hitting, burning; cutting lines, getting up, going
over. If they aren't familiar to you, these terms
might sound like drug references or maybe anarchist
war cries. In a way, they're both. The art of graffiti
is at once a deeply personal and inherently political—not
to mention addictive—form of self-expression.
Described in the vernacular of its surrounding hip-hop
culture, graffiti could well be the ultimate act
of culture jamming.
in some surprising ways, graffiti is reflective
of the male-dominated culture that spawned it 30
years ago. Since it emerged in the early 1970s,
so-called New York graffiti has picked up relatively
few female followers.
to Susan Farrell, painter, friend to graf artists
worldwide and mistress of the gorgeous and comprehensive
Art Crimes website, there is no "typical"
writer. "There is almost nothing you can say
about writers in demographic terms that is generally
true," she says, although she points out that
the culture has gotten "whiter" as it
has spread to the American suburbs and to geographies
across the globe.
the train yards and subway stations where bombers
do their thing are undeniably man's domain. Even
the most generous estimates put women at only two
percent of graffiti artists, says Farrell.
has a subculture, one that by its very nature subverts
the restrictions of the mainstream, marginalized
its women? There's a sort of natural selection at
work here: testosterone-driven ambition and physical
prowess are requirements for gaining a position
of notoriety in the community.
most writers will assert that there's nothing inherently
male about the activity, it is extremely competitive.
Farrell explains the predominant attitude toward
gaining respect: "Rule number one is, 'You
suck until further notice.' There are very few people
of either gender who can stand up to the kind of
criticism that is at the core of graffiti competition
... It's trial by fire to come up in the graffiti
world ... Few women—few artists, for that
matter—want to compete that hard for that
long, and it takes a kind of single-minded determination
that is hard to maintain. It might be that the opportunities
for distraction are greater than the rewards of
continuing for most female writers."
old-fashioned sexism surely plays a role, too. "[W]hen
women come into the arena and compete with the men
instead of competing for the men, those women are
seen as sexual suspects," says Farrell. "Maybe
they're lesbians, maybe they're whores, maybe they're
property of some male writers.... In any case, they
are a different, less comfortable kind of woman
for the men to deal with."
is another consideration. Some girls feel more secure
working with a female partner or crew; others are
brought into the fold by respected male writers
who can provide protection. But Erotica 67, who
has been writing since the fifth grade, says that
being a woman has some perks when it comes to legal
issues. After one close scrape with the police,
she believes she was able to avoid trouble because
she was a woman with a child.
women rock it differently from men stylistically?
It depends on who you ask. Erotica, whose tag name
is a tribute to early underground comic artist Vaughn
Bodé (creator of the Deadbone Erotica characters
that still feature prominently in graf pieces),
doesn't think it breaks down strictly along the
gender line. "There are different levels 'til
you feel you have reached a tight design,"
she says. "And both males and females go through
those levels equally."
concurs: "In the beginning it shows. As women
further develop their own
style inside graffiti aesthetics, however, these
differences can disappear."
the pieces done by women do have a curvier, more
colorful, more feminine feel. A uniquely female
contribution to the culture is not to be discounted;
indeed, girl artists are likely to get noticed for
their gender alone.
recently, the influence of the Internet has affected
both male and female writers. It's not a huge conceptual
leap from the clandestine midnight marauder of the
urban landscape to a digital artist whose identity
is no more than an e-mail handle. Explains Farrell,
"Artists online can easily be both famous and
anonymous at the same time. Most important, the
Internet is a global medium. If you make it on the
'net, you've gained worldwide fame, which has always
been the primary goal of graffiti writing."
Web can also offer a warmer and more inclusive community
for women who might not otherwise make same-gender
connections. Erotica says that meeting fellow girl
writer Diva online "opened my eyes that there
were other females out there who love the art form
with as much respect for themselves as I did."
look at such a digital meeting place can reveal
that a dissection of gender issues isn't everybody's
cup of tea. On the Writers' Forum discussion group,
artist Antik rants: "This is the kinda shit
I hate. Getting into male and female garbage....
So many times when a deejay rolls into town and
happens to be female, she gets paraded around like
some long lost newly discovered creature. Who gives
a fuck with something like graffiti or dee-jaying
if you're a guy or a girl? Really... it makes no
damn bit of difference."
the women themselves identify strongly with their
status as girls playing a boys' game. At 23, Australian-based
Tash is one of the more established female writers
worldwide. She says she started writing in primary
school because she was "sick of try-hard chicks
around me who did nothing positive for the culture
(except fucking the b-boys)."
the end, it's only the love of the lifestyle that
strings together this scattered group of individuals
who humanize our cities, imposing structures. As
writer Diva says: "I never thought picking
up a can that one time would change my life so drastically
so quickly ... it was like giving drugs to a drug