New Documentary on Graff and Street Art Grrlz: “Street Heroines”

Because I’m a mother of a beautiful amazing brilliant small child, sometimes I miss the other stuff going on in life. But don’t get it twisted, I’m still down! 😉

Last night was one of those times, but luckily because Pau is painting at SUNY New Paltz this week (and on a panel today with me!), I got to experience the brilliance second hand.

Alexandra Henry screened her new documentary Street Heroines: “A FEATURE DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE COURAGE AND CREATIVITY OF FEMALE GRAFFITI AND STREET ARTISTS.”

Peep the trailer! Fall in love. Feel the energy around this movement to uplift women putting in the work. Donate Money.

Support Women in Street Art!

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Real Revolutionary Potential Of Banksy Identifying As A Woman…Is Not That They’d “Be” A Woman.

On October 31st, HBO premiered the documentary Banksy Does New York. Similar to the kerfuffle over Banksy’s identity after the premiere of Exit Through the Gift Shop, this past week has seen “a revived interest” in knowing—once and for all?—just who they* really are (because “obviously” the identity of a public figure should be knowable, visible, and fixed). This time, however, the focus has largely been on determining Banksy’s gender:

ArtNetNews asked: Could Banksy Be a Woman?

New York Magazine provoked: People Dare to Imagine That Banksy, Like God, Is a Woman

The Gothamist announced: Extra, Extra: Is Banksy A Woman?

Wait. What? Let’s REWIND.

Last year, I posted a mini-rant in response to an article that called Faith47 and Aiko the “female Banksys.” The last time I checked, the general consensus was that Banksy was a gender normative white British dude (no one seems to care who they sleep with), an icon and standard-bearer for street artists. But then, on November 4th, this happened and sparked the various responses listed above. Capps’ article, Why Banksy Is (Probably) a Woman, was retweeted and shared all over my social media life, so (with a sigh) I gave it a gander. Now I tend to have a cranky, less than generous attitude about the street artist everyone loves (to hate?), but this shift has piqued my interest.** And with over 47,000 “shares”…it is safe to assume I am not alone.

Aside from the In search of a female Banksy article I just mentioned, there is at least one more recent article that I can recall (without doing any hard searching) that shares a similar argumentative thrust to displace the “boy” who currently represents the “boys club”-ness of street art and graffiti cultures (“10 Women Street Artists Who Are Better Than Banksy” By Priscilla Frank from this past September).

Where is this desire for Banksy to be a woman (or a team of artists directed by a woman) come from? And more importantly, how is the claim being made and what are the stakes of making it?

And I get it. I mean, as a feminist scholar—who has dedicated years to reading, thinking, and writing about graffiti writers who identify as women in a male-dominated subculture (I call them graff grrlz)—of COURSE it would be neat if Banksy identified as a woman, mainly because it would reveal the insidious and vast sexist and gender biased assumptions stimulating the (art) world’s notions about whose work is “great” enough to be chipped out of the side of a building and sold for millions of dollars.

But that’s just the “surface” potential. The real revolutionary potential of Banksy identifying as a woman would occur if it somehow undid or unmade the conventional Western gender binary grounding the narrative (Banksy is either a man/or a woman) and instead inspired a conversation about the way aesthetics, gender performance, and representation in anonymous street art trouble everything we think we know about subjectivity.

Alas.

Whether or not the claim is “true” or not is of no concern to me; I like the Onion’s take, personally. And if you want to read some quick critiques of the Capps piece, just read the 115+ comments, some of which actually engage productively. I honestly don’t care who Banksy is…what bugs me is the possibility that people are reading the headline and then getting on board with the argument because it seems like the “feminist” or at best politically correct thing to do (oh how times have changed!) without questioning the frame of the argument.

And we can’t have that. I can’t have that. So, without further ado, I’d like to share a few brief thoughts (as brief as I could get them for a blog post):

On aesthetics:

Capps: “Part of what makes Banksy’s work so popular is that it doesn’t operate much like street art at all. […] Fairey and Invader started with the same strategy: to project themselves into public spaces by broadcasting themselves all over it.”

Munro: “It’s also worth noting that Banksy’s work occupies a strange cross section of fine art and street art, and it seems conceivable that such a unique position could be created by a woman, since women experience art, the world, and the art world in a dramatically different way than men do.”

