people discovering Toni’s work, there’s an increased risk of the law coming after them.
“I’m gonna go as big as I can until they put me in a scary enough jail,” Toni says, chuckling. “I keep thinking, can I put it on a movie marquee? Can I hang it from the bridge? Can I write it in the sky?”
Toni sticks to a few rules, though. No painting on churches, homes or places that provide someone safety.
“I’m not gonna hit a mom and pop shop, but I am gonna hit the MTA over and over again because it appears that they have lots of money to take care of that,” Toni says.
In less than a minute, Toni disappears from the scene, leaving behind their trademark phrase on the faded yellow walls.