After I posted Katrine Couvrette’s guest blog about female graffiti artists in Montreal, I asked my former student/research assistant/curatorial intern Eileen Quaranto (yes she wears many many hats!) if she would be willing to write up a brief response. Knowing the content of her thesis (I was her advisor for an independent study on female graffiti writers), I thought it would make for an interesting contradistinction. And I wanted YOU to be in on the conversation. I find it productive and exciting that I am not alone in the endeavor to build a body of scholarship (at various levels) about female graffiti artists.
And, of course, I am so proud of Eileen.
Get it, girl!
For my Undergraduate Senior Thesis in Art History at Stony Brook University I chose to focus on the sexualization of the female figure by female artists in graffiti and street art. I focused specifically on Toulouse artists Miss Van, Fafi, and Mademoiselle Kat simply for the sake of my thesis not exceeding the maximum forty-five page limit, but I have also looked at other female artists who are similarly working with sexualized female characters. From this perspective I have a few responses to Katrine Couvrette’s masters thesis in the hopes that all of us who are studying the work of female graffiti artists can continue building on one another’s ideas from the many and varied educational and cultural backgrounds and perspectives we have to offer.
My first response is to Katrine Couvrette’s claim about female artists having to prove themselves masculine, which stems from Macdonald’s assertion that “female writers must work to prove they are not ‘women.’” (Macdonald 2002: 130). While I do agree with this claim in a certain sense—yes, female writers are often assumed to be male when their identity is not known, and yes they often must go above and beyond in order to prove themselves capable of such “masculine” activities as running from police, climbing fences and hitting tough spots—I would also argue that many female artists also deliberately set out to prove that they are women in terms of their chosen aesthetic elements or tag names. For example, MRS (a street bomber from the Bronx) includes a little bow on her fill-ins, which serves in part to notify the viewer that the writer is female.
I would also argue that the choice to work with the female character as a constant element in one’s work is also a direct declaration of one’s “womanness,” as it acts as a pictorial depiction of one’s identity on the wall, and this identity then becomes inextricable from the idea of “female” as it is presented. In her Biography on her website, Miss Van states that early in her career her characters began as a depiction of her own identity, as an alternative to using a lettered tag name.
This leads into my next response, which is to the following claim: ”When female characters are painted by male writers they tend be portrayed as scantily dressed or not clothed at all, in a submissive posture to a male character (surrounding an authoritative male or in a sexual position), demure, voluptuous, or implying some level of sexual promiscuity, and generally in a passive manner. On the other hand, characters painted by female writers tend to be portrayed as strong, dynamic, active, and even authoritative in nature. They are mostly clothed, fashionable and generally chic.” Given the nature of my UG thesis, I think it is obvious I am going to argue that there are many female artists who paint figures of sexualized women, and that this is not just a technique used by male writers. Miss Van’s characters are almost always “scantily dressed,” and Shiro’s characters (“Mimi” characters) are certainly “voluptuous.” Fafi’s characters (“Fafinettes”) are usually very passive, although there is never a male figure present to which they submit–they generally look up at the viewer with wide eyes and assume a posture that expresses shyness or timidity. Furthermore, the work of all three of these women, in addition to the work of such artists as Mademoiselle Kat (also from Toulouse), Vinie (France), Szylk Wane (UK) and Toofly (US) can be said to “imply some level of sexual promiscuity.”
While these artists do paint the female figure in ways that are typically ascribed to male writers as Couvrette argues, these artists also depart from the male writers’ techniques and take on new approaches that Couvrette rightly ascribes to the female artists. Shiro’s characters are “voluptuous,” but also “strong” and “authoritative.” Fafi’s characters are depicted as “passive,” but are also “fashionable and generally chic.” Vinie’s characters are often “scantily dressed” and “voluptuous” and yet “fashionable” and “chic” in terms of what clothing the character is wearing and her hairstyle. Of course there are also female artists who paint characters that are “strong, dynamic, active, and even authoritative in nature” without being sexualized: Alice Pasquini, a street artist from Rome, focuses on painting women who are “strong” and “independent…in a way that differs from the highly sexualized image of femininity that is typically seen in society,” according to her website. But for the women who are painting sexualized female figures that are also strong and autonomous, serving as figures in themselves rather than just surrounding an authoritative male, something is to be said. These women are seemingly reclaiming the sexualized female body so that it is no longer the object of the patriarchal male gaze. The sexualized female figure becomes the subject, rather than object, and the female artists creating these figures are the ones who determine how they are depicted and what effect they will ultimately have on the viewer.