She walks down the alley. Her hand’s in her bag, fingers gripped around her brush. She finds the wall. Kneels, unrolls her handmade poster. Quick swipe of paste on the paper, another on the wall. The poster goes up, then she uses her bare hands to smooth the surface, fingers pressing the paper into cracks. Car lights splash. She turns her face away. Another quick layer of paste once the car is gone, then she’s off: brush in the bag, hat over her eyes. Back in the car, she cleans her hands without turning on a light. Sticks the brush in a baggie. Turns the radio up, checks the clock. 2 a.m.
It’s just another night in the life of a graffiti girl.
Graffiti has evolved from the tags of Taki 183 and Cornbread, which were remarkable in 1960s New York and Philadelphia, respectively, for their sheer abundance, and the bravado of the kids risking life, limb and arrest to get their name up.
Now on the street, you’re just as likely to see “masterpieces” as you are to see tagged names or initials. Today’s street art encompasses posters, paste-ups, altered advertisements, sculptures made of plastic bags, guerilla knitting and gardening.
And more and more, street art is the dominion of women. Elle recently ran a piece profiling female graffiti artists in New York. The New York Times published an essay proclaiming graffiti by women as an important tool of social justice, citing women’s street art during the Arab Spring.
Graffiti girls are having their moment. But for female graffiti writers, it’s about much more than a shift in popular attention. For women who make street art, graffiti is not a “movement” as the Elle article declared; it’s a lifestyle, a way of seeing and altering the world—and women are creating it for their own reasons whether anyone is paying attention or not.
Oakland, California artist and poet Angela Simione turned to street art as a reaction to the death of artist David Wojnarowicz, and the anniversary of her mother’s death. One night, she saw a white couch abandoned on the street: “I looked at it and thought, “That’s a nice, big canvas…” I kept walking but I kept thinking about the couch… I got about two blocks away and then turned around.”
Simione wrote a Wojnarowicz quote on the couch. “I needed to know I was alive and the only way to know it was to write,” she says. “Out in the open and on the street. The only way to know it was to say something.”
Artist Stephanie Rond of Columbus, Ohio, started making graffiti in 2007. After joining an artists’ collective, which included several male graffiti artists, she became “interested in the [graffiti] process and the male dominance of it.”
More than a movement, graffiti is a subculture with specific rules, terms and traditions—and some of them are male-centric. The language can be ostracizing: “domming,” the color combining hack of rubbing wet paint together, comes from “condom” and is also know as “fingering,” while traditionally the word “king” refers to an experienced artist. Ask anyone what a graffiti artist looks like; the image is most likely that of a young guy in a hoodie.
Yet there is mounting evidence that the very first graffiti writers were women. In 2013, a widely-reported a Penn State study proposed that women created some of the earliest cave paintings—the world’s first graffiti—based on the finger size and spacing of handprints. Women have been writing graffiti from the beginning, and most of graffiti’s cultural traditions actually support women.
The idea of “honor among thieves” flourishes in graffiti culture, where honor is everything. Owning to its tradition of tagging—getting your name up in as many places as possible to prove your mettle—graffiti and respect go hand in hand, both giving and getting it when it’s due. In this sense, graffiti may be more receptive to women than traditional art avenues.
“The thing about street art is that it is rooted in permissionlessness,” Simione says. “It’s not like the gallery system. There is no portfolio review. One becomes a street artist simply by working on the street. The barriers that exist for female artists within the gallery system don’t exist in the street.”
Rond’s view of barriers? “Sometimes the best way to break them is by facing them.”
“Outdoor space is a male world,” Rond says. “Women have [had] to look at outdoor space in a different way than men because of personal safety.” Often, young boys have more experience sneaking out. Finally running around in the dark to make art is incredibly liberating for women.
I began studying graffiti six years ago for my PhD dissertation. Because I was crawling into alleys or entering abandoned buildings, photographing art, I had to have a knife. I had to learn how to use it. I had to learn to hop a fence. These skills were enormous confidence-builders. I know I can go anywhere now, even where women are traditionally unwelcome.
Graffiti gives women such confidence. The artist often works alone, under the heightened tensions of darkness and dangerous settings. As Rond says: “I live my life facing my fears.”
“I was raised to fear certain types of confrontation, to fear being a disappointment or displeasing to anyone,” Simione says. “Working on the street has definitely become a method through which I can conquer those old lessons… Be polite, be patient, smile pretty, sit quietly, wait your turn, be accommodating, don’t ask for anything, don’t draw attention to yourself—these are all things that were instilled in me. Street art can absolutely be interpreted as spitting in the face of all that.”
Graffiti is speaking before being spoken to, writing your opinions—loudly and openly—when you weren’t even asked. Simione describes the urge to create street art as “the need to push a few envelopes…to speak when I wanted to speak and not wait for permission.”
Women making art in the streets are reclaiming those streets for themselves—and for other women too. Both Simione and Rond use their real names in order to encourage girl artists.
I first came across Rond’s work while writing my dissertation—her wheat pasted piece of open books, pages ruffling like bird wings across a brick wall, is a favorite—but I did not discover her identity until researching this article. The realization that my favorite Columbus graffiti artist, the one whose work I had seen on the streets more than any other, was a woman was a jolt of inspiration.
Rond actually started making street art anonymously, “then realized how important it was to be transparent about my identity so that other women and girls would know.”
Another Ohio street artist, Final Girl, began making art after media reports of a local rape case blamed the victim. Her first piece was a public note addressed to the survivor, which read: I BELIEVE YOU.
We are bombarded daily with advertising, none of which we asked for, much of which is sexist at best, misogynist and triggering at worst. We are told, as women, where it is unsafe for us to go, where we should avoid being alone, where something bad might happen to us. We are excluded from critical reception and attention. We are given a small space, and reprimanded if we try to break out.
The most powerful way to reclaim space? To make a mark on it, a literal mark. To leave an imprint that says: This is my alley too. This is a street where I walk. This is a wall that should be pleasing and interesting and welcoming to me—and safe for me. I live here too. I matter. I need to feel at home in this world too.
Rond has had pieces ripped from the walls—where she legally pasted them—shard by shard. Several of Simione’s pieces were actually lit on fire. But Simione says, “I simply won’t be stopped.” She re-created her piece THE WAY YOU NEED TO BE LOVED, crocheting the message of hope again. Slowly, painstakingly, she made it once more, stitched it back onto a stop sign where a girl might pause, a girl might see and know.
And then the artist faded back into shadows.
Alison Stine's first novel Supervision will be published by HarperVoyager in April 2015. She is also the author of three books of poetry. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, The Awl, The Toast, and Jezebel. She lives in the Appalachian foothills.