Race and the Women’s Movement

I had the challenge of discussing white feminism, bridgework, and intersectionality in ten minutes for a panel on “Race and the Women’s Movement” as part of my community’s celebration of Women’s History Month.

The panel was moderated by Mariel Fiori of La Voz and La Voz en la Radio. Panelists included:

  • Susan Lewis, Professor Emerita in the Department of History at SUNY New Paltz, will discuss race in the suffrage movement.
  • Evelyn Clarke is the former Ulster County Human Rights Commissioner and Youth Bureau Director. Evelyn is a voice-over artist and also serves as an ordained minister at New Progressive Baptist Church, Kingston, NY. She will reveal the “Unsung Sheroes of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist Movement.”
  • Rashida Tyler, Citizen Action of New York Board of Directors Member for the Hudson Valley, will speak about her experience in organizing and local government.
  • Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón, Assistant Professor at SUNY New Paltz, will speak about teaching and applying the feminist-of-color concepts, “bridgework” and “intersectionality.”
  • Diane Harriford is a Professor at Vassar College and the current Vice President of the National Women’s Studies Association. She has also been the Chair of the Sociology Department and Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Vassar.

I have two videos: the first one is the official video of the entire event including Q&A. I begin speaking around minute 40. The second video was taken by a person in the audience, is a little shaky, but is a clip of just my ten minutes. Thanks for watching and please share!


Here are the texts I mention:

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherríe Moraga (Editor), Gloria Anzaldúa (Editor)

On Intersectionality: Essential Writings by Kimberlé Crenshaw

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life by Sara Ahmed


Ideas on Fire Podcast Interview

My interview with Ideas on Fire is live! The episode is available in Apple Podcasts (iOS), Google Podcasts (Android), Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, and all the other podcast players.

We chatted about

  • my book Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora (02:13)
  • The future of feminist graffiti art (05:10)
  • The intersection of art, academia, and activism in Jessica’s work (10:14)
  • Curation as a social justice project (12:22)
  • Resisting academia’s hyper-productivity culture (16:01)
  • Imagining Otherwise (18:56)

The transcript and show notes can be found here:
https://ideasonfire.net/82-jessica-nydia-pabon-colon

The show notes contain links to all my projects, as well as the books, people, and concepts discussed in the episode (which is super helpful for teaching!). Give it a listen and let me know what you think. #graffitigrrlz

We’ve Been Here Before

There is shit among us we need to sift through. Who knows, there may be some fertilizer in it.

Shortly after I woke up this morning, reflecting on the social media back and forths I engaged in/witnessed/tried to moderate, I thought to myself: damn. what a damn mess Adichie made! From the Women’s March to a Day Without Women, feminist movement in the US is a damn mess. Actin’ a fool like we ain’t learned nothing, not a damn thing.

Since her interview made the rounds yesterday, I have engaged in countless conversations trying to explain transmisogyny, transphobia, and transexclusionary feminist politics to cispeople—not all straight people and not all white people either. I take on the work of educating (as best I can) as a cis person knowing her limits and hoping the work I’ve done to teach myself by reading and respecting the words of transwomen of color is somehow transmitted. Though, of course, I can not speak for them, I also don’t think it is their job to do the teaching much like I don’t always want to explain sexism to cismen or white privilege to white folk. (Though as a college professor I have committed my life to this work, so I hardly get a pass on my job as an educator no matter how tired I am). All this to say: that was a lot of emotional and intellectual labor over something that should be obvious. And it made me mad.

Was I mad because all of that online unpaid labor meant less time with my toddler…sure. Was I mad that there are still so many people who have no idea the power they wield against those with less privilege no matter their intentions…of course. But really, I’m mad cause WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE. I teach my students about “the shit” among feminists from the perspective of my foremothers—those brilliant queer women of color that light my way. They sifted through SO MUCH SHIT, always doin‘ that hard hard work. They sifted through the shit and used it to plant a seed, trusting the “next generation” would nourish it.