The aesthetic of repetitive self-representation is a kind of sociopolitical practice of resistance rooted in Hip Hop graffiti art. Since contemporary street art is an undeniable direct descendant of Hip Hop graffiti, this aesthetic is most definitely an aspect of street artist’s work—it just looks different because the thing painted is not a name or a familiar character per se, but a way of painting that makes the artist “identifiable” to other street artists so that they can be given their street cred. Sure, we don’t see the word “Banksy” over and over again, but this does not mean that Banksy does not operate much like street art “at all,” what it means is that Banksy is not a graffiti writer…which we knew. What we also know about street art as a genre (similar to graffiti art), is that any writing/painting/pasting/chalking/knitting on public surfaces has been and continues to exploit and suffer from a love/hate relationship with the fine art world depending on what is in fashion at the time. Yes, women experience the art world in a dramatically different fashion than men do, but this line of argumentation about purpose and aesthetic tells us more about street art as a genre that has grown in distinction from graffiti art than it does about Banksy in terms of gender identity.

On gender performance:

Capps: “That ambition to control a public space through this sort of redundant branding, to make the street your own, is a masculine one—and it’s shared by the overwhelming majority of street artists. In the theater of the public square, graffiti is cousin to cat-calling—which Slate’s Dee Locket smartly explains as the constant effort by men to “create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces,” specifically by claiming women’s private spaces as their own. Naturally, street art is at best delightful and at worst a nuisance, whereas cat-calling is an intolerable social problem and a legitimate threat to women’s safety. So any comparison between the two only goes so far.”

Davis: “Including images of women and not making every work a self-aggrandizing billboard? Yeah, no way Banksy is a dude.”

The characteristics or goals of masculinity are here defined as: having ambition, seeking control of public space, having a desire for ownership, self-aggrandizement, and claiming space. Supposedly, Banksy does not espouse these traits in their work…and so the logic goes: no masculinity, no man (must be woman?). But really, these traits and desires are not regulated to particular bodies (gender is NOT the property of a particular sex, Butler reminds!). Performing control or ambition might make you “masculine” in one context but it certainly does not have anything to do with how you identify sex or gender wise in another context—it’s a performance, it has a temporality, a fluidity, a specificity that should be appreciated. The bottom line here: if you are an artist doing work on the street you HAVE TO perform those characteristics. It’s a prerequisite of the job. It is also one of the enticements bringing people into the subculture: the chance to broadcast yourself in a world where you are ever invisible. [Oh and beyond saying graffiti IS ABSOLUTELY NOT A “COUSIN” TO CATCALLING, I’m not even going to attend to that bit. Capps himself says “any comparison only goes so far”…it actually doesn’t go anywhere to begin with.]

More on gender:

Capps: “The savvy manipulation of media to make viral art, to make art about virality, makes Banksy an innovator breaking out of a familiar form. In contemporary art today, that’s a feminine trait: The best selfie artists are women, for example. So are the artists leading the Post-Internet art world.”

Now this one is interesting because I myself have written about the use of, and liberatory potential in, the internet for contemporary graffiti artists who identify as women in a male-dominated subculture. The big difference is that I do not see the “savvy manipulation” of media as a “feminine” (by which Capps means female) trait…I see it as a generational shift within graffiti and street art culture that responds to the hypercriminalization of art in public spaces, the self-produced media-happy social context, and the existent and perpetual need to “get up.”

On representation:

Capps: “Banksy’s work is different. Girls and women figure into Banksy’s stenciled figures, for starters, something that isn’t true of 99 percent of street art. Banksy’s work has always done more than project “Banksy” ad nauseum. […] Banksy’s graffiti understands and predicates a relationship between the viewer and the street, something that graffiti that merely shouts the artist’s name or icon over and over (and over and over) doesn’t do. […] Maybe it gives Banksy too much credit to say that her work shows a greater capacity for imagining being in someone else’s shoes. (It’s true of her themes of social justice, but it’s also formally true in the way her work anticipates interaction with the viewer.)”

Monroe: ‘Girls and women appear in many of Banksy’s stencils, which is atypical for street art (especially given that Banksy’s women aren’t presented in a sexualized manner).”

