The feminine side of graffiti

Street art

The feminine  side of graffiti

A TV advertisement about a teenage graffiti artist who “has what it takes” to succeed in life had begun to irritate me because of its frequency. But it also reminded me of an article I’d written a while back about women graffiti artists. That piece helped me think differently about graffiti.

In 2011, when I wrote the story on the rise of graffiti art, The New York Times reported that “a bumper crop of scrawls (was) blossoming.” Debates ensued about the causes and definitions of “urban blight” and whether or not the surge reflected growing “anxiety and alienation” in urban areas. There was also debate about whether or not the “glamorisation of graffiti” through museum exhibitions showcasing pop culture was at fault.

Whatever caused the surge, writing on walls, or graffiti, has existed since people first drew images on cave walls. 

Form of communication

Some researchers view graffiti as “a form of communication that is both personal and free of everyday social restraints,” according to academic Jane Gadsby. Others view it as a childish prank, or vandalism. Whatever it’s called, graffiti has been attracting growing attention among art critics, cultural anthropologists and gender experts.

Among graffiti artists making their mark are women like Lady Pink, Mickey, Swoon and Claw, all of whom are internationally recognised as founders of a sisterhood who have contributed to the evolving movement of aerosol art and culture.

In his book Graffiti Women: Street Art from Five Continents, Nicholas Ganz revealed the work of numerous women artists. The preface by Nancy Macdonald, author of The Graffiti Subculture, is telling. Male writers, Macdonald wrote, work to prove they are masculine while female writers strive to prove they are artists. The male occupies “a sphere that grants him a presence, a competitive force and an opportunity to be recognised. That sphere (is) a much harder place for a woman to occupy.” 

Perhaps that’s why the gendered exploration of graffiti has often led researchers to restrooms, where women have felt free and physically safe to write. As Jane 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.

“Initially the act of writing was a gesture of activism, a sign of rebellion,” Lady Pink, a New York City graffiti artist, said. “Graffiti gave me strength and built my character. I started out shy and quiet, but found I had a voice, I had something to say.”

A free form

Mickey, who lives in Amsterdam, also started writing early and saw her work as “a rebellious way to visually express (herself) artistically.” She saw it as a form of communication with the public. “Graffiti contributed to my life in that I was able to become a free human being with a free spirit.”

In the early days, when writing took place surreptitiously at night on train lines, being a female graffiti artist was challenging and fraught with danger. Subject not just to ridicule but to violence by male writers as well as to police harassment, women writers took risks. Lady Pink recalled that “running around underground as a female was hugely dangerous. I had to disguise myself as a guy and try not to stand out… Guys didn’t want to believe that I was doing my own work. I had to paint with different groups of writers to prove myself. Like any woman, I had to work twice as hard to get equal treatment.”

Lady Pink now works with schools teaching and inspiring young artists. She runs her own mural painting company. Of her work with children, she says, “It’s important that young artists are questioning the status quo and thinking outside the box. Who wrote the laws that art belongs inside galleries and must be seen in silence? Why not on the street where everyone can do it?”

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