And we haven’t. We buried the seed in more piles of shit.

Now I’ve come to see that Adichie has done us a favor by showing the “shit among us” lingers. And we can’t bury it, we have to deal with it. And by “we” I mean ya’ll who can’t seem to let go of that essential “woman” category that can be strategic but never clumsy, and never at the expense of others. Those are the master’s tools and we don’t need them to lift ourselves and each other up. (Look at the leaders of the Movement for Black Lives if you want proof.) In my last blog post, I said we need to get back to basics. So let’s put it to the test real quick. Did Adichie’s comment that “transwomen are transwomen” respect transwomen’s demand for bodily autonomy? Did it cultivate collectivity? Did it foster empowerment? Build solidarity in difference? Promote social justice? Sadly, no, it didn’t. And here are some of the reasons why. Clearly, she has some shit to sort through too.

No matter who you are, if you want to #resist, if you want be part of a feminist revolution: Get.*Your.Shit.*In.Line.

Know Your Herstory: CatFight Digital Zine

So I’m in the middle of writing a new chapter for Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora based on two old ones (from my dissertation) and I realized two things: 1) I’m writing about how performances of feminism circulate online and my blog has been woefully neglected (my bad! writing a book, teaching, and momming is incredibly time consuming) and 2) not enough people know about the e-zine (digital zine, digizine, or whatever you want to call it) CatFight: Female Graff Update!

In brief, CatFight was a labor of love for F. Lady in the Netherlands of Bitches in Control crew (BIC). Begun in 2005, F. Lady produced 9 spectacular issues that–except for #6–are still available as free downloadable PDFs.

To make your life easy, here are the links!

BIC_Rotterdam2009_AM02.jpg

F. Lady Family.jpg

F. Lady Pink Tags Tilburg.jpg

From the Archives: An interview with hemispheric graffitera MISS163

[written Summer 2013]

No Somos “Mariposas,” Somos “MariPUSSY”: An Interview with Graffiti Art Activist MISS163 aka Sharon Lee De La Cruz.

Walking through the streets of New York City you are bound to note the graffiti-covered buildings, bridges, and tunnels. You may ask yourself “how,” but have you ever wondered: “why” or “who?” Approximately 28 years of aggressive Broken Window[1] policing has answered the “who and why” with a single, decidedly gendered and racialized, qualifying designation—vandal—effectively denying the art form and the art makers any kind of social legitimacy or political import. No matter, though. Hip Hop graffiti writers have never been that interested in obtaining permission or legitimacy from any kind of governing body. They write on walls for a wide variety of reasons including subcultural infamy, sociopolitical rebellion, and aesthetic expression. Since Hip Hop graffiti appeared on the streets of NYC in the late 1960s/early 1970s, writers have intermittently “flipped” their formerly criminal activity into an income-producing creative practice—exploiting consumer culture’s fetish for niche markets and the gallery system’s taste for the raw energy of the “exotic,” the “other,” the criminal. Some writers have also utilized graffiti art’s quasi-fashionable/quasi-criminal, always public and communicative character for social and political purposes. MISS163 aka Sharon Lee De La Cruz is one such graffitera (female graffiti artist). Currently stretching the boundaries of legal mural artist vs illegal graffiti “bomber,” and capitalist vs radical feminist activist, she exemplifies how contemporary graffiteras are successfully navigating conventional limitations, answering the question of “who” is behind the writing on the wall with a resounding “why.”

