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Graffiti—Women Artists Make Their Mark

| July 26, 2011

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Lady Pink's work now appears in galleries and museums.

With Banksy's documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop" nominated for a 2010 Oscar and recent reports in the New York Times, street art is in the news. Elayne Clift explores the perspective of women graffiti artists.

Graffiti art is on the rise according to a recent report in The New York Times.  “A bumper crop of scrawls is blossoming” from Alabama to Oregon, setting off debates about causes and definitions. Is it a form of “urban blight” that reflects “anxiety and alienation” as a result of the lingering recession?  Do museum exhibitions that showcase pop culture encourage the “glamorization of graffiti”?

Whatever is causing the surge, writing on walls, or graffiti—from the Italian “graffito,” meaning scratchings—has existed since people first drew images on cave walls.  Condemned as vandalism or dismissed as a childish prank by some, Canadian academic Jane Gadsby describes graffiti as "a form of communication that is both personal and free of everyday social restraints.” It has attracted growing attention among art critics, cultural anthropologists and gender experts as well.

Among graffiti artists making their mark around the world are such women as Mickey, from the Netherlands, and Lady Pink, born in Ecuador and raised in New York City—both interviewed for this article. They, along with two other New York-based artists, Swoon and Claw, are internationally recognized as founders of a sisterhood within the evolving movement of aerosol art and culture.

Nicholas Ganz, in his 2006 book Graffiti Women: Street Art from Five Continents, documents the international nature of that sisterhood. In a preface, Nancy Macdonald (author of her own book, The Graffiti Subculture) writes that a male street-writer occupies "a sphere that grants him a presence, a competitive force and an opportunity to be recognized. 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 safe to write.  As Gadsby points out, “it’s the ultimate place to purge, a private, safe space for women, a refuge.” Researchers Edward Bruner and Jane Kelso noted that female “latrinalia” graffiti is more interactive and interpersonal than the graffiti found in male lavatories.  They observed that while men tend to write about their sexual prowess, women deal with relationships.

“Initially the act of writing was a gesture of activism, a sign of rebellion,” says Lady Pink. “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.” Only later did she realize that she was creating feminist art by conveying injustice and showing women as heroines and role models instead of victims.

Mickey saw her early street-writing as “a rebellious way to visually express [herself] artistically,”  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.  It taught me many life lessons and helped me through difficult times.”

In the early days, when writing took place surreptitiously at night on train lines, being a female graffiti artist meant risking ridicule and occasional violence by male writers and police harassment. Lady Pink recalls that “running around underground as a female was hugely dangerous.  I had to disguise myself as a guy and try not to stand out. … The police would 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.  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 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, “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?”

Mickey, who now paints commissioned murals, says “I like to create something that makes viewers feel happy.  I don’t make controversial art or art with a political message.” Of graffiti, she reflects, “Just like there’s a thin line between love and hate, there is a thin line between graffiti viewed as art or vandalism.  To me graffiti’s colorful 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.”

The graffiti art scene is changing, the artists say.  Women feel safer and report fewer legal problems. Still, says Lady Pink, “Writers seek the excitement that comes with writing on forbidden spaces. To decriminalize it would take all the fun out of it!”

[Image 2: Dutch artist Mickey says graffiti has become a "folk art."]

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