Recently, Urbana Vrana Institute and RogLab have started a special programme to encourage the creation of graffiti and street art by women. Called GraFEM (the name combines the “gra” from “graffiti” and the “fem” from “female”), it aims to empower female graffiti and street artists and promote women’s graffiti and street art culture.
Incidentally, linguistics uses a very similar-sounding word, grapheme, to denote the smallest functional unit in a writing system, such as a letter or a logogram. So we could say that a grapheme is also the fundamental element of graffiti, since modern graffiti art emerged from the artistic drawing, reshaping and stylisation of letters.
But why is GraFEM focusing specifically on promoting women’s graffiti and street art culture, rather than graffiti and street art culture in general, regardless of gender? This is indeed an important question, but before we can answer it we must first touch upon the wider cultural and social context and also delve a little into the past.
When you read or watch the testimonies of the first female graffiti and street artists, you cannot help noticing that there were very few of them. You could say they were almost like hens’ teeth. Take Lady Pink, the first acclaimed female “writer” (i.e. subcultural graffiti artist) in New York, for instance. She started doing graffiti in 1979, some ten years after the first graffiti pioneers, and has memorably said that at that point there was only one female graffiti artist on the scene – herself. In 1982 she starred in the cult film Wild Style and eventually, through her paintings in both private and illegal contexts as well as for galleries, became a role model for generations of female graffiti artists. Today her works can be found in numerous museum collections, and she has become a respected street teacher who is often invited to take part in discussions and round-table sessions.
The first proper female writer in Slovenia, Dee282, was also the only woman on the scene for a long time, even though she only started doing graffiti in 1995. “I was told there was another woman doing graffiti, but I never met her,” she said in an interview for issue number 231/232 of magazine Časopis za kritiko znanosti (ČKZ). In fact, she never met or painted with any other female writer, other than a few participants in some graffiti workshops she led.
Female graffiti and street artists have always been rare. The first serious ethnographic study into the reasons for this was conducted by Nancy Macdonald, who analysed perceptions of masculinity among graffiti artists and published the first major feminist critique of the graffiti subculture. More than twenty years after the first female writers had begun their careers, Macdonald’s book, The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York (2001), showed just how exclusive, cliquey and chauvinistic the world of graffiti artists really was (in those two cities, at least). Female graffiti artists wanting to enter the scene not only had to overcome the usual obstacles, but also had to contend with mansplaining, misogyny and sexual harassment.
All the same, many of them persisted and became increasingly appreciated from year to year, enjoying a good reputation among men and women alike. The first major international tribute to these girls and women – effectively their consecration as artists – took the form of a book by Nicholas Ganz, Graffiti Women: Street Art from Five Continents (2006), which presented 125 female graffiti and street artists, some of them previously unknown, others already cult artists such as Mickey from Amsterdam and Lady Pink and Swoon from New York. Nancy Macdonald (see above) and Swoon each wrote a foreword for the book.
In 2015, Ganz wrote on his blog that, almost a decade after its release, the Graffiti Women collection had become obsolete and that he therefore welcomed the release of All City Queens: Women in Street Art & Graffiti (2015), a new photographic anthology of women’s graffiti by the British female writer Syrup, who had spent years collecting material for it. In addition to interviews with renowned artists such as Mickey, Lady Pink and Claw, the book also brims over with “new” female artists from all over the world.
If you are not a fan of thick compendiums of women’s graffiti art, you may find it easier to get to know this type of art through film. Over the last five years, festival audiences have been delighted by at least three documentaries on women’s graffiti and street art, all of them well worth watching. Possibly the least accessible of them is All She Wrote Anthology, a 2016 film by the Canadian director Idaline Leandro, who interviewed a large number of female graffiti artists from North and South America. Then there is Girl Power, a 2016 documentary by the female Czech writer Sany, which she claims is “the first ever documentary about women’s graffiti” and which follows her over the course of seven years as she meets numerous female street artists from cities around the world, from Moscow to New York and from Cape Town to Kabul and Sydney.
The most recent, and in production terms most professional, documentary on this topic is the 2019 film, Street Heroines. It features many renowned female graffiti artists from both past and present, showing their situations in a realistic light. Nearly two decades after Nancy Macdonald’s feminist critique of the graffiti subculture, this film still tells a similar story. Despite all the efforts to exclude them, women are still trying to become part of the subculture, one way or another: if not as graffiti artists, then as photographers, gallerists, or curators. The film also features Martha Cooper, who with Henry Chalfant co-authored Subway Art (1984), a book often considered to be the graffiti bible; she is still one of the most respected graffiti photographers and experts today. “I think there’s been some resistance on the part of men to allowing women to join, and it has to do with comradery, too,” she says. “It’s not that they’re saying, ‘You can’t do it’ – they’re just sort of not allowing them into their inner group.”
Slovenian graffiti artist Dee282 had an easier time of it with her male counterparts, but she still could not escape dismissive remarks and underestimation on the part of men. “On one occasion two guys started provoking me, but I always ignore that kind of person. When I painted a man’s name on a wall, one of them started teasing me: ‘Ooh, look who’s in love.’ Twice it happened that some men came by and asked me things like, ‘What are you trying to do here?’ or ‘You need some help, sweetheart?’ (…) They underestimate you. But once you start painting, they see that you know what you’re doing. Oh yes, once I was just finishing a piece and some guy, another writer, came along making really rude remarks along the lines that anyone seemed to be allowed to doodle on walls these days. That time I yelled at him and told him to f**k off.” (ČKZ , issue 231/232).
But neither underestimation nor misogyny has been able to stop female graffiti artists on their path to self-expression. They have persisted and remained on the graffiti scene, many of them achieving the very peak of graffiti and street art creativity. Lately, articles with titles such as “5 Women Street Artists Who Are Better Than Banksy” or “Forget Men, Here are the World’s 10 Best Women Street Artists” have started appearing in the popular international media. While there may seem nothing wrong with such lists at first glance, graffiti art seems to have become yet another field where women need to prove that “we can do it too”. Just as with physical labour, or the military, or football, in graffiti, too, women are finding it necessary to emphasise just how high they can climb, how fast they can run, and how well equipped they are to endure pain and fear.
The journalists writing these articles certainly emphasise those abilities, because female graffiti artists really do possess them. In the ČKZ interview referred to above, Dee282 said that she really enjoyed beating men at graffiti: “It’s just like in sports. When you beat a guy, it makes you feel better deep down. It’s still ingrained in our minds that there are some things we women just can’t do as well, even if it’s not true.” In a certain, rather narrow sense, features on female graffiti artists who are as good as, or even better than, their male counterparts certainly are progressive and empowering. If nothing else, they help provide role models for girls who are just coming onto the scene. But such articles generally fail to address the ingrained social conditions and power relations that lead to the under-representation of women in graffiti and street art. Of course some women can do everything that male writers can do, sometimes even more; but it does not follow that most women feel safe when creating art on the streets. It does not follow that women are not objectified, sexually harassed or even assaulted by passers-by and fellow graffiti artists.
As with the proverbial path to hell, the path to the reproduction of the patriarchy is paved with good intentions: the good intentions, for instance, of those who seek to show that a handful of women can be as good as, or even better than, men when it comes to graffiti. Despite the achievements of a small number of female graffiti artists who have made it to the top, at the system level graffiti is still a male domain: a space dominated by men. Chauvinism is certainly one of the reasons for this, but it is far from being the only one. The main obstacle is that female graffiti and street art creators simply cannot feel as safe in our society as men do.
In her ČKZ interview, Slovenian graffiti artist Dee 282 said, “If you’re a guy, it’s probably easier to be out at night than if you’re a woman. I wasn’t afraid to walk around alone at night in my neighbourhood. But once when I went to paint a wall, some guy suddenly appeared out of the dark, from a field, and I didn’t know what he would do to me. I was really scared, so I ran into the field and lay down in the snow and waited for him to go away, whoever he was.” Female graffiti artists can recount hundreds of experiences like this. Simply listing the best female graffiti artists in the popular media does not seem to do much to improve the situation or reduce women’s fear of street violence.
System change does not happen overnight: it will be a long time before the media start talking about female graffiti artists without focusing on their gender, or only talk about their gender if the graffiti artist explores the subject in her work. For now, the idea of gender blindness in graffiti criticism sounds positively utopian. That may change in the future, but until it does, female street artists and graffiti artists (along with their allies, male or female, in film, photography, galleries, the civil service and other supportive professions) will have no choice but to keep coming up with feminist strategies to allow them to live and work more safely. Female graffiti artists around the world have been deploying these strategies for the last forty years to fight exclusion, misogyny and violence in all its forms.
The most basic strategy is to avoid danger in the streets. This often means avoiding illegal creativity altogether, which also means having lower status in the dominant (i.e. male-dominated) graffiti subculture. Many girls – regardless of their status – soon abandon their zeal for illegal spraying and seek the safety of commissioned murals and legal graffiti. Even Dee282 switched to legal graffiti soon after graduating from college, as she did not want to risk losing her job as a teacher on the basis of her police record.
One important strategy to counter chauvinism and physical danger is to team up with others in all-female graffiti crews. Girls and women have been doing this ever since 1980, when Lady Pink founded her first all-female graffiti crew, Ladies of the Arts (LOTA). The trend continued, and numerous other groups were set up. These included the well-known UK group, Girls On Top, which has been around since 2000 and boasts Syrup, author of All City Queens, as a member.
“There’s a different dynamic that happens when women get together and paint or build or create something,” says another legendary female writer, TooFly, in the documentary Street Heroines. According to a fifteen-year study of women graffiti artists conducted by Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón and published in the 2018 book, Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora, the creation of this kind of group and the establishment of safe spaces for women are two important features of the modern women’s graffiti movement.
Even though most female graffiti artists do not think of themselves as feminists, they still live as feminists, says Pabón-Colón. They are all about the practice of feminism, not the theory of it. They do not talk about feminism, they just do it. They do not necessarily depict feminism in their graffiti, but they do live feminist lives. They do this by creating safe community spaces, whether online or on the streets, where they come together in all-female crews and organise all-female events. This makes them feel stronger and safer.
While we at Urbana Vrana Institute and RogLab try to identify the reasons why societal change is so painfully slow, perhaps promoting these kinds of women’s strategies is the best we can do in the here and now to reduce the patriarchal pressures on female graffiti artists and street artists. We do not want to fall into the ideological and practical trap of celebrating exceptional female graffiti artists, nor do we intend to become entangled in the exclusivity of macho, alpha-male graffiti networks. Rather, we are seeking to establish a progressive programme to give women better access to safe public spaces and allow them to work creatively in a strong female community.
RogLab has been providing this kind of safe space and strong female community for several years now. As many as 70% of RogLab users are women, which is unique among European technology organisations. The combination of RogLab’s experience in promoting women’s participation in an area dominated by men and Urbana Vrana Institute’s understanding of graffiti and street art emboldened us to set up a programme that will hopefully invigorate women’s graffiti and street art in Slovenia. More specifically, GraFEM will regularly host women from Slovenia and abroad who will cover the entire RogLab building with their graffiti or street art. Additionally, GraFEM will produce the GraFEM blog and hold educational workshops, discussions and graffiti tours, which will hopefully foster reflection on the role of women in the graffiti and street art scene, both in Slovenia and beyond.
How many female writers and street artists do you know in your area? Slovenia’s female graffiti artists can currently be counted on the fingers of one hand. And most of them are “retired” anyway. Once we have reached the point where everyone can name at least ten female writers and street artists in Slovenia – artists who are not only working illegally, but also in a range of lawful artistic and educational fields – then the GraFEM programme will have achieved its goal. Until then, we will zealously promote the female branch of graffiti and street art culture. And you are very welcome to join us.
Text by Meta Štular & Gregor Bulc
Cover image by Branko Čeak featuring Nez Pez.
GraFEM is a co-production of Urbana Vrana Institute and RogLab.