Guest Blogger Eileen Quaranto, responds to Couvrette

After I posted Katrine Couvrette’s guest blog about female graffiti artists in Montreal, I asked my former student/research assistant/curatorial intern Eileen Quaranto (yes she wears many many hats!) if she would be willing to write up a brief response. Knowing the content of her thesis (I was her advisor for an independent study on female graffiti writers), I thought it would make for an interesting contradistinction. And I wanted YOU to be in on the conversation. I find it productive and exciting that I am not alone in the endeavor to build a body of scholarship (at various levels) about female graffiti artists.

And, of course, I am so proud of Eileen.

Eileen and Jess at ClawMoney opening

Eileen and Jess at ClawMoney opening

Get it, girl!

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For my Undergraduate Senior Thesis in Art History at Stony Brook University I chose to focus on the sexualization of the female figure by female artists in graffiti and street art. I focused specifically on Toulouse artists Miss Van, Fafi, and Mademoiselle Kat simply for the sake of my thesis not exceeding the maximum forty-five page limit, but I have also looked at other female artists who are similarly working with sexualized female characters. From this perspective I have a few responses to Katrine Couvrette’s masters thesis in the hopes that all of us who are studying the work of female graffiti artists can continue building on one another’s ideas from the many and varied educational and cultural backgrounds and perspectives we have to offer.

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MRS

My first response is to Katrine Couvrette’s claim about female artists having to prove themselves masculine, which stems from Macdonald’s assertion that “female writers must work to prove they are not ‘women.’” (Macdonald 2002: 130). While I do agree with this claim in a certain sense—yes, female writers are often assumed to be male when their identity is not known, and yes they often must go above and beyond in order to prove themselves capable of such “masculine” activities as running from police, climbing fences and hitting tough spots—I would also argue that many female artists also deliberately set out to prove that they are women in terms of their chosen aesthetic elements or tag names. For example, MRS (a street bomber from the Bronx) includes a little bow on her fill-ins, which serves in part to notify the viewer that the writer is female.

missvan

Miss Van

missvan2

Miss Van

I would also argue that the choice to work with the female character as a constant element in one’s work is also a direct declaration of one’s “womanness,” as it acts as a pictorial depiction of one’s identity on the wall, and this identity then becomes inextricable from the idea of “female” as it is presented. In her Biography on her website, Miss Van states that early in her career her characters began as a depiction of her own identity, as an alternative to using a lettered tag name.

This leads into my next response, which is to the following claim: ”When female characters are painted by male writers they tend be portrayed as scantily dressed or not clothed at all, in a submissive posture to a male character (surrounding an authoritative male or in a sexual position), demure, voluptuous, or implying some level of sexual promiscuity, and generally in a passive manner. On the other hand, characters painted by female writers tend to be portrayed as strong, dynamic, active, and even authoritative in nature. They are mostly clothed, fashionable and generally chic.” Given the nature of my UG thesis, I think it is obvious I am going to argue that there are many female artists who paint figures of sexualized women, and that this is not just a technique used by male writers. Miss Van’s characters are almost always “scantily dressed,” and Shiro’s characters (“Mimi” characters) are certainly “voluptuous.” Fafi’s characters (“Fafinettes”) are usually very passive, although there is never a male figure present to which they submit–they generally look up at the viewer with wide eyes and assume a posture that expresses shyness or timidity. Furthermore, the work of all three of these women, in addition to the work of such artists as Mademoiselle Kat (also from Toulouse), Vinie (France), Szylk Wane (UK) and Toofly (US) can be said to “imply some level of sexual promiscuity.”

Shiro

Shiro

Fafi2

Fafi

Fafi

Fafi

Shiro2

Shiro

Mademoiselle Kat2

Mademoiselle Kat

Mademoiselle Kat

Mademoiselle Kat

While these artists do paint the female figure in ways that are typically ascribed to male writers as Couvrette argues, these artists also depart from the male writers’ techniques and take on new approaches that Couvrette rightly ascribes to the female artists. Shiro’s characters are “voluptuous,” but also “strong” and “authoritative.” Fafi’s characters are depicted as “passive,” but are also “fashionable and generally chic.” Vinie’s characters are often “scantily dressed” and “voluptuous” and yet “fashionable” and “chic” in terms of what clothing the character is wearing and her hairstyle. Of course there are also female artists who paint characters that are “strong, dynamic, active, and even authoritative in nature” without being sexualized: Alice Pasquini, a street artist from Rome, focuses on painting women who are “strong” and “independent…in a way that differs from the highly sexualized image of femininity that is typically seen in society,” according to her website. But for the women who are painting sexualized female figures that are also strong and autonomous, serving as figures in themselves rather than just surrounding an authoritative male, something is to be said. These women are seemingly reclaiming the sexualized female body so that it is no longer the object of the patriarchal male gaze. The sexualized female figure becomes the subject, rather than object, and the female artists creating these figures are the ones who determine how they are depicted and what effect they will ultimately have on the viewer.

