We begin our series of stories for the GraFEM blog with writer DEE282, the first woman in Slovenia to spray paint subcultural graffiti. She painted her first graffiti on a non-authorised wall at the age of twenty-one and was a member of Ljubljana’s Guten Tag Crew for a number of years. In the mid-1990s, when she was starting out in her career, she was not just the first female graffiti artist in Slovenia. At the time, DEE282 was also the only one.
Up to this day, she remains one of the few female Slovenian writers whose works are preserved. Although somewhat faded now, some of her graffiti in underpasses and on the walls of abandoned buildings still stand out thanks to their ‘old school’ style and use of green, blue, red and black. DEE282 says she opted for graffiti just because she enjoyed it, and that the smell and sound of a spray still give her goosebumps.
She was still a teenager when she first started sketching in notebooks. She recalls the way things were when she was 15 or 16 years old: “Because there was no internet at the time, I couldn’t look for advice online or learn from the masters. The only way we graffiti writers were able to gain any knowledge at all was through the occasional foreign magazine that found its way into our hands, but that hardly ever happened,” she says.
A friend from Los Angeles once sent her two of his sketches, and on trips abroad she often looked at the graffiti on the walls and learned by observation. When she later travelled to America to work, she met some more people who painted. “They encouraged me to keep doing what I loved. That’s how my graffiti journey really began. When I returned to Slovenia, I got my first commission. A colleague asked me to spray paint graffiti in her room, and two days later I went out onto the street.” She smiles as she recalls her humble beginnings. Since her family had never approved of graffiti art, she did not tell her parents in any detail what she was doing or where she was going. “I usually just told them I was going out, took a bagful of sprays and went to the location,” she says.
Adrenaline-charged night-time actions
There weren’t many young people in Slovenia doing graffiti in the 1990s. “The first one I encountered was a writer I met in the Mavrica (Rainbow) paint shop. We were both circling around the shelves of spray cans and giving each other puzzled looks, but then we got talking,” she remembers. “Then I joined the crew, and we painted together for a while under the name GTC – Guten Tag Crew.”
She was accepted into the team of young graffiti enthusiasts. “I told the group which graffiti I had done and what I had painted. They didn’t make me go through an initiation process, and I never had to do anything special to prove myself,” she says proudly. The crew spray painted both legally, during the day, and illegally, usually at night. Their night-time actions – along the highway, in subways, or similarly risky locations – were especially adrenaline-charged. “For me, it was a real war of nerves,” she admits.
True, she and her crew had to run from the cops a few times, but the men in blue never caught them. DEE282 says she has always been very focused when working. “A police officer could have tapped me on the shoulder, and I wouldn’t even have realized what was going on,” she says with a smile. And exactly that’s what happened on one occasion. “It was like this – I was just about to sign my name on this wall when two police vans stopped nearby. I had a hood over my head, and when I removed it, the policeman was so shocked to find it was a girl he’d caught in the act that he just told me to find something else to do with my time and to ‘piss off’. The fact I was a woman probably saved me from getting into trouble.” The memory makes her smile even more.
DEE282 has never had any horrible experiences while out spray painting. However, she does remember one unpleasant situation that she found herself in while she was painting on the wall of an abandoned factory at night: “This bizarre guy started walking around. It was scary. I hid in the bushes and waited to see what would happen. The creepiest thing about it was that I was there on my own in the middle of the night.”
After that, she always called on friends from the neighbourhood to protect her while she was out, doing illegal graffiti. “These guys weren’t writers themselves, just friends from the local area. They sacrificed themselves to guard me. They huddled around me and kept watch so that no one would see what I was doing.”
The only female
She only ever had male writers around her. “I never met any other female writers,” she says. “It never bothered me to be surrounded by boys, and I never wondered why there weren’t any other girls at the graffiti actions.” Gender has never been an issue for her. “I just painted because I enjoyed it. I did hear somewhere that another girl in Slovenia was painting, but I never met her. Maybe because graffiti was illegal, it just seemed too dangerous for young girls, who knows?”
Her girlfriends never showed any interest in joining her either. “Maybe they couldn’t be bothered to walk around with me looking for suitable walls,” she reflects. At first, some writers who didn’t know her very well thought her spray painting was just a fad. “But they soon realised I was serious about it and wasn’t just doing it to look cool. Their reactions varied at first. I told some of them what my tag was, and they were mostly really positive – enthusiastic, even,” she says proudly. However, she adds that there was another writer, one she hadn’t met before, who started teasing and making fun of her in quite a chauvinistic way while she was painting.
