Girls Playing a Boy's Game
Female graffiti artists
By Katie Haegele

From Gadfly July/August 2000


Bombing, 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.

Yet 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.

According 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Why 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.

Although 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."

Good 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."

Safety 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.

Do 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."

Farrell concurs: "In the beginning it shows. As women further develop their own style inside graffiti aesthetics, however, these differences can disappear."

Often 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.

Very 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."

The 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."

One 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."

Yet 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)."

In 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 addict."