Above, on aesthetics, I contextualized the use of repetition but I didn’t write anything about the character of that repetition: it is a form of call and response, rooted in Afro-Caribbean diasporic cultural practice. Other artists, ideally, respond to the “shouting over and over”…over and over “ad nauseum” on purpose. The “difference” cited here is dependent upon not only a blind ignorance to the specifics of street art aesthetics and politics, but also to the sexist notion that “feminine” artists (by which he means women artists, again) are more empathetic and so their art is always for others—and that’s a positive attribute, right? (*side eye*) So, Banksy is not a man because they have the capacity for compassion? Claiming public space in an ambitious fashion (the charge made above by Capps) is not diametrically opposed to doing it for “good” reasons, reasons that have repercussions for a larger social justice purpose. A little education about the history of graffiti art will clear all of that up. I recently tweeted a teaser about a chapter, “Ways of Being Seen: Gender and/in the Writing on the Wall,” that I have forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art…that’d be a good place to start reading.

Speaking of a little education, in terms of how women and girls figure into the artwork: I have to wonder how much street art and graffiti the authors have actually seen? The underlying assumption here is that since women and girls figure into the work and are not hypersexualized, a woman must have painted them. Men would never ever care to represent girls and women in a nonsexual way…I know quite a few artists who would be rightfully offended by that statement. Not only is this a gross misrepresentation, but it also ironically pigeonholes women street artists to a kind of subject matter singularity: “women only paint women in appropriate ways and they do so for the betterment of the world, always.” Trust me when I tell you that street artists who identify as women paint everything and anything, just as street artists who identify as men do, including female characters—hypersexual or not!

A final note: IF the goal is to shift the conversation about art in the streets away from male bodies so as to make room for the women and LGBTQ artists commonly left out of the headlines, we need not rely on empty “girl power” rhetoric that ultimately depends on conventional heteropatriarchal ideologies. In other words, even if Banksy is “a woman,” I doubt they’d appreciate being “outed” as such because their oeuvre is somehow essentially “feminine” (sensitive to social and political issues, compassionate, nonsexual) and perceived as wholly “different” from the genre of street art, which is “normally” masculine (too ambitious, self centered, and domineering).

Besides, why waste our time obsessing over who Banksy is or isn’t when we could instead be focusing our attentions on The Women Tagging and Painting the Streets of Bogotá?

*I’m just going to use the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their to refer to Banksy.

**When your research is on graffiti, more often than not friends/family/colleagues/strangers relate to that research by offering a story/opinion about Banksy. And, considering how many more street artists there are in this world doing AMAZING things, I am just SO over Banksy as icon. See? Cranky.

Femme Fierce: Leake Street All Female Take Over

My timing in terms of availability for travel this Spring is–to say the least–utterly tragic. First, I missed hanging out with the street artists in Cairo during Phase 2 of the WOW campaign. And now, to add insult to injury I will be missing a mega-event for female graffiti artists in London on March 8th…International Women’s Day. #ouch Since I can’t be everywhere all the time, I AM DEPENDING ON YOU! GO to this event if you can! Support these fierce femmes! Love on some street art and graffiti! And raise money for breast cancer awareness. You really can’t go wrong here.

Details:

Earth Tone Arts and Street Art Agency proudly present

Femme Fierce  at Cre8 Gallery

An All Female Street Art Extravaganza

Exhibiting at: Cre8 Gallery, 80 Eastway, Hackney Wick, London E9 5JH 7th March to 14th March 2014 Diary of Events:

Exhibition Opening Party – Friday 7th March 2014 –  6pm to 10pm Exhibition open daily 12pm to 7pm till Friday 14th March 2014 Femme Fierce Leake St Takeover – Saturday 8th March – 6pm to 10pm Hoxton to the Wick Street Art Tours – Sunday 9th March – 11am and 2pm Femme Fierce Graffiti Workshop – Sunday 9th March – 12pm – 3pm “Women on Walls” Film Premiere – Sunday 9th March – 4pm – 7pm

Live Group Mural & Closing Party – Friday 14th March – 6pm to 10pm Contact Earth Tone Arts for more information, bookings and interviews.

e. info@earthtonearts.com w. http://www.earthtonearts.com m. 07983442876 / 07534799079

You are cordially invited to the highly anticipated street art extravaganza Femme Fierce featuring some of the very best UK female street artists.