MISS163 was born in 1987, raised on 163rd street and Hoe Avenue in the Bronx, and started tagging in 2004. She earned her BFA from The Cooper Union (2008) and was awarded a one-year Fulbright to study experimental filmmaking and mural making in Lima, Peru (2008­-2009). In Lima, she advanced from tagging to more intricate pieces and mural painting as a founding member of Maripussy Crew—an international, all-female, feminist, Latina and Latin American graffiti collective. As a hemispheric radical feminist artist, MISS163 focuses her artistic activist energies on women’s issues and youth development in the Bronx and in Lima. Currently, she is an after-school Program Director for ACTION (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood) and WOMEN (Where Our Minds Empower Needs) at The Point Community Development Corporation in the Bronx. In February 2012, she was awarded a “Woman Warrior Award” from Project Reach and the NY Daily News quoted MISS163 stating, “You don’t have to leave your community to live in a better one” (Whitehead, 2012). That same year, she became a Calvin Klein Brand Ambassador designed a four-part assortment of “graffiti glam” make-up under the name CK1 Street Edition (News 12 Bronx, 2013). Described by Vanity Fair reporter Lynden Volpe as a collection with a “girly yet edgy vibe,” the lipstick, nail strips, nail polish, and eye shadow feature the literally brilliant color-palette MISS163 uses in her graffiti art (Volpe 2013). With names like Vandalize, Sketched, Painted, Tagged, and Punked, MISS163’s set exposes and explores the aesthetic lines between the grimy and the beautiful. Starting in Fall 2013, she will begin her Master’s research on temporality and permanence in graffiti art in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.

At 26, MISS163 continues to make quite an impact in both of her chosen communities. She is the epitome of a millennial digital activist. Skillfully managing a dynamic online presence on most, if not all, social media outlets, the public can find her on: Tumblr; YouTube; Facebook; Twitter (@Miss163); Instagram; Myspace; Flickr; Vimeo; and, of course, her own website. Her digital presence amplifies her local community work. We sat down in Pop’s of Brooklyn in Manhattan to discuss her social justice work, her experiences living in Peru, the gender and sexuality politics in graffiti subculture, her role as mentor and leader to the other women in Maripussy, her struggles as a self-identified pansexual AfroLatina, and her solo exhibition at bOb bar & gallery: Wild Thing.

JP: In Hip Hop graffiti subculture, everyone has an alter ego—a kind of stage name referred to as a “tag name,” under which they practice their art form. Tag names tend to refer to something personal like a favorite color, nickname, or the place one was raised. How did you choose yours?

MISS163: My name is Sharon De La Cruz, aka MISS163, aka uno seis tres (one, six, three), aka Charo—that’s what my family calls me. I started painting “Charo” at 18 years old, but that was small tags here and there until I realized “if my momma sees this on a wall, it ain’t gonna be too cute,” haha. I was raised on 163rd street and Hoe Avenue, so I changed it to 163. I wanted to be old school so I crowned myself “Miss 163”.

JP: So after painting sola (alone) for a couple of years, while you were getting your BFA, you spent some time in Peru on a Fulbright and that’s where you founded Maripussy?

MISS163: At Cooper, I took a course on Urban Experience in Latin America and it was based on the history of Mexico and Peru, and focused on the psychology of urban planning. I knew I wanted to travel to Latin America after school and my homeboy told me to check out this thing called a Fulbright. I applied thinking that I wasn’t gonna get it. Turns out, I was wrong.

JP: Can you briefly explain your project?

MISS163: I was doing experimental filmmaking with high school kids. Originally, I wanted to do stop-motion graffiti, but my advisor “advised” me not to do that; haha. I understood why. The Fulbright is the US Government, so they want nothing that has to do with illegality. I kind of masked the project and said “we will do movie projections.” We were basically experimenting with late-night humor, like Jay Leno style. It was really hard to get the students involved. They were natural at it, but they learned that it was bad. I even had teachers that were concerned about what I was teaching. In Peru, people disappeared after using humor against the government. Silly little me wanted to do that, but it was something that was frowned upon. It was very interesting. I learned so much from those kids!

JP: And it was in your first trip to Peru, during your Fulbright year, that you met the other ladies of your now-international graffiti crew right?

MISS163: Yes. While I was in Lima, I met up with tons of local artists and we started painting walls. It was great. That’s where I met Nemiye. She’s the one that does all these crazy Q’s. It’s just so interesting that we grew up in two totally different hemispheres, but the politics of growing up as a Latina are so similar…it’s also disgusting. The first time we painted together was in March 2009 for International Women’s Day. That’s when we knew that we had to keep painting with each other because the chemistry was flawless. We had the same humor, politics, and view on life. Being a crew was a joke at first, and then I told them my story about what my mother called my vagina, which is mariposa (butterfly). And then our friend said, “You should call yourself ‘Las Mariposas’.” The four of us—Mishap, Bronik, Nemiye, and myselfhat mariposa wasn’t strong enough. We wanted a PUNCH. So I asked, “What about MariPUSSY crew?” Maripussy is a super feminist collective, and with our graffiti we tell stories about the effects of patriarchy in relationship to women’s health. We were originally based in Lima, but now we’re also in Paris (Nemiye), Barcelona (Bronik), and New York (yours truly). There are seven of us now: six graffiteras (Mishap, Nemiye, Perez, Monica Miros, Biarck, and myself) and one rapper (Blue). I was so happy to find a group of women to whom I didn’t have to explain everything. I didn’t have to explain sexism or racism. I didn’t have to explain how oppression affects how we love, live, and make art. Before then, my dream of being a part of a sorority, or a women’s crew, seemed like it was far-gone. I always dreamt of having what I call “sister friends”—this unbroken bond between women. But it never happened because I went to art school with no sorority clubs. I didn’t have any friends who wrote [graffiti], nonetheless any women. And if I knew about women writers, they were older; there wasn’t anyone in my age bracket. So I knew graffiteras who were geographically close, but for whatever reason they were either inaccessible or it felt less natural to form a crew. Especially because I didn’t learn how to paint walls in the US, most of my murals were in Peru and that’s where I learned narrative and colors on a large scale. In Peru, I finally found women my age and they had vagina politics.

JP: It’s interesting that you keep pointing to the similarities in the “vagina politics” that you’ve experienced in the US and that they’ve experienced in Peru. What are “vagina politics” anyway?

MISS163: When we came together and shared our stories, they were similar despite happening in two different hemispheres. I lived in both places and I spoke with a lot of women, and it’s the same fundamental concept of being a “woman,” particularly a graffiti artist, in a patriarchal world. We call it “vagina politics” because as a result of having vaginas we’ve gotten to this…place. When I talk about this “place,” I mean we’ve become who we are because we’ve self-reflected about our experiences. We listened to our gut feelings about sexism and feminism. We understand that the stereotypes of women being emotional and crazy came from a sexist place. We’ve listened to ourselves. We’ve paid attention to what was going on around us, and we chose this thing called graffiti painting in order to express ourselves. To explore and flesh out our ideas about vagina politics, while opening the conversation up to complete strangers. We feel it is important to continue to initiate these conversations beyond our crew—and that’s what’s so fun, and ironic, about art! Once you create it, it no longer needs you to continue to carry out your intention.

JP: And the intention of forming Maripussy was to build a support system of like-minded women artists. Doing so reminds you that you’re not alone. It’s much more productive to have a network, right?

MISS163: Especially in the game called painting or writing, it’s all about support. It’s dark and you’re alone and my instincts say: no, don’t go into the dark! Painting sometimes goes against my instincts, but I keep doing it. I call the women in Maripussy my sister-friends, and to me sister-friends are really important. They keep you grounded. Even though Maripussy isn’t always with me physically, they can still say to me: “Sharon, you’re not painting!” And I’m like, “How do you know?!” We share all our stuff on the internet, so if nothing new has been posted someone like Mishap will know that I haven’t been painting. I also know that people depend on me in this weird way—we need to keep our name alive. I have a tattoo on my chest that says Maripussy. I don’t want another little Sharon growing up saying she doesn’t have a mentor or a network. I take feminist community building very seriously, especially with young women.

