Graffiti: Meet the street writing women

Graffiti has long been dominated by men but is now shedding its macho tag, thanks to a new wave of urban female artists

In the 21 July 1971 issue of The New York Times, Richard Goldstein wrote an article on the subculture that was gaining momentum in New York City. He profiled Taki 183, a male graffiti writer whose tags had been blazoned across subways and street corners. Goldstein also briefly mentioned that "he has spawned hundreds of imitators ... including Barbara 62" – who would go on to become one of the most influential female figures in street art.

For Goldstein, the idea of a serious female graffiti writer like Barbara 62 was somewhat of an afterthought. It was a perspective shared by many around him, and was ingrained into the subsequent generations. Now, four decades later, it's hard to see the urban art scene as any less male-dominated than it was during its formative years. While recent projects like the See No Evil event in Bristol marked a major step forward in the UK's embrace of street art, it was shocking to note that of the 72 artists invited to take part, just two were women.

Susan Farrell, editor of the website Art Crimes, describes how women's work has developed its own unique associations; pieces will typically feature curvier scripts or more colourful palettes than men's, and artists such as Akit, Fafi and Miss Van have adopted this style overtly. Women are also getting involved in some of the most innovative projects under the umbrella term of "street art" – which includes graffiti writing, stencil work, wheat pastes, and street installations, among others. The well-known Swoon is one such artist, currently in London for her first solo exhibition in the UK, Murmuration.

"There's definitely a perception of street art as being kind of macho," admits Swoon, aka Callie Curry, speaking from her installation at the Black Rat Projects. "You do have to be a little macho to do it. But we all have to be a little macho sometimes." Swoon is certainly not against getting her hands dirty for her art: in 2006 she used scavenged materials to make a giant raft that would float down the Mississippi River, and in 2010 built sustainable, creatively designed homes for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

Indeed, the gender disparity seems so deep-rooted that masculinity often becomes the yardstick against which these artists are measured. There's an assumption that girls need to "toughen up" in order to prove themselves to their male counterparts. One of the most prolific female artists, the Ecuadorian-born Lady Pink, describes how her tomboy attitude got her into the genre: "I did all the things that young women were not supposed to – instead of being fashionable and learning how to accessorise, I was learning how to climb walls in the middle of the night, how to evade the police like a ninja."

In a career that involves plenty of crawling through train yards, climbing on buildings, and creeping through alleys alone in the middle of the night, it's arguable that "toughening up" is no bad thing for the women involved. But equally, acting up to stereotypes with a touch of exaggerated girlishness can get artists out of tough situations too. Graffiti writer Akit says that, "More often than not, being female worked in my favour. If you see a group of blokes walking the street late at night, they're perceived differently if there's a bird with them. I could defuse a situation with police just by being there. I could be standing right next to fresh still-wet piece/tag and people would completely disregard that I could be the perpetrator."

Nowadays, it's rarely gossip or bad blood between artists that tarnishes the street reputation of these women. "People are generally pretty open and encouraging," says Swoon, "When you're visibly dedicated to something then people are supportive, no matter what." Rather, it can often be the galleries and exhibitors that unintentionally undermine the legitimacy of their achievements. The all-female collective Neozoon, who create street art by using only recycled fur coats, admit that they often get requests "simply because people search for women in male-dominated genres". And while such requests might be good for sales, the perceived novelty factor of being a woman can threaten to overthrow the validity of the work itself.

Though the overarching male mentality might still reign in street art, more is being actively done to highlight the creative output of these women in a way that doesn't patronise or smack of political correctness. In Milan, events like the Female Art on the Roof and Urban Queens festival earlier this year featured over 30 female artists from across the globe to showcase their works. Equally, the Miss Danger on the Loose exhibition in Los Angeles opened to great success at LAB ART, the largest gallery in the US dedicated solely to street art.

Co-owners Iskander Lemseffer and Rachel Joelson curated the exhibition together with artist K H No. 7, displaying over 50 paintings, photographs and installations from a group of handpicked artists. "Although street art is still something of a boys' club, that's not to say that there isn't a large portion of female street artists out there," said Lemseffer. "We put together the show because we felt that they were not highlighted enough – we wanted to put them in the spotlight so they could get the recognition they deserve."

Even in the UK, the annual Urban Art Fair running from 14-15 July 2012 in Brixton will feature more than 150 artists from a range of disciplines, with well over half of them women. "It's a whole new world," says Lady Pink, "Street art now covers a whole lot of mediums – you don't have to be some hardcore graffiti writer, you can just be a young college kid, whatever you want to be. And that's awesome," she laughs. "As long as you can still be arrested for vandalism, you're one of us."

Murmuration, Black Rat Projects, London EC2 (020 7613 7200; blackratprojects.com) to 14 January

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all