Can you imagine a female ruled planet where street art defines the rules and what we call reality? Femme Fierce will provoke the thought of a female planet that is governed by art… a world where you will find everything from the earthly, surreal to otherworldly.

This seven day event is a celebration of female street art in the run up to International Women’s Day and incorporates Femme Fierce: The All Female Street Art Group Show, which will feature  street artists Amara Por Dios, Artista,  Ashes 57, Box Head, Girls on Top (GOT) Crew, Thieu and Zina.

Although each of the ladies are established artists in their own right, in a predominately male influenced scene they have pulled together their creative yin energy to deliver a series of street art inspired events and will make herstory.

Femme Fierce will kick start with the exhibition opening party at Cre8 Gallery on March 7th. The following day (International Women’s Day), will see the Femme Fierce group show artists joined by over 100 International female graffiti writers and street artists from across the globe for the “Femme Fierce:  The All Leake Street  Tunnel TakeOver”  while raising much needed money for Breast Cancer Awareness and celebrating womanhood.

The diary of events also includes the world premiere of “Women On Walls”, a street art documentary by Danish filmmaker Cathrine Cort Koppel looking at the role of women as street artists and the incredible array of styles and diversity in their approach to painting.

In addition there will be graffiti workshops, street art tours and live painting events celebrating female street artist in the UK.

Femme Fierce Flyer Front

Femme Fierce Flyer Back

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.”

Special Offer: Subscribe to TDR/The Drama Review and receive a 35% discount off the regular subscription rate PLUS a free MIT Press book: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/page/TDR13

Teachers/Professors! Tell your students to subscribe to TDR for only $25.00 per year!

Like them on Facebook! http://www.facebook.com/TDR.TheDramaReview

T219 Cover

“Wild Thing” Artwork by Sharon Lee de la Cruz aka MISS163 Opens Tonight!

If you’re in NYC tonight, swing through the opening at bOb!!

bOb Bar is pleased to present Wild Thing, an exhibition of work by graffiti artist MS163. Please join us for an opening reception on Wednesday, July 3rd to meet the artist and celebrate her work.

In MS163’s series Wild Thing, the fictional yet familiar character “Max” from Where the Wild Things Are (1963) performs the role of the iconic Ruby Bridges—a crucial player in the civil rights movement and desegregation in 1960s New Orleans. On the one hand, MS163 celebrates the centrality of women of color in national sociopolitical movements; on the other, she begs the spectator to consider how women of color are used by these same movements. Wild Thing asks: how was Ruby, at 6 years old, deployed as a symbol of femininity, fragility, and respectability for the betterment of the African American community?

Sharon Lee De La Cruz is a prolific artist and activist in New York City. She earned a BFA from The Cooper Union, is a Fulbright scholar, and is now an MA candidate in NYU’s ITP program. She has shown in numerous venues throughout the New York metropolitan area, notably during Armory Week 2012 at the Bronx River Arts Center. She has been awarded residencies at Wonder Women and 365 Days of Print. Additionally, De La Cruz has designed a limited edition perfume bottle for Calvin Klein’s CK One Shock Street Edition For Her.

http://www.unoseistres.com  | #miss163atbOb  | RSVP: https://www.facebook.com/events/528173020553056/

artwork_ms163_back (1)

Report from Graf Grrlz on the Rise, Week 1

In my last entry, I mentioned I’d be working with a program for girls here in Miami called Women on the Rise! The program itself works with various organizations over the summer, but as of last Tuesday I’ve been spending my days at the Carrolton School of the Sacred Heart with a program called Honey Shine [inspiring young girls aged 8-18 to shine]. I’ve had the best time meeting and co-teaching with Fabienne Rousseau , Dinorah de Jesús Rodríguez , Nereida Garcia Ferraz , Lupe [sorry Lupe I can’t find your website!], Dr. Jillian Hernandez Bernal, and the program’s director Anya Wallace—all artists in their own right.

