Some people go to the gym, some people do needlepoint, this is what I do…I hang out in dirty tunnels and I like it. ~Itsa, 2015
When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our own language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives. ~Audre Lorde, 1978
It’s been at least a year and a half since the last time I went to a painting jam, a street art festival, or just hung out with writers while they worked. But it has been ENTIRELY too long since I have hung out at a painting event where the majority (or the entirety) of the artists/writers were self-identified women. Anyone who knows graf culture knows that events like these are few and far between…but when they happen, it’s well…erotic. No, I am not saying that there was something necessarily sexual about the event. While I was trying to think of what angle to take with this blog post, I was also writing a lecture for my feminist theory class on the work “Uses of the Erotic” by black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde. And basically, for Lorde the “erotic” is not at all about porn, or even limited to “sexytime”; the erotic is a feeling, a force to be reckoned with once it is accessed, or in performance studies lingo: an affect that does something. At the end of class, I asked my students: how do you get in touch with your erotic? For me, it is attending events like Femme Fierce. Graffiti events featuring all or mostly self-identified women are my jam…I experience them intellectually and emotionally as a woman of color scholar in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal world. The energy and the environment are unmatched. My research allows me to get in touch with my erotic (I am privileged in this way, for sure). “For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
And that is exactly why this year—rather than just promote Femme Fierce (as I did last year from Abu Dhabi)—my 3 month old, my partner and I went to London for the second annual Femme Fierce event; the largest all-female street art event in recorded history!
Femme Fierce took place in the Leake Street tunnel in central London, also known as the infamous Banksy Tunnel (because he is the one who flipped the dark, smelly, unused space and made it a home for street artists). As an annual happening, Femme Fierce celebrates International Women’s Day, highlights street and graffiti artists who identify as women, and raises funds for nonprofit organizations (2015 was PlanUK and the theme was “Because I am a Girl”). The Saturday before, the organizer Ayaan Bulale, planned an entire day of workshops not only for artists, but also for the general public including: Marketing for Street Artists; The Art of Stencilling; Cans, Caps and Colours; Rebel with a Smartphone; History of Leake Street; An Adventure with Spray Cans; and Tags, Dubs and Burners. The workshops were a nice way to prep for the events of the next day, and of course a great way to learn about the history of the tunnel and London graffiti scene. Sunday was surreal. I’ve never seen so much live painting at once. (Note to self: when doing research in a space with 150 people using aerosol paint…bring a facemask). Beginning at 8AM, I watched as they first turned that tunnel blue, and then covered the approximately 300 meters of wall space with characters, quotes, stencils, mini-sculptures, installations, and some letters.
The writers were by far the minority in terms of style—by my count out of the approximately 150 artists painting there were 11 writers: Bow, Throne, Cyber, Akit, Mish, Itsa, Evay, Baek, Pixie, Mons, Weardo. I caught up with Steffi Bow (lives in Dubai) and Pixie (living in London)—two graffiti grrlz that I’ve met and worked with before. But I also had the pleasure of meeting new writers including Mons, Throne, Evay, and Itsa (a mainstay in the London scene), and watching as Akit, Cry (more oldschool heads), and Throne painted. Despite calls for more writers to show up this year, as opposed to last year, they were still in the obvious minority and that is no coincidence.
Events like Femme Fierce break one of the conventions of graffiti culture: anonymity. In addition to paying your dues (getting up as frequently in as many different places as possible illegally), and using aerosol paint to write your name’s letters on any surface possible (if you do paint characters they should be accompanied by letters), you should be doing your graffiti in the dead of night and not in front of a public audience. At Femme Fierce, all of the writers I spoke with knew of these conventions and responded to my questions in ways that reinforced their knowledge of “the rules”—all the while breaking them because they were painting a legal wall in a public space in front of a constant stream of people with every kind of recoding device you can imagine. Not to mention they were also breaking what we might think of as an unspoken rule in graffiti—don’t paint with other women exclusively…unless you want the rumor mill to come at you with “she is good for a girl” or “she paints with other women because she isn’t good enough to get down with the boys.” And yet, each one of them had the desire to participate in Femme Fierce not only because it was International Women’s Day and for a good cause, but to represent women as writers painting letters. There was a lot of emphasis on representing graffiti grrlz, and for good reason.
As I’ve written before, but most specifically in a chapter for the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, the way people view and value graffiti art is shaped by gendered conventions relating back to the expected performance of male masculinity; consequently this expectation affects the numbers of women in graf. The writers from Femme Fierce each noted the disproportionate number of faces/characters being painted in relationship to letters going up in the tunnel; they attributed the underrepresentation to girls and women being too intimated to write letters, in general. Women have been told that “men are better at it.” Being outnumbered made their presence all the more important in terms of breaking gendered conventions about who can develop a fly hand style. Just by representing graffiti writers at the event, these women opened a kind of affective/intellectual/ideological space for anyone who witnessed them painting. I had multiple conversations with strangers who had no idea there were this many women street artists. To which, I say: And if you don’t know, now ya know [musical interlude]!
Without fail each writer I spoke with recounted that the usefulness of Femme Fierce as an event had something to do with making women feel more comfortable—that even though anyone can pick up a spray can, the environment (social, subcultural, structural) can be hostile for women. Without fail, they all used words like “liberating,” “free,” and “open” to describe how the event felt that day. Two of the writers noted the space of the tunnel in particular; noting that painting on the edges of the tunnel is safe if you are alone at night—it’s easier to get out from the edge as opposed to the middle where you would have to run from your would be assailant for a longer period of time. [Calculating the quickest escape route is a normal requisite for graffiti writers, but for women the person you might be running from is not only the police officer, but also the sexual predator. Femme Fierce temporarily suspends (and therefore shifts incrementally) an environment and an artistic act that can be not only hostile, but literally dangerous for female bodies.]
If the power of and in FemmeFierce is that it battled graffiti’s often-negative affective environment for women, that is because the energy it produced was not only validated, but was felt fully by participants and passersby. Femme Fierce makes you want more—whether it is more visibility, representation, diversity (two men put up a very feminist stenciled piece while wearing wigs and makeup), or community. Femme Fierce demonstrated that more was possible, that change was possible. “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world,” for when we are “[i]n touch with the erotic, [we] become less willing to accept powerlessness.” While there may have been critiques about the event—mainly because the tunnel is an open and free-for-all public space—being taken over by these women for a full day, this event did a lot of work towards claiming place for women in the public sphere as producers of art. And it did so, fiercely.