Can-do attitude

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

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. 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, 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: "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 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 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; to 14 January