Each day we meet with 5 groups for about 60 minutes each and it turns out that the cliché “kids say the darndest things” is spot on. Before this week, I had never worked with kids. I was never a babysitter (aside from watching my little sister), I never did any kind of summer camp, and I am hardly around little ones in my everyday life. So, no one is more shocked than I am at HOW MUCH I LOVE TEACHING little girls!

I mean, wow. For someone who is absolutely fascinated by how people think and what they think about—someone like ME—being exposed to such unbridled, “filterless” energy (specifically in relation to the “writing on the wall”) is the most absolute form of intellectual stimulation.  

This week I worked with a little less than 60 girls from 2nd to 11th grade. We began each session (no matter if it was session 1 or 2) with a standard WoTR! icebreaker called “Just because”  where they are given 4 sentences to fill out about perceptions/stereotypes. Some of my favorites:

“Just because…I am blackDoesn’t Mean I…will be a slaveMy name is XAnd I am…proud.”  

“Just because…I am a cheerleader. Doesn’t Mean I…am dumb. My name is X. And I am…smart.”

The responses to these vary from serious to funny, from profound to nonsensical and I believe the WoTR! Facebook page documents some of the great ones. Definitely check them out.

After the icebreaker we get into the lessons. The first time I meet a group is Session 1: the history lesson and tag name creation where they come up with 3 tags: 1 for themselves, 1 for a friend sitting on the left and 1 for a friend on their right.

First, I ask them to tell me “what graffiti is.” Here are some answers I jotted down with favorites bolded:

  • Wall art
  • A lot of colors
  • Writing and drawing on someone else’s property
  • Writing in a fancy way
  • Vandalism
  • Art that represents something like feelings or goals
  • Gangs
  • Imagination
  • Colorful art on a wall
  • Spray paint on walls
  • Flowers and people on walls
  • Art on buildings
  • Words, people, houses and stereos painted on walls
  • Some kinda art
  • A bunch of lines
  • Someone’s insight
  • Something you cant read
  • Something expressive
  • Something that tells a story
  • Art that’s popping out
  • The future
  • A puzzle
  • 3d letters
  • beautiful
  • crazy lines
  • swirls
  • layers
  • illusions
  • awkward letters
  • boxed letters
  • something personal
  • connected letters
  • bubble letters
  • a history
  • when you write everywhere
  • to go all over the stuff

Then, I ask them to tell me “where graffiti is”:

  • Walls
  • Buses
  • Churches
  • Abandoned buildings
  • Stop signs
  • Trains
  • Closed down stores
  • Sidewalks
  • Skyscrapers
  • Billboards
  • Tables, schools and stores
  • Canvas and bridges
  • Everywhere
  • houses

Then, I ask them to tell me “who does graffiti”:

  • Crazy people
  • professional artists
  • thugs
  • dreamers
  • people in the ghetto
  • criminals
  • citizens
  • anybody
  • rule breakers
  • rebels
  • young people
  • women
  • vandals
  • artists
  • talented people
  • gangsters
  • art teachers

Then, I ask them to tell me “why do they do graffiti”:

  • to show their point
  • to show off their art and feelings
  • they can’t help it
  • cause they have something to say
  • to make a difference in their community
  • cause they are just CRAZY over drawing!

And finally, I ask if they know how long people have been writing on walls and we move into a brief history of writing beginning with cave paintings. Yesterday, one girl responded to my “when” question with total confidence: “40,000 years!!!” I was literally like: WHOA! She had sat through my class on Wednesday and recalled, with absolute clarity the entire lesson. She blew me away, so I let her co-teach the history.

After they learn the history it is time to make their own tags. Some of them drew their names in styles I haven’t yet showed them. Call me impressed. These girls are naturals.

In session 2, they practice their tags on trains and learn about gender politics in graffiti: sexualization, marginalization, and tokenization. They are sponges…well, most of them and I can say with certainty that most of them understood why being a token is complicated,  why being marginalized from history is as one of the girls said “unfair,” and how being sexualized might make “the girls stop painting.” I wish I had recorded our conversations so that I could recall the intensity and insightfulness of their interactions. Alas.

While we chatted, they drew.

And once again, without any prompting about the particulars of blackbook culture, they began sharing their piece of paper to gather one another’s tags.

Here is a slideshow from Week 1:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings!