B-Girl Event Celebrates Women in Hip Hop
In San Diego last month, b-girls and graffiti artists danced and painted their way into what is generally an all-male world.
In a dusty yard divided by long, plywood panels thick with layers of paint, over a dozen women staked out their spots. Visitors walking up and down the rows watched as each artist’s individual style emerged: complex, angular lettering here, a flowing abstract design there, bold round text just around the corner. Embellished with everything from large, whimsical cupcakes that bookended the work of one artist to the sweeping, delicate flourishes of another, each piece was both statement and self-portrait.
They had gathered for Writerz Blok’s first B-Girl BBQ, which drew graffiti artists, DJs, emcees, and b-girls from as far away as San Francisco and Brazil. One of the few known local events of its kind to showcase women in the hip hop community, Writerz Blok – an urban art center for youth in southeastern San Diego – hopes it will spark interest in creating mentoring opportunities for women and girls.
Sergio Gonzalez, a staff member at Writerz Blok, said it’s mostly boys and young men who participate in their programs. While the staff – all men – has been able to mentor and relate to the personal experiences that brought many of the guys to them, they’ve found it more challenging to provide a similar experience for the few young women who do drop in. “We’d like to work with the women in the community to create a program that can offer that, with workshops led by women artists and events like this that celebrate their achievements.”
As the relaxed crowd built throughout the afternoon, they gathered around the dance floor where b-girls and b-boys warmed up to battle and a lineup of DJs spun an eclectic mix of beats. DJ Pnutz, who teaches her craft and recently produced her first album, got her start when she asked for turntables as a high school graduation gift. She said that hip hop, DJing, and producing can be a boy’s club. “I personally have never felt intimidated because of that. It motivates me; maybe it’s because of growing up being a bit of a tomboy. Sometimes I think that guys don't take me seriously at first: they just see another girl DJ. I have to prove to them that I'm just as good and not just doing this ‘cause my boyfriend got me into it. I can carry my own gear, I can set up my own decks, I can be totally independent.”
“It’s beautiful to see all the women at the event,” said b-girl Zoul, who began breaking at 13. Now a dance teacher at an elementary school, she and her battle partner, Akie, drove down from Los Angeles to compete. “It’s awesome that it’s geared towards women – that the focus is on us being acknowledged for our part in the hip hop community and that our contributions are being put out there.”
With aerosol can in hand, Irie punctuated a lime-green backdrop with careful strokes of bright purple paint. Her interest in graffiti began in the mid-1990s when she became inspired by her brother’s drawings. “One day I took one of his sketches to school and kids went bananas! They loved it, admired it, but most of all they respected it. I thought to myself, ‘I want to be a writer one day.’” Five years later she attended her first graffiti art show and was instantly hooked by the skill, discipline, and honor she found. For Irie, the B-Girl BBQ was a place where women could be recognized “not for the typical glitz and glam of the outward appearance, but for skills which can be attained regardless of economic status, race, body type, or whatever pop culture may deem to be ‘valuable.’”
At another wall, Unique periodically stepped back to examine her lettering. While her love of graffiti began in her teens, it took another 14 years before she picked up her first can. “I didn’t know anyone in the scene in San Diego,” she said. As she began finding and attending events on her own, Unique soon met artists who encouraged her and have since become her mentors. After missing out for so many years, she eagerly invites others to grab a can and get started. “You’ll never know you can do it if you never try it yourself.”
While the number of b-girls who signed up to battle for prize money was smaller than hoped for, the competition included a glimpse of the future when a fearless young girl took the floor and held her own. Zoul believes that, much like sports, exposure to b-girling and opportunities to learn at a young age could encourage more girls to participate.
When asked for her advice to girls and women who want to pursue graffiti art, Irie's response was, “Practice, practice, practice. It takes self-discipline and sacrifice to develop yourself as a respected artist. There are so many challenges women have to face in any field dominated by men, but as the phrase goes, ‘real recognize real.’”
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