Public Republic random header image

Women Graffiti Artists: Changing the Landscape Worldwide

July 4, 2009 by · 4 comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: flavinsky

Some years ago I read a book about Gypsies. It was called Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca and it changed forever the way I think about the Roma people. It’s amazing how knowing something about a too-easily-stereotyped group can alter your view of its members. Such was the case when I researched and wrote a story about female graffiti artists recently for Women’s Feature Service, a woman-focused syndicate in India to which I regularly contribute.

I learned, for example, that they call themselves names like Lady Pink, Swoon, Faith 47 and Claw. And that in the world of graffiti and street art, they are among the most well-known of international artists. They are also the founders of a sisterhood who contribute to an ever-evolving movement of aerosol art.

Graffiti has existed since people first drew images on cave walls. Some researchers view graffiti as “a form of communication that is both personal and free of everyday social restraints.” Others call it “part childish prank, part adult insult.” To many, it is simply vandalism. But whatever you call it, graffiti attracts the attention of linguists, art critics, anthropologists and gender experts.

Graffiti, which originated in Philadelphia, is a global phenomenon. In his book, Graffiti Women: Street Art from Five Continents, Nicholas Ganz shares the work of women artists from South America to Australia, South Africa to Sweden, Europe to Asia. The preface to over 1,000 images is telling. “Unlike a girl, a male writer’s reputation or identity rests upon his graffiti, not his sexual activities, his demonstrations of masculinity, not his passive physicality. At the end of the day, he occupies a sphere that grants him a presence, a competitive force and an opportunity to be recognized. That sphere would seem to be a much harder place for a woman to occupy,” writes Nancy Macdonald, author of The Graffiti Subculture.

Graffiti researchers have often found themselves in restrooms, where women feel free and safe to write. “It’s the ultimate place to purge,” notes one researcher. But most people interested in graffiti, like documentary filmmaker Jon Reiss, have focused on surfaces outside of public restrooms. His 2007 film “Bomb It” explored the explosion of graffiti culture throughout the world and raised critical questions about public space and “the war being waged for it.”

Photo: cauchisavona

“Humankind has been compelled to write on walls for thousands of years,” Reiss says. “The very act addresses the eternal human quest for some form of immortality in the face of a vast universe – some desire to state ‘I was here.’” But Reiss adds, “The controversy over graffiti brings up essential questions, such as What is the nature of art? Who controls freedom of speech? Where is the line between freedom of expression, private property, and the rights of individuals?”

For artists like Lady Pink and Mick La Rock these are serious questions. Both started writing as teenagers. “Initially the act of writing was a gesture of activism, a sign of rebellion” says Lady Pink, New York City’s foremost female graffiti artist. “Graffiti gave me strength and character. I found I had something to say.” Only later did she realize she was creating feminist art by showing women as heroines instead of victims.

Mick also started writing early and saw her work as “a rebellious way to visually express myself artistically.” She says “graffiti contributed to [her] life in that [she] was able to become a free human being with a free spirit.”

In the early days, when writing took place surreptitiously — at night, on train lines — being a female graffiti artist was challenging, dangerous work. Subject to ridicule and violence by male writers and to police harassment, women writers took big risks. Lady Pink recalls “running around underground. I had to disguise myself as a guy and try not to stand out. … Some guys had weapons. … There was sexism; guys didn’t believe I was doing my own work; they thought I was sleeping with guys to get ahead.”

Lady Pink now works with schools teaching young artists. Her work appears in gallery and museum shows. “The purpose of graffiti,” she says, “is to maintain the spirit of rebellion in society. It’s important that young artists are questioning the status quo and thinking outside the box. Who says art belongs inside galleries and must be seen in silence? Why not on the street where everyone can do it?”

Photo: tqkohn

Mick is currently a primary school teacher who paints commissioned murals. She plans to devote her time solely to art. “I like to create something that makes viewers feel happy. I don’t make controversial art or art with a political message. My art has many children’s themes. It brings me joy.” Reflecting on graffiti, she adds, “There’s a thin line between graffiti viewed as art or vandalism. To me graffiti’s colorful pieces are never vandalism. Vandalism is wrecking something on purpose just for the heck of it. But graffiti is painting to make the city look better. I think graffiti has become a folk art, like quilting or aboriginal art.”

There is greater gender balance and increased tolerance for street art today. Women feel safer and there appear to be fewer legal implications, although some argue that sanctions are still tough. Still, says Lady Pink, writers seek the thrill and excitement that comes with writing on forbidden spaces. “To decriminalize it would take all the fun out of it!”

There was a time when I thought Gypsies and graffiti artists were among the people I’d be least likely to meet, or to appreciate. I had ideas about them that were, well, less than respectful. Luckily, as a journalist I have an opportunity to learn a little about a lot of things and to talk to people I wouldn’t normally meet. That’s a real gift and one I wish everyone could receive: The world would be a far better place if we could all just read the writing on other people’s walls.

# # #

Elayne Clift writes about politics, social issues and culture from Saxtons River, Vt. (

Related posts ↓

4 comments so far ↓

  • Nobody has commented yet. Be the first!