When a street piece catches your eye do you ever stop to think: was that done by a man or a woman?
No survey has tallied the exact number of men versus women street artists, but since its beginning, the major names in New York graf were male. Taggers took on dangerous—often illegal—and arduous physical activities for the sake of getting their names on trains, billboards, and freeway underpasses. As graffiti evolved into street art, so did its expressions of rugged individualism and daring, macho spontaneity.
Women stand out for being a part of this, but addressing "female street artists" becomes a contentious issue. On one hand, it’s important to note gender because female artists are a minority group in the field. On the other hand, the very term places gender before the identity—and quality—of the artist. It goes without saying, that the more important factor is the work of the artist—not whether they are male or female.
I decided to ask some of the women working in the game how they feel about all this. The label doesn’t bother Los Angeles-based Christina Angelina, who sees it as part of a bigger picture. “As long as our society continues to classify things by gender, then that’s just gonna happen,” said Angelina. “It’ll just be a matter of when people as a whole get over doing that. I don’t think it’s gonna happen any time soon. Until then I have no issue with it.”
Christina Angelina and Ease One, 2014 via Creative Commons
Yet she has definitely noticed more women emerging in this world and hopes “that continues to grow exponentially.” Personally, Angelina recalls positive experiences when painting in the street.
The "street art" label is able to galvanize debates around art and can often feed social media frenzies. The streets can be a ruthless environment for any artist—murals are painted over within days, wheatpastes are ripped off the wall, and toys often spray right over their competition. Artist peers are often the toughest crowds to please, and they aren't necessarily always welcoming of newcomers in their terrain. Women who have typically been objectified or stereotyped by the culture.
Street art can be a powerful conduit for any kind of image: after all, big scale makes a big impact. So the manner in which the female body gets treated in street art proves significant. While some street art pieces can objectify women—depicting them with pouty lips and prominent cleavage that echoes the "sex sells" imagery of advertising—they can also serve to empower and celebrate the female body and identity. JR’s Women are Heroes project payed homage to the women of Brazil. Many artists, male and female, are keen too to pay homage to female beauty and sexuality.
Lady Aiko via Creative Commons
Other artists like Swoon, Bambi (often referred to as "the female Banksy," a thorny accoloade in itself), and Miss Van have risen above the challenges of machismo and sexism in graf, gaining worldwide recognition—without using their own body image to succeed. They also choose women as the central subject of their work, but the outcome is quite different. Swoon, who works primarily with wheatpaste, often addresses women social issues, such as the murder of women in Juarez, Mexico. Lady Aiko merges Japanese aesthetics with American styles—many of her murals portray the female figure in bursts of color and femininity—while Miss Van paints busty, enigmatic, masked figures who do not conform to the rigid requisite of beauty we often see in visual culture nowadays.
Pang via Creative Commons
What their work demonstrates is that while there is nothing inherently female about women's street style, the female body and contemporary mural culture do intersect in significant ways. Portrayals of the female body, like those of Lady Aiko, give a broader perspective of women; meanwhile other female artists, such as UK-based artist PANG, shun this feminine edge altogether.
Yet it’s undeniable that female street artists still face challenges. Allison Torneros, aka Hueman, knows this firsthand as she oftentimes paints late into the night. She keeps pepper spray on hand, and during one painting session, she remembers men stopping and checking on her. In the past, some male artists asked to paint with her, only to then make salacious comments on her appearance.
“That’s why women have to be on guard and we do try to put up a tougher front because we do deal with bullshit like that just being a woman in general,” said Torneros. “We get that shit on the daily from random dudes so we don’t wanna have to deal with that in the street art world.”
Torneros finds that her supporters and opportunities are simply results of the work speaking for itself. “I don’t think it has too much to do with gender,” said Torneros. “It’s just about making people take you seriously, but if your art is good enough and it shows, there’s not much proving you have to do.”
But some artists take a different approach to gender, embracing it more fully. Girl Mobb, for instance, highlights her gender unapologetically: “Girl Mobb is a higher ideal,” Girl Mobb, also known as Nina Wright, wrote in an email to me. “A liberating, high pitched squeal of excitement.”
Girl Mobb via Creative Commons
She also encounters some less-than-pleasant experiences when painting at night but says “you don’t let these things bother you.” When asked about whether the Oakland street art scene welcomes female artists, she pointed out that the street art scene is different, more democratic. “It’s still the street, it’s for anyone and anyone can do it, no one’s going to greet you at the wall, it just takes initiative,” Wright wrote. “It’s what separates itself from the fine art world. You don't need permission.”
Some female artists are connecting to create gender soldiarity: inspiring the creation of all-female group likes Murals and Girls, which boasts more than 300 members from around the world. The group works with communities to set up commercial and residential spaces for female street artists to paint. “We saw a need to focus specifically on female artists as the spotlight had been previously only focused on the males,” wrote co-founder Sarah Throckmorton in an email. “The moment we did so, our movement took off instantly and has continued to build momentum daily.”
Similarly, Few and Far celebrates the talent of women artists from a variety of backgrounds. The organization started when Founder and Organizer Meme—a self-taught graffiti artist and skateboarder—painted a mural in Oakland with 17 other female artists. The group, comprised of artists and skaters, often puts on all-girl skate jams, too.
“If your heart is in it, Few and Far will recognize you,” said Meme. “That’s the encouragement we want to show women and girls.” She hopes the group will foster even more support amongst female artists. “What happens in society with women is we're quick to judge or put each other down instead of trying to uplift or encourage each other,” said Meme. “If we were encouraging each other our society as a whole would grow.”
Meme, Hops & 179 via Creative Commons
Allison Torneros notes that the worlds of graffiti and street art focus specifically on marking territory. While the street art and graffiti game may have begun as a show of machismo by daring men, women are now prominent players too. In many ways, the street is also the most democratic art space. Audience and peer reaction rather than any kind of industry validation is what makes or breaks an artist; the risk is part of it all.
With groups like Few and Far and Murals and Girls, gender becomes the operating mechanism for a strong connection between artists with divergent backgrounds and aesthetic approaches. The creation of both groups resulted from the awareness of street art as a male-dominated scene and the stigmatized position of women; but their existence seems predicated on much more than holding their own against the boys.
Image on top: Lush, via Creative Commons