Last semester, I bought a book on graffiti and street art for a friend’s birthday. It provided samples and biographies of about thirty major players in street art from around the globe. After flipping through the pages, I was sad to find out that none of the artists were female. Refusing to accept the absence of women in street art, I went on a successful Google rampage that forced me to write this article.
Street art has been observed from as long ago as Ancient Greece and Imperial Rome. The art’s development did not take full speed until the 1960’s, when the government’s actions pushed its citizens into the streets with spray cans to make their voices heard. The first recognized artist was Cornbread, who wrote his first graffiti in 1967.
While most graffiti was presented as “tagged” names around the city, there were indeed many memorable spray-painted displays used to protest against war, oppression, racism and sexism. An example from the 1960’s is shown below where a woman showed her disapproval towards a sexist advertisement that not only compared women to cars but also treated them as sexual objects.
Graffiti is one of the four pillars of hip hop, a subcultural movement that unfortunately has its share of sexist views. The three other facets of the subculture are rap, break dancing and DJ-ing. Women were less represented in hip hop due to the widespread sexism that pervaded American society during the end of the past century. Graffiti posed a particularly high bar to female entry due to its illegal nature.
Lady Pink is known by many as the “first lady of graffiti” since she began painting subway trains in 1979. She was born in Ecuador, but grew up in Queens, New York, where she displayed most of her work. Regarding the time when she initially entered the male-dominated subculture during the 70’s, Lady Pink describes: “I had to disguise myself as a guy and try not to stand out. There was sexism; guys didn’t believe I was doing my own work; they thought I was sleeping with guys to get ahead.”
Above: A graffiti about American society by Lady Pink
Another female graffiti artist is Timoi, who came into the game on 1995 when she moved from Guatemala to Los Angeles, California. In an interview with LAGraffitiGirls, Timoi expressed: “I do not allow myself to be limited by what others might consider good or bad ‘for a girl.’ Such comments usually come from ignorant individuals who just don’t know any better.”
Above: A graffiti of Jimi Hendrix by Timoi
Timoi says that she had the most fun when she took on her solo missions at night where she would go out “dressing up like a boy, giving away a beer and conversing with the homeless.” In the interview she narrated one of the most memorable missions she had: “One night I was so under the influence, not only did I paint the worse piece on a busy street rooftop I also broke off the T to the shop’s sign as I was falling to the ground; I lost my breath and I probably laid on the floor for a couple of minutes.”
Above: An array of ‘tags’ created by Timoi
In the year 2003, Timoi was caught and she subsequently spent two days in jail until she was released. Today she lives in San Bernardino painting legal walls that still hold the same beauty and distinct skill that her illegal graffitis possessed.
Above: A graffiti created by Timoi that says “Femininity is a gift”
Graffiti is illegal unless the artist is contracted by a company or the city; in that case, it is usually referred to as ‘street art.’ In the United States, artists are usually incarcerated if caught. In these cases, men and women receive the same punishment; however, in countries around the Middle East and Africa, female graffiti artists commonly receive a harsher punishment due to gender bias. This still doesn’t stop many amazing female artists from expressing themselves against their government.
For example, in Kabul, Afghanistan, an inspiring artist named Shamsia Hassani uses graffiti “to help women feel stronger.” Despite the strict regulations for women in her country, Hassani has found a way to inspire through her art. In a Friday Magazine interview, Hassani regarded the sitting figure on the bottom and described that: “she is wondering if she can get up, or if she will fall down. Women in Afghanistan need to be careful with every step they take.”
When Hassani spoke about the women of her country, she explained that through her street work, she attempts “to compel them to see themselves as changers of their own destiny by opposing the elements that are bent on creating pain. I want us to live without fear.”
Graffiti is not only a way to reclaim one’s territory, but also one’s fundamental human rights. There is not better way to reach the public than through the street. Hassani describes it best in her words: “I learnt it was a lot easier to convey messages to people through graffiti compared to traditional art. If you have an exhibition, most uneducated people won’t know about it. But if you have art like graffiti in the street, everyone can see that… If we can do graffiti all over the city, there will be nobody who doesn’t know about our art.”
“My country is still very traditional. As a woman I shouldn’t be doing this. Some of my people will think I am a slave to western ideals and will be resentful of me. There’s always a risk of being kidnapped or targeted by the Taliban who don’t want to give way to women’s liberation. But they aren’t familiar with this work, they’re not educated in art like I am. They don’t know what it can do, and how it can mean so much to someone.”
– Shamsia Hassani
To read the full article about Shamsia Hassani on Friday magazine, go to the following link:
Check out LAGraffitiGirls, a blog about female graffiti artists around Los Angeles:
– Cecilia Bérriz, Blog Editor