Extreme art, extreme courage

AEROSOL ART

Extreme art, extreme courage

Art by Lady Pink, New York’s foremost female graffiti artist, who initially disguised herself as a guy to stay safe in the risk-ridden world of underground art . PICs/ WFS

They call themselves Lady Pink, Mickey, Swoon, Faith 47 and Claw. With ‘tags’ like that, it might be hard to imagine what they do, but in the world of graffiti and street art, these women are among the most well-respected of international graffiti artists. Founders of a sisterhood, they have contributed to the ever-evolving movement of aerosol art and culture.

Writing on walls, or graffiti — from the Italian word graffito, meaning ‘scratchings’ — has existed since people first drew images on cave walls. Pompeii is a good example of how the phenomenon flourished.

Academic Jane Gadsby views graffiti as “a form of communication that is both personal and free of everyday social restraints.” Others view it as “part childish prank, part adult insult”. To many, it is vandalism, pure and simple. Whatever it’s called, graffiti has attracted the attention of linguists, art critics, cultural anthropologists and gender experts.

Sisterhood story

The gendered approach to graffiti has often led researchers to restrooms, where women have felt free and safe to write. As Gadsby points out, “It’s the ultimate place to purge — a private, safe space for women, a refuge.”

One researcher noted that female latrinalia graffiti is more interactive and interpersonal than the graffiti found in male lavatories. She also observed that while men tend to write about their sexual prowess, women deal with relationships.

Feminist art

For artists like Lady Pink and Mickey these are serious questions, but this is not what drove their work initially. Both started writing as teenagers.

“Initially the act of writing was a gesture of activism, a sign of rebellion,” says Lady Pink, New York City’s foremost female graffiti artist, who began her career by following her boyfriend into the movement. “Graffiti gave me strength and built my character. I started out shy and quiet but found I had a voice.” Only later did she realise that she was creating feminist art by conveying injustice and showing women as heroines and role models instead of victims.

Mickey also started writing early and saw her work as a form of communication between herself and the public. “Graffiti contributed to my life in that I was able to become a free human being with a free spirit. It taught me many life lessons and helped me through the difficult time of being a teenager. It brought me beautiful people along the way,” she says.

Risks and rewards

But in the early days being a female graffiti artist was challenging and often dangerous. Lady Pink describes her experience: “Running around underground as a female was hugely dangerous. I had to disguise myself as a guy and try not to stand out. No one could save you if a group wanted to take your paint. Some guys had weapons. The police would beat up graffiti writers or threaten us if we were female. There was sexism from the guys who didn’t want to believe that I was doing my own work; they thought I was sleeping with guys to get work up. I had to paint with different groups of writers from all over the city to prove myself. Like any woman, I had to work twice as hard to get equal treatment. My reputations suffered. It was just a given.”

Mainstream art? No thank you!

Today things are a bit easier, Lady Pink says, especially in Europe and the US, but she goes on to observe that among Latino and Hip Hop communities, women are still held back.

Both Lady Pink and Mickey have moved their art into new arenas. Lady Pink now works with schools to teach and inspire young artists. She runs her own mural painting company, and her work appears in gallery and museum shows. Of her work with children she says, “The purpose of graffiti is to maintain the spirit of rebellion in society. It’s important that young artists are questioning the status quo and thinking outside the box.”

Mickey, now a primary school teacher and mother who paints commissioned murals and offers a brand of baby T-shirts, plans to devote her time solely to art.

“I don’t make controversial art or art with a political message. My art has many children’s themes. It brings me joy.” Reflecting on graffiti, she says, “...there is a thin line between graffiti viewed as art or vandalism. To me graffiti’s colourful pieces are never vandalism. Vandalism is wrecking something on purpose just for the heck of it. But graffiti is different. It is painting your name for others to see ... to make the city look better. I think graffiti has become a folk art, like quilting or aboriginal art....”

Still, says Lady Pink, graffiti art is “the extreme sport.” Writers seek the thrill and excitement that comes with writing on forbidden spaces. “To decriminalise it would take all the fun out of it!”

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