Graphic for International Workers Day 2020 (left) and Graphic in solidarity of workers (right). Courtesy Broobs.

I started following @broobs.psd on Instagram on May 1, International Workers Day, after I saw several friends sharing a poster in solidarity with the workers at Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, and others who were striking to protest a lack of basic protections during COVID-19. Two red roses and a procession of leaves bordered the message, set against a bright yellow background. I was drawn to the oozing, red hand drawn type, a cross between the melting typography of ’60s psychedelia and Scooby Doo, that made the companies look ghoulish in a ’80s cartoon villain sort of way. I clicked like on the image, along with around 50,000 other people.  

It may have been mine and many others’ intro to the graphics of Ruby Marquez, who in real life also goes by Broobs, but by that time the artist already had an extensive back catalog of political posters—for Bernie, for working class solidarity, for rent and mortgage freezes—and activist collage work. Since 2016, Marquez has been making collages and sharing the stories of both queer icons and victims of police violence and hate crimes, previously mostly on the Bay Area, where they live. Like their posters, the collages pop out on a scroll, and are imminently shareable. They feature flowers and other botanical elements that create something like a shrine around the subject, in a style that mimics the Catholic iconography Marquez grew up around in Montebello, a predominantly Latinx city near East Los Angeles.

After the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery gained widespread public attention in early May, Marquez created an image in their trademark collage style calling for justice. A week later they posted one for Breonna Taylor, followed by George Floyd, and Tony McDade. As the Black Lives Matter protests spurred by these deaths spread across the country and around the world, Instagram transformed into the de facto social media platform for social justice organizing, resources sharing, and calls-to-action. Taking a very visible role in the midst of this were Marquez’s graphics and collages, calling for justice, spreading information about bail and memorial funds, and signaling support for the protests. I started seeing their work everywhere (according to Marquez, their follower count doubled in a week, with reposts from the likes of Naomi Campbell and Zooey Deschanel). 

It’s a situation, it’s worth noting, that they feel ambivalent about. But Marquez has long been using their distinctive, eye-catching work to try to educate people on queer history, social justice, and worker’s rights. In a moment of feverish social media activism, one crucial downside to all the sharing is that information isn’t always verified, or gestures fully thought through, before going viral. I was interested to talk to Marquez because of the care they take to contextualize their images in the comments and on their Stories, always directing people to read more about an event or a person, or to make the connection between systems of oppression. I was curious about how this moment, and the growing visibility of their social graphics within it, was affecting how they created, or how they viewed their own artistic responsibility. I called them up in mid-June to talk about their process, their social justice advocacy, and making art in support of liberation. 

Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you start making these types of graphics?

When I started going to school for photography in August 2011, I was heavy into portraits and fashion photography. The style I have right now is something that I was kind of going after then, but didn’t necessarily know how to get to. In school there were a lot of rules about what we could and couldn’t do, and it wasn’t until my last year that I had a teacher who gave us permission to start making whatever we wanted for our portfolios, since this was the work our potential clients would see.

I was photographing a lot of floral or botanical elements on my DSLR and they didn’t always translate into what I wanted it to look like. I finally kind of gave that up and started using my phone to photograph these elements instead. I found the quality on the phone was a little fuzzy, but forgivable. I started evolving it into what it is today.

“I grew up Catholic and Mexican first generation, so I was always surrounded by religious iconography.”

I grew up Catholic and Mexican first generation, so I was always surrounded by religious iconography. I think that made a really big impact on my work. One of the reasons why I started doing [the collages] for people that are being murdered by police, or killed by white supremacy as a whole, is because I remember after the 2018 killing of Nia Wilson [who has killed after a man stabbed her on a BART platform] in the Bay Area, the media picked up a photo of her holding a phone case that looked like a gun. That was the image they were using to represent her. I felt like my image was a counter to that—to the times when media tries to justify Black people being killed with racist tropes of having a gun or traces of weed.

Instagram graphic for Bernie Sanders ahead of Super Tuesday. Courtesy Broobs.

Has your work always been so politically motivated, or did that come about more recently?

No, that started to change around 2016 after a man in San Francisco named Alex Nieto was shot at 59 times by SFPD officers [Nieto was killed in 2014, but the trial ended in 2016]. That’s when I started to focus my art on more political issues.

Lately, you’ve been making collages to honor Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Sean Monterrosa, Dominique Fells, Riah Milton, Oluwatoyin Salau, among others. It’s devastating to think about how many images you’ve made in the last two months to memorialize these recent victims of police brutality or hate crimes.

It’s my way to try to understand and cope with these things happening; in that way, it’s more personal than political. But I also feel like it’s a necessary thing to do, because otherwise people will forget and just kind of sweep [these deaths] under the rug. It does get exhausting, because I don’t really know how to get closure for myself, I don’t know how to get closure for the families. I’m just trying to do what I think is my part as an artist, to keep the movement going and bring peace to people during these times.

“I want people to become a little bit more proactive in the way that they source their news.”

I get the sense from the comments under your posts that some people are getting news of these deaths from seeing your graphics online. And of course, many of the people who you commemorate, in particular Black trans women, don’t receive proper news coverage, so we know that social media is a powerful tool when it comes to getting this information out there. Is this something that you think about when creating your graphics, does it influence how you make them?

To be honest, I’m not trying to become a news source for people, I’m just an artist making art; I’m trying to process these things and understand this world. That’s why I provide a link to the story of what happened and encourage people to go and read for themselves instead of me feeding information to them. I want people to become a little bit more proactive in the way that they source their news.

I do feel like you provide context for these images really well. I’m thinking in particular of the caption for the Marsha P. Johnson image you put up for Pride, where you wrote “I’d like you to verbally repeat after me. ‘Pride is only possible due to BLACK TRANS WOMEN fighting against POLICE BRUTALITY. I promise to do everything possible to protect all black lives and tackle the racism inside me and around me.’” It felt like you were making sure your audience understood how the struggle for Black lives and the struggle for trans and queer lives intersect.

I did feel like I had to contextualize that one because we’re in this moment where Black Lives Matter has finally become a bigger topic for a lot of people. There’s always talk of trans people being left out of these movements, even though, in Marsha P. Johnson’s case, she played a significant role in Stonewall riots. So I wanted to put explicitly that black trans lives matter as well, and I wanted to encourage people to say that out loud. Maybe it’ll be the first time you’ve ever said it, and maybe you won’t forget those words. That was my hope. 

Your work has centered for a long time on the queer community and the history of the queer community. How do you think about your work in terms of educating people about these communities and these histories? What is the power of images to do that?

In 2016, I made my Queer History series for the first time, and it’s something that I’ve done almost yearly except for this year, because I just didn’t feel like it was the right time to put it out. Along with illustrating queer icons from history, I would also give context with their story, what they did, and how it relates to now. I also did a Black History month series, since I felt like that’s not really taught as well, but I stepped back from that because it’s not my history to tell. But there’s a lot of intersectionality between Black history and queer history because a lot of LGBTQ leaders are also Black, and vice versa. I started the Queer History project to educate myself because I didn’t really know that much about queer history, and you know, you don’t necessarily learn it during Pride Month—that’s more of a rainbow capitalism parade. So I started it for myself and I just shared the images and the information along with it.

Art for the Netflix show “Gentrified.” Courtesy Broobs.

What are your stylistic influences?

A lot of my influences are more music than visuals. There are cartoons that are really influential to me: Steven Universe, which has been influencing the gradient backgrounds and the little stars that I’ve been using when it gets too heavy. I also like Midnight Gospel for the really psychedelic, trippy stuff. I just started doing more video editing stuff, as you can see in that drag trailer that I did more recently called “Reparations.” Music-wise, Helado Negro, which is one of my favorite musicians, as well as Mile High Club, Lido Pimienta, Rina Sawayama, Noname, Nina Simone, CSS, Kaina, and Empress of.

Can you walk me through your process for the collage images? 

I have a library of close to 2000 pre-cut images of the technical elements that I photograph myself around the city and frequently at a place in San Francisco called the Conservatory of Flowers. I used to go at least once or twice a week and photograph the elements with my iPhone, then I use an app called Magic Eraser to cut them out. Then I take them into an app called Procreate and move them around to where it feels comfortable before bringing in a background color or a gradient that I’ve made on Photoshop. For images of people, I usually pull them from news sources as they tend to have the highest res images. Otherwise I take them into Procreate and put in like 50% gray and then add some noise to make it look a little nicer. 

Social graphics in support of rent freeze during COVID-19 (left) and urging people to wear masks, by Broobs.

I saw that Naomi Campbell shared one of your graphics recently. That’s kind of crazy.

I know, my little gay art screamed! I messaged her and she messaged me back, which was really cool. When I put that one out, I wasn’t feeling very great, so I kind of just turned my phone off and I found out later that she had shared it because a follower of mine messaged me and was like, “Hey, she didn’t tag you.” I was like, “Oh, whatever.”

“I don’t really feel like I have ownership over these things because I just want liberation for everyone.”

You don’t seem generally very concerned whether people use your work or share your graphics. You have a highlight on your Instagram that swipes up to a public art folder that anyone can use. 

The public art folder is only politically driven posters, so I feel like the art doesn’t necessarily belong to me, it belongs to the people. One of the biggest reasons why I don’t watermark my work is because I don’t necessarily want ownership, I want it to exist for everyone. I do know that it’s really annoying for people that care about me because they’re constantly having to tag me in stuff. You know, credit is nice, but I just want to give it away. I would rather have people actually support me in financial ways. I don’t really feel like I have ownership over these things because I just want liberation for everyone. All I really want is for people to be happy and to live long happy lives, and I hope my art fights for that.