Guest Blogger Katrine Couvrette, MA. on Female Graffiti Artists in Montreal

On 17 December 2012, I received one of my favorite kinds of emails:

Hi, My name is Katrine and I am from Montreal. […] One of my friend who is a writer here in Montreal sent me a link where I could read your article published in the C.O.P Magazine and watch your TED talk. I was so happy to see that another woman was also working on female graffiti artists. I have just finished my master on girls writers in Montreal this fall 2012 at the University of Montreal. […] I met 8 female artists and I interviewed them all; it was so inspiring to hear them talk about their experience in the subculture as woman. I found my self in that, because the graffiti subculture is after all a mirror of every woman life, not only writers. […]

It’s always a pleasure hearing from other scholars and/or practitioners interested in female graffiti artists. The more the merrier I say! And Katrine was particularly interesting because she has a connection to Montreal’s graffiti scene and had done some ethnographic work with a few women there. I asked if I might read her thesis—she said yes and sent it along, but alas it is in French…so I asked if she might be down with being a guest blogger and sending me something from her masculinity chapter. I want to support her work and the interest she took in the women participating in graffiti subculture, and so below, you will find the excerpt she sent along as the first official guest blog.

While we do not draw the same conclusions about gender in relationship to genre (characters and letters), or analyze the dynamics of masculinity and femininity in the same ways, we are both doing the work of thinking critically about the performance, centrality, and effects of masculinity in relationship to women identified women and their participation in graffiti subculture. And if we do not think critically about masculinity as a community of scholars interested in subcultures, then we are essentially saying it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth our time—further marginalizing and erasing women from graffiti studies. And clearly, that’s unacceptable.

I hope you enjoy it!

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Katrine Couvrette

An Excerpt from Le graffiti à Montréal : pratique machiste et stratégies féminines.

A Master’s thesis completed for the University of Montréal, 2012.

Over the past three years I have been studying the Montreal graffiti subculture as my Masters research project. The masculine overtones and machismo culture appealed to me more than anything else. I couldn’t ignore the obvious gender relations and issues so I looked at female writers experiences within the context of the traditionally patriarchal history of the arts to illustrate how they visually distinguish their work and practice from their male counterparts.

Dominant cultural institutions and models that shape our understandings of gender and sex relations are reified by writers both in the practice of graffiti and the lifestyles they lead. Masculine identity is confirmed through taking of voluntary risks to achieve higher status amongst other males in the subculture. As Ruby explains, the graffiti writer communicates this status by saying he’s “tough” and “larger than life,” and as women, we are not pushed to prove this type of physicality.

Ruby 158In The Graffiti Subculture, Nancy Macdonald investigated the marginal activities of groups of male writers whose rebellious attitudes could not be fully shared by girls because they did not feel the interest or the motivation for it. Boys “may therefore get something out of graffiti that girls do not; namely, a relevant and meaningful identity. In which case, girls may be brave enough, but not sufficiently interested.” (Macdonald 2002: 100)

In others words, girls lack this motivation because they haven’t been socially instructed to communicate a propensity for marginality. As Throne clearly explains

“You have to have balls. I don’t know too many girls, when it’s raining, when it’s two, three in the morning, who would like to leave the house to go, put themselves in danger, paint a roof top […]. They’d rather to be home, take a tea, watching Gossip Girls .”