JP: Your visibility is really important for young women looking for mentors, for established pathways into the subculture. How has your position as brand ambassador for CK1, and your community work with the Point, elevated your visibility and altered how you feel as a woman in a numerically male-dominated subculture?

MISS163: It’s overwhelming because I feel like I have to represent all women, which is ridiculous because every woman is different and those differences are complicated. BUT, it’s also sweet because I get to give a voice to a lot of women and I get to exercise my power in a sustainable, fruitful way. I can model what being a “voice” looks like, how to be comfortable in your own skin, and how to be fulfilled without compromising your politics. The politics are so intense. I don’t paint with certain people because of the politics. Feeling like you have to prove yourself because you are a woman is not fun. I transform the negative energy, in regards to proving yourself, and turn that into “proving” how conscious, creative, and inspiring women can be. Yes, every time I hold a spray can I am “proving” something on an artistic level and as a woman. I have many limitations, but I refuse to let my gender be one of them. You just gotta keep doing it.

JP: Does that sense of having to prove yourself as a woman in a “man’s world” subside when you paint with Maripussy?

MISS163: When I paint with Maripussy it is fun. I feel like I’m on clouds. We’ve come to the point now, where we don’t have to talk about a piece—we just paint it out. We’re always dancing and laughing. We joke throughout the whole thing because we’re chillin with our girls.

JP: After meeting with two all-female crews in Chile, I started thinking about the production of feminist community by graffiteras who do not identify as “feminist.” I never would have written that chapter if I’d focused on New York City, or the States in general for that matter. All-female crews seem to be the social-subcultural norm in Latin America, whereas in the States they are few and far between. Initially, I thought it had something to do with the kind of “gray space” of legality that some Latin American writers work within—with more visibility on the street as you paint, you might be more likely to paint together, etc. Is graffiti art in Lima quasi-legal, like in Santiago and Rio?

MISS163: Yea, it depends. Walls are less idolized because of the money it takes to keep them up. So if a landlord can get a free “paint” job then why not? Graffiti artists take advantage of the situation and find more creative ways to send a visual political message. In Peru, I can’t just paint a “pro-choice” wall because it is a very conservative place, but I can mask it with characters and the use of colors. It challenges you to become a better artist, I think. My boyfriend pointed this out and I thought it was really interesting. He asked: “Why do the girls in Hip Hop in Peru look so masculine?” I didn’t realize until he pointed it out, but I was like: “Well, because that’s Hip Hop.” I feel like there’s less room to play with being girly and hardcore. You just gotta be hardcore. One of my Maripussy friends is in Bogota now with her girlfriend.

JP: Isn’t it interesting that we went from the “masculinity in Hip Hop” to the Maripussy crew member who is a lesbian? The subconscious word association “masculine woman=lesbian” is frequently uttered, regardless of the speaker’s politics. And is a really great example of why graffiteras tend to keep their sexuality to themselves. They might come out to me, but they don’t want to feed into the heterosexist rumor mill that uses their sexuality against their subcultural credibility (i.e. women writers are “dykes” or “whores”).

MISS163: I consider myself pansexual. If you’re attractive, you’re attractive. Our fascination with gender is corrupt. We are more focused on the gender of folks, than the partnership that they are building. Not only are we fighting because we’re women and feminists, but also how and who we love. Those things are

JP: One of the reasons I started writing about gender politics in graffiti was because of the notion that graffiti transcends all systems of identity-based oppression. Since graffiti is an anonymous act (mostly), the idea is that anyone can do graffiti. But the thing is: you can do it, but will you be supported or mentored in any way that enables you to keep doing it?

MISS163: The guys who showed me how to paint a mural were actually three of the high school boys I was teaching in Lima. I was showing them that I could draw and I did graffiti and they were like: “You wanna paint a wall?” I was like, “YEAH”! Imagine. These young men had more privilege to go out and seek these walls and show me this life! year old me was like, “Wow. Okay, this is crazy.” To be in certain parts of Lima to paint a wall, I had to be accompanied by three high school boys.

JP: You said that your graffiti takes a specifically feminist stance to illustrate particular narratives regarding vagina politics; how do you incorporate the politics of race and colorism into those narratives?

MISS163: The last piece I painted on my first visit to Peru was about “Doña Papa.” Doña Papa is basically what Aunt Jemima is in the U.S; but instead of syrup, she sells candy. She’s a slave woman with the hair wrap and all of that. I painted her vomiting all the candies. Mishap said “all these Black guys and girls are going wild over your piece.” They loved it because Doña Papa was finally doing something—she was the actor, not the acted upon. That’s when I learned how to mess with politics in another country. I like to twist pop culture images so they tell a more complex story.

JP: You’re working on a series for your solo show at bOb bar & gallery, right?

MISS163: Yes. I’ve been researching how women of color are used as community-organizing tools and I’m basing the series on Ruby Bridges as “Max” from Where The Wild Things Are. Bridges is the perfect example of why being Black and a woman is political from the start. Imagine: you’re seven years old, and you’re brought in as a political tool. Her parents were approached by the NAACP because she got the highest GPA in her all-Black elementary school and once the government ordered integration she was chosen. The NAACP specifically chose young Black girls. They could not be boys because little Black boys grow up to be educated Black men and that ain’t flyin’. But because she was a young female, the perception of her femininity as fragile, inferior, and most importantly less threatening positioned her as the perfect transitional subject in a larger movement for equality and integration. Her story is mind-blowing. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it. Using women so strategically…and I think that’s a larger metaphor. Have you read Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry? That book is killer. It’s about carrying, not only your race, but your sex, on your back. I think Bridges is a perfect example of this. Putting the two together in this way makes too much sense to me.

JP: Obviously your Wild Things series critiques a particular moment in history, but, do you think that it “makes too much sense to you” because you identify with the difficulties of race and gender politics in a particular way?

MISS163: Oh yea, totally. In New York, I’m Dominican. In Florida, I was half-Black and half-white. Then, when I went to Peru, I was gringa (white girl). Then I was “chinch,” which is Black in Peru. It’s like, “Okay…whatever you see.” When I’m in the States I tell people I’m Afro-Latina, but when I go to Peru that doesn’t mean anything. I told one of my girls that I was Afro-Latina and she laughed at me. I was like, “what are you laughing at?” I’m not Latina to her. My parents are from the Caribbean and they speak Spanish, but that doesn’t make me Latina to her. My brother makes a lot of racist remarks about Black women, and I’m like: “Hey I’m your sister!” But he sees me as Dominican and Puerto Rican.

JP: Your work communicates an ethic of resistance in regards to a variety of social messages while being attentive to aesthetics, to style. I see no separation between your art and your activism, but rather a kind of reproductive feedback loop.

MISS163: Graffiti is consciousness; it is the visualization of “thinkers” and “questioners.” For example, making sure that there is a “Female Flava”[2] wall, a wall dedicated to women in The South Bronx. Making sure that you create spaces to tell a story that has been marginalized and normalized simultaneously. We want to create art that questions social conditions, that celebrates women and generates fruitful discussion. Both my graffiti art and my activism are about organizing and energizing women.

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References

News 12 Bronx. 2013. “Bronx Graffiti Artist Sharon De La Cruz Teams up with Calvin Klein for Street Edition Cosmetics Line,” April 16. (http://bronx.news12.com/news/bronx-graffiti-artist-sharon-de-la-cruz-teams-up-with-calvin-klein-for-street-edition-cosmetics-line-1.5083018), accessed on June 6, 2013.

Volpe, Lynden. 2013. “CK One Goes Street for Spring.” Vanity Fair Blogs, March 11. (http://www.vanityfair.com/online/beauty/2013/03/CK-One-Goes-Street-for-Spring), accessed on June 6, 2013.

Whitehead, Kim. 2012. “Sharon De La Cruz, Artist and Activist from The POINT, Honored for Community Work in the Bronx.” NY Daily News, February 23. (www.nydailynews.com/new-york/bronx/sharon-de-la-cruz-artist-activist-point-honored-community-work-bronx-article-1.1026377), accessed on June 6, 2013.

WYSK. 2013. “Women Talk: 10 Questions With Miss 163, Art Meets Activism -WYSK.” (http://www.womenyoushouldknow.net/women-talk-10-questions-with-miss-163-art-meets-activism/), accessed on June 6, 2013.

[1] Graffiti’s eradication has been a central component of “Broken Windows” policing since Glazer’s 1979 Public Interest article and expanded by Kelling and Wilson’s 1982 eponymous piece in The Atlantic Monthly. In 1985, the NYC Transit Authority hired Kelling to consult on the implementation of Broken Windows theory.

[2] Female Flava is an annual South Bronx event organized by De La Cruz that focuses on women. The 2013 theme is “No Means No, An End to Violence Against Women.” See http://www.facebook.com/events/526315694099978/?fref=ts.

Hanging out in a dirty tunnel…getting in touch with the “Erotic” (a la Lorde)

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.

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Ruby Bridges Walks, a Public Art Series by Miss163 in the Bronx.

Just thought you outta know about Miss163’s latest project, funded by the DOT’s Urban Arts Program. You can peep it on Hunts Point ave, passing the Bruckner Expressway. 

I’ve been working with the image of Ruby Bridges because I feel that communities of color  need to analyze and take note of how she was used as a community organizing tool. She was a young black girl, who knew nothing about this grand plot to desegregate the South; she was a tool for this amazing life and nation changing event. She could not be a “he” because a black man is not “easy” on the eye. By that I mean, a girl had to be the one to desegregate the South because it had to be as smooth of a transition as possible and women (as objects of desire) are the perfect choice. If communities of color learn about the civil rights movement from a feminist perspective, I think that we would have stronger women of color but most importantly stronger communities. It is important to understand dynamics and learn from them. I don’t think it is a coincidence that we don’t learn our history in that matter, I believe the way we are taught empowerment, organizing, and the beauty (or lack there of) is very intentional.  

I wanted to place Ruby in Hunts Point because I want her in a place where they the community could celebrate their ability to keep walking, surviving, and thriving…

even when the odds are not on their favor.

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BUY this issue!!! Read my piece: Graffiteras Performing Feminist Community!!

I’m THRILLED to announce that the Fall 2013 issue of TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies has DROPPED!!

My piece on Crazis Crew, Turronas Crew, and Rede Nami “Be About it: Graffiteras Performing Feminist Community” joins works on Censorship in Egypt, Hip Hop in Israel, TDR’s first born–digital article and more!

Here is the (truncated) Table of Contents:

Social Performance Studies: Discipline vs. Freedom by Faye C. Fei and William H. Sun

The Fire and the Frying Pan: Censorship and Performance in Egypt by Nehad Selaiha

African Tongues on the Israeli Stage: A Reversed Diaspora by Sarit Cofman-Simhon

Imaginaries of Exile and Emergence in Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Hip Hop by David A. McDonald

Be About It: Graffiteras Performing Feminist Community by Jessica N. Pabón 

Death Dressed As a Dancer: The Grotesque, Violence, and the Argentine Tango by Julie Taylor

The Aesthetics of the Invisible: Sacred Music in Secular (French) Places by Deborah Kapchan

Hearing the Music of the Hemispheres by Erin B. Mee

CLICK here to purchase the issue for $13. Unless you want to subscribe to the journal (which is way more bang for your buck, so you definitely should), make sure you select Single Issue “T219, Fall 2013 Volume 57, Issue 3.”

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T219 Cover