Over the years, however, as graffiti has gradually become more socially acceptable, perceptions of gender within the subculture have also begun to change. “These days, we graffiti women may get a bit more attention, mainly just because there are so few of us, but otherwise there are no real differences between the male writers and us. Graffiti women have just as good a sense of space and perspective as the men do, so we know how to paint a motif onto a large surface from a sketch. So to any women who want to become writers and are good at drawing, I say – go for it!”
From translators to theologians
“In my day [the mid-1990s], you knew exactly what other crews were out there. If we were ever working on joint projects, we always collaborated nicely. There was never any bad blood between us. We were all studying very different subjects at university, so we were an interesting bunch – translators, theologians, mathematicians and so on. Interestingly, though, none of us was studying art. It was mainly just the graffiti that brought us together,” says the eloquent Ljubljana-based writer.
She says she has never been overly concerned with what this urban subculture is or should be. “Everyone involved in graffiti knew that hip hop music and dance were part of it too. All the same, some of us, myself included, listened to completely different kinds of music and did things that weren’t really part of the subculture,” she says firmly. “Although I never thought about graffiti in sociological or cultural terms, I did notice that it was slowly starting to transition from illegal to legal. The subculture is becoming more and more accepted, and at times it even feels almost too mainstream. All this has led to the breaking of various unwritten rules and principles.”
Unwritten street rules
When DEE282 was starting out, she didn’t tell anyone where she was painting. “My graffiti looked ugly,” she says. “But then I started improving. It was important to me that the final result on the wall was as close as possible to the sketch I’d made. I was increasingly satisfied with my work. For me, quality has always been more important than quantity. I never liked those quickly executed graffiti with no content.” Whenever she and her crew painted on non-authorised walls, she adds, they always went back after a while to see how their work looked in daylight.
“I have always been happy with my work. I thought what I did looked good,” says DEE282, whose graffiti generally consisted of certain words that held particular significance for her at the time. “I usually painted characters from my favourite cartoons or comics next to them. I often used to invent characters of my own, too, and then add a favourite quote from a movie, book or song.” She likes to point out that she always used ‘non-feminine’ colours – red, black, green and blue – and only resorted to pastel shades when she had run out of the others. She and her crew mostly graffitied in various Ljubljana neighbourhoods (Šiška, Bežigrad, Zalog, etc.), but they also travelled around Slovenia and left their mark there too. It is still possible to find three or four of her graffiti in Ljubljana.
“Some of them have been on those walls for years – one of them, at least, has been there for 18 years, to my certain knowledge,” she says with pride. The fact that her graffiti has survived intact for so long might suggest other writers still respect her, but she is not entirely convinced that the old rules of the street still hold as they once did. “When I was painting on old factories and walls with the crew, we had some basic rules. It was forbidden to desecrate monuments or façades or to spray paint over another writer’s work. We even excluded one group member because he’d painted on a façade. We had total respect for the unwritten rules. When it comes to the younger generation’s writers, I have no idea what they respect or disrespect, or what kind of rules they have, so it’s hard to say why some of my graffiti has remained almost intact. Interestingly, a few weeks ago, I discovered that someone had painted across one of my graffiti. They’d painted a shapeless blob right over it. Probably not for any particular reason – just because they could.”
Damaged sinuses and greater self-confidence
Today, DEE282 no longer spray paints illegal graffiti. “If the cops caught me, I could lose my job,” she says frankly. “But I create workshops for children, and I still like to accept invitations from clients wanting to hire me for projects. It has even happened that they wanted to hire me just because I am a female writer. That was really fantastic! And I still like it when I have a blank wall to work with, and the client trusts me. That way, I have total freedom and enough time to create something good. The final product is always much better that way than when you have to produce something in a hurry.” Doing graffiti has become very popular over the years. “If you’re good at it, you can earn very well with your work. A work of art is a work of art, so it’s only right to pay for it, even if it is in the form of graffiti.”
She has never overthought why she chose graffiti. “I just loved painting,” she says with a shrug. “It was very simple – I took the spray cans and just went out there and created graffiti.” Back then, they were still spray painting without masks. Her damaged sinuses will forever remind her of those adventurous, exciting, and creative graffiti days. Yet doing graffiti also brought lots of people, with whom she clicked, into her life. “I was part of a group, and we had fun, and we were doing what made us happy. I probably also gained a bit more confidence because I’d found something I was good at. Even now, I still like making sketches or just picking up a spray can and repainting a small cupboard or something to relax and chill out from daily life.”
Text and cover image by Mankica Kranjec
Translated by Gregor Bulc
GraFEM is a co-production of Urbana Vrana Institute and RogLab.