Thes also specifies that the adversity encountered in the act of graffiti lay precisely in the gender question: being a girl can be an obstacle because you put yourself in something that is illegal . According to Macdonald, girls starting in the graffiti subculture are easily ascribed ‘traditional’ feminine qualities – bordering on the stereotypical – such as delicacy, anxiety, and sensitivities to fear, risk and challenges in general (Macdonald 2002: 130). The common assumption is that the graffiti writer is a young male. As Ruby says, a graffiti artist gets dirty, carries stuff, and needs strength , which means, culturally at least, that it’s understood as a man’s job, so people generally see it being done by a guy. Although there are far less female writers on the streets, those out there practicing graffiti are inhabiting roles and behaving in ways that are traditionally considered to be masculine in orientation. They subvert, even break with, popular models of Western feminine culture by asserting new modes of female individuality and empowerment. They show that they are equally capable of taking on the risks and challenges in doing illegal work. Indeed, as Macdonald explained “female writers must work to prove they are not ‘women.’” (Macdonald 2002: 130).

Unlike the overwhelming majority of male writers who focus mostly – if not entirely – on painting letters, there are a significant numbers of female writers who paint characters. Half of the female writers I interviewed for my research devoted most of their energies to painting characters. At first glance the average passerby would most likely not associate these characters with a female writer. A closer and more critical look, however, reveals distinguishing characteristics that can help to differentiate between the types painted by female writers from their male counterparts. When female characters are painted by male writers they tend be portrayed as scantily dressed or not clothed at all, in a submissive posture to a male character (surrounding an authoritative male or in a sexual position), demure, voluptuous, or implying some level of sexual promiscuity, and generally in a passive manner. On the other hand, characters painted by female writers tend to be portrayed as strong, dynamic, active, and even authoritative in nature. They are mostly clothed, fashionable and generally chic.

Some members of the subculture argue that the work done by these female artists is nothing but repetitive, banal, unoriginal characters. Throne says,

I’ve been told by several writers that, as a girl, I shouldn’t focus on doing girl characters because it’s really overdone .” Stela argues that there are virtually no female characters in Montreal precisely because there are so few girl writers on the streets as compared to the overwhelming majority of males. She says that the only way to get over this masculinist discourse is to just not care about it .

Stela 73Miss Teri admits that her paintings are often the target of criticism, mockery, and disdain because of the perceived feminine qualities of her characters and settings she portrays them in . She does graffiti but tends to focus on painting characters and settings, so the challenge is in trying to establish a presence or identity without being immediately rejected for her style of art. Indeed, her work challenges the existing aesthetic simply by being there. This reaction to her work is considerably more critical given the implied cultural values associated with the abandoned and derelict locations (risky, questionable, even dangerous locales) she has chosen to place her graffiti and paintings.

MIss TeriNot all female writers from Montreal focus on characters. Some, like Ruby and Thes, devote more of their energies to honing their skills in calligraphy. Lettering is generally understood as inhabiting the masculine side of the practice and characters more towards the feminine. Not that these categories are gender locked or anything, but there are tendencies in the population for one sex to gravitate towards a particular form than the other. More guys do letters and more girls do characters. Graffiti tends to be produced in an illegal, risky, even dangerous urban context that, given the popularization of risk taking behaviors increasingly seen in young Western males, it is not surprising to find many males doing graffiti. It is also not surprising to see that female writers have a more difficult time asserting their identities on the streets because it is a space dominated in large part by male writers. Even if they are noticed, it is assumed that they are male writers because of this overpopulation issue. When Thes was starting out her gender wasn’t questioned, many thought that she was a male writer because, as a cultural standard, you just don’t see girls like her breaking the law and seeking a marginal status of identity.

Ontario-Rouen 253

To be a noticed and respected female graffiti writer demands more than just solid can control. In fact, the qualities (courage, risk taking, cunning, fearlessness…) recognized and valued by practicing members of the graffiti subculture are constantly sought by female writers as much as by their male counterparts. Being a female writer means facing a lot of the same challenges met by women in the everyday (sexual discrimination, sexism, etc) only magnified because of overwhelming number of male writers in the subculture. These challenges can make a female writer’s career a difficult one but not impossible. The woman who contributed to this article have shown that the qualities, skills and risks are shared by all writers and artists out on the streets regardless of gender or sex. Importantly, these women are on the front lines of negotiating new challenges in asserting women’s identities in the city and in the arts today.

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A special thanks to Thes, Stela, Miss Teri, Ruby and Throne who allows me once again to quote their words, obtained in an interview conducted for my master thesis.

COUVRETTE, Katrine (2012). Le graffiti à Montréal : pratique machiste et stratégies féminines, Master thesis, Montreal : University of Montreal.

MACDONALD, Nancy (2002). The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York, New York : Palgrave.

POLLOCK, Griselda (1988). Vision and Difference; Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, London: Routledge.