“There’s still an aura of mystery about female street artists, which is nonsense,” Ayaan Bulale, founder of Femme Fierce, exclaims, “but if it works for me to get my end goal achieved by all means we can be mysterious,” she adds with a grin.
Femme Fierce is the UK’s largest all-female street art jam that first took place on International Women’s Day in March 2014 and is now due to run for its third year. The end goal: to discover, engage and inspire as many female artists as possible to take to the streets. Aside from causing a bit of a stir in the urban art community with the girls taking out the whole of Waterloo’s Leake Street each year, the event has succeeded in raising awareness of over 200 female artists in the UK alone.
As the street art and graffiti scene has intertwined itself with popular culture and gathered a vast social media following, artists have begun to reveal and relish in their identities. It was only a matter of time before attention fell on the females that are getting involved in a pass-time that is very much male-dominated.
In graffiti writer Akit’s words, highlighting female involvement in the culture has become “quite trendy,” but not in a good way.
“I find this whole pigeonholing of female graffiti writers a bit tiresome,” she sighs, “it all starts ticking a box, making sure everyone is taken care of, but it ain’t for everyone.”
Graffiti is still an underground scene, created by writers for other writers. But the constant battle to “earn your stripes” is something that can be a struggle for females getting involved. “Male writers I knew would have me emulsioning [preparing] metres and metres of wall space for them, I was told you’re treated how any other writer is treated at the start, but it went on for years,” Girls On Top Graffiti Crew member, Syrup, explains.
Syrup first got into graffiti as a way of “sticking two fingers up to the world and wanting to damage stuff” and although her outlook (and many other writers’) has changed now, many people still see graffiti in this negative light. Quite the opposite to how they see street art. “It’s all about semantics, people automatically associate graffiti with fear and criminality, but actually it is about hand styles, how you drop the letters and blend colours and how you use shading and shadows,” Ayaan Bulale clarifies.
Public acceptance of street art has increased with the development of companies such as street art platform Global Street Art (GSA), which provides permission walls for artists to create on. This element of permission painting has also enticed further female involvement in the sub-genre. Nelly Balazs, employee at GSA, says that they offer “around 15% of their walls in London to female artists”.
Ultimately this is because permission work eliminates the risk factor that is unattractive to many females. Street artist VLong, whose venture with a spray can is about finding “balance” within herself, puts it in simple terms. “As things stand nowadays if you go out there and you get caught, the fines you have to pay are so high that I would go straight to jail because I don’t have that money.”
More females from an artistic background are also getting involved in the scene; the spray can representing a challenging new medium. “It is part of the wider choices on offer to women who study art and design in the UK,” says Lorraine Gamman, Professor of Design at Central Saint Martins who specialises in gender representation. “My 18-year-old daughter has sprayed her bedroom and some of the outside wall of our home with stencils she made when doing A-level art,” she adds affectionately.
Take abstract expressionist artist Anna Laurini for example, who took to the streets of Shoreditch with her standout portraiture. As she proves, it’s not just men who like to be rebellious.
“It is thrilling knowing you’re not supposed to be doing it, the danger of being caught and the adrenaline is a lot of fun.” – Anna Laurini
Even as we walk past one of her commissioned pieces, Anna can’t resist pulling out some black paint to touch up her work, “it’s just so addictive,” she adds.
But why is there this preconception that women don’t belong in the street art and graffiti scene? Lorraine Gamman clarifies that women’s “struggle for value compared with men is something that is common to all art movements.” But global street artist Chinagirl Tile, whose ceramic installations have an underlying social commentary, believes that it is the fact that women are discouraged from certain “silly” things in the way that they are “brought up” in society.
VLong, who was born in Argentina, also expresses concern that the way society functions can leave female artists at a disadvantage. “In the UK curators have to include women because it is politically correct, they don’t do it because they see women are involved, they include say three women to look good.” But Nelly Balazs has never been witness to this gender inequality. “The circles I move in when we talk about street art, we don’t talk about it in relation to gender, if you like something you like something, if