Interview with Stela

As I’ve mentioned before—nothing makes my day like an email from someone who has seen and enjoyed my TED talk or read my manifesto in COP. Last September, I received an email from Stela, a Québécoise feminist street artist from Montreal, Canada who was mentioned in the guest blog by Katrine Couvrette. Stela’s work caught my eye because her absolutely curvilinear handstyle, pastel color palette, and pretty soft-eyed characters are almost always adorned with explicit and aggressive language. I’m all about that kind of contrast in public art…and everyday life. 😉 As per usual, I asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for my research and she agreed. When I send interviews via email I never really know what to expect, but Stela was thorough and sent a lot of photos.

She talks about the value of finding a peer to paint and talk feminist politics with, her social and political aesthetics, public reception, how painting helped her “reclaim her girlhood” and her feminist identity (which I find fascinating!), the value of illegal graffiti, and being an out queer graffiti writer wishing for a community (a unique positionality to say the least). I hope you enjoy reading about her and looking at her work as much as I do!

Tag and how you settled on the name: Stela, or Starchild Stela

Occupation (9-5): Aspiring feminist scholar (student), florist

Crews (If you rep a crew, what are the pros and cons and can you share a bit of the history): WZRDS GNG

-the pros: it means you have support and respect, that you are valued as an artist, and that basically you have friends to back you up

-the cons: you cannot control what the other members do, and when some of them happen to be a**holes you got to learn how to deal with it!

How would you describe your style: I mainly paint fierce feminine characters, preferably in pastel tones. People often describe my recent stuff as kawaii/cute, femme and feminist. People who know me often says that I look like the characters I paint, but I’d say I paint characters I would like to be friends with, that I’d like to hug and support. My mediums vary but I mostly use primers and spray paint, the cheaper the better (I like grimyness and free stuff). I’m also known for being a prolific sticker artist. I think people see what I do as street art, I really see it as a hybrid form of graffiti, as I use mostly spraypaint, but don’t paint letters.

Writing for how long and how did you get started: I started when I moved to Montreal, which means 7 years ago but I’ve been doing it on and off for a lot of reasons. The “scene” here annoys me. But I think Stela as she is stylistically today was born 3 years ago. I guess it’s when I started to be really addicted and taking it more seriously. I think meeting friends who truly cared about me who were also painting made me want to paint more too. Before that, I think I did not have such relationships, which is hard on the motivation. I mean I knew people who paint, but it was not really magical, so what’s the point (beside safety)? I think when I met Meen I truly got something. There she was the friend I was waiting for all my life, with who I can be silly, talk about politics and feminism, music, art, someone that really touched my soul, and we could talk about this stuff while painting a wall. That meant so much for me and today still I can’t believe how magical she is.

Does your graffiti take on a social message, or primarily is it about style—or both: Both. I love adding a little feminist twist to my pieces. I don’t really intend to add a social message to my pieces, the words I add often reflects the discussion I’m having with friends. But indeed we are talking about what matter to us, and what makes us pissed off. I guess the social message resides in the eyes of the viewer, too. Many teen girls told me I inspired them to start doing street art. I only started to add words to my pieces recently, but it brings another dimension that has a strong social meaning. But primarily painting for me is self-care, so it is not about the message, it’s rather a way to makes me feel better first, a way to cope with society’s and personal bullshit. I like adding sentences like “Think critically or die tryin’” or “Fuck your macho bullshit” under my characters. My favorite piece of 2012 says “cats against cat-calls”, which came out of a discussion I had with a friend. We thought that cat-calls were unfair to cats.

How do you feel when you see your pieces up: It depends if I’m satisfy of the result! I think every time I see an older piece it adds a bit of fierceness to my ego, but it also reminds me that I overcome lots of stuff. Recent pieces make me happy, and I’m overwhelmed by the reception of some of them got. It brings me tons of ambivalent feelings! I like that some people relate to it, especially teenage girls, because I think I started doing it as a way to reclaim my girlhood.

How do you feel when you are gettin’ up? What emotions do you associate with the act: I think it depends of the situation. I think the best feeling in the world is painting freight train when it’s not cold outside. Winters are rough here and I often end up painting in the cold, which brings a lot of frustration too! With the act itself, I think I associate fierceness, silliness and fun times. It makes me feel like I will never grow up, and it is in itself one of the best thing ever. There’s something really powerful in painting somewhere you are not supposed to. It can be hard, but it is super fun.

What does the word “community” mean to you in relation to graffiti culture: “Community” is a big word for me. If there is such thing of a “graffiti community” in my city I’m certainly not a part of it. And I’m totally fine with it because I don’t relate to it. If you say that community is about the connections I made with other folks who I paint with, that’s different. There’s only a handful (ok maybe two hands) of people I truly love to paint with, they know who they are, and at the end it’s a bit because of them that I keep painting, it’s not as fun if you are alone. It’s important for me to paint with folks who respect me, and most importantly I think it’s the fact I can talk with them. Having silly or critical discussion is central to me. I believe that I have a small network of really awesome people who paint too, and they are awesome. I think people that organize graffiti stuff here don’t take me seriously, because, well I’m not serious about graffiti. Fair enough!

What do you think is the historical significance of graffiti: Taking back/ reclaiming the space that is controlled by people beholding power. I mean now it can be perceived differently because there is a strong consumerist graffiti scene, which has nothing to do with the origins and true impact of graffiti; which for me is inherently about breaking the law and the social order. As my city is being increasingly gentrified, I think ALL illegal graffiti, even if it is not intended to have a social significance, disturb the forces trying to control the city.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist: Yes! I am currently doing my undergrad degree in gender studies, so feminism is an important part of my everyday life. It’s funny because I think I started to be interested in feminism because of experiences related to graffiti, unpleasant experiences and stuff I witnessed. I really perceived myself as anti-feminist back then, but I really had the mediatic, monolithic white feminist from the 70s in mind and obviously I couldn’t relate. The more I read about feminism and gender theories, the more stories of resistance I read, the more I was able to associate the fucked up stuff I went through with a broader picture. When I started to meet vocal feminists, I understood they were up to something I could totally relate. They really inspired me. Then eventually I started to consider myself a feminist, and an outspoken one. Being openly feminist means being reminded daily that feminine power scare the shit out of many. It also seems like an incongruity for some to be a feminist graffiti artist, and it seems almost every time I talk about it in interview about my art, the “feminist stuff” is cut from the final report.

[To which I say: No worries about that happening here…ha!]

What is feminism to you: Feminism, for me, is a framework that helped me to understand how my experiences of oppression were related to a bigger and complex system. It needs to be intersectional. I think it’s about the political significance of our everyday experience in a rape culture. It allowed me to understand my privileges, and also lead me to the process of becoming a better ally for different struggles.

What does resistance mean to you: Forever bashing back. I think my life shifted when I realized that I had in me the power to resist, cheesy as it sounds. Resistance is being aware that no matter what, nobody can take away your dignity. Resistance is at the core of my fierceness. I think it’s also something that we need to learn to have fun with, like being creative and giving ourselves the permission to be playful even if what we resist bring us painful emotions.

What are the characteristics, personalities, or traits, that you associate with graffiti writers? The ones I hang out with may be different than the mainstream ones! Hahaha… They are not good at maintaining a “contained” lifestyle with a 9 to 5 job. They are all unique, so it’s hard to qualify “them”. I often think of silliness and spontaneity. Good sense of intuitions. Developed aesthetic tastes. A particular interest in shoplifting. For women writers I would add fierceness.

How does graffiti fit into your past, present and future: I started to be interested in street art/ graffiti out of teenage boredom, because I had no true passion in life and I had to do something empowering with myself, and at the time I was partying so this hobby made a bit of sense in my life and schedule. Then I developed my critical thinking and start seeing it as a part of the lifestyle that was meant for me. In the present it is something I will never do enough, I have to set time to do it which is a challenge but that is totally worth it. It still gives me the butterflies. In the future, well, hopefully I will develop skills, be in a femme crew, learn to manage to write essays, be published and being a graffiti artist at night. I’d like to paint in different cities, and I would love to see a queer graffiti scene to develop. More feminist/anti-colonial/anarchist quality street art. A high school friend said of me recently: “well at this point I think she will always be doing it, it’s not like she will stop to be a teenager soon”. I couldn’t agree more.

Tell me what you know about women in graffiti history: For me, there’s two different standpoint we can look at, which is either traditional/hip-hop graffiti, and I think some people really dedicated time to document it, even if it’s probably not enough. It seems, at least in North America, that women who graff had it rough, and they were always outnumbered by men. This side of history is important, but I am more interested in another face of it, which overlap at some points. It is not what some would qualify as graffiti, but rather simple political writing on walls. I would qualify it as feminist street art. I believe revolution; social change and resistance can be read on walls. There is an undocumented history of feminist street art, which appeared (to my knowledge) at the same time graffiti became an “urban crisis”. In the 70s, at the peak of the second-wave of feminism, you could see ads being vandalized by feminists, message such as “discover your clitoris” on walls, reflecting the women’s liberation going on at the time. The backlash against feminism didn’t make these writing disappear. What resonated the most with me is when Doris (in her zine Encyclopedia of Doris) says she felt like someone hold her back when she witnessed girl gang’ graffiti appeared on walls, like “dead dad don’t rape”. For me, this alternative “graffiti” history is under looked, and any graffiti/street artists who label themselves feminist are totally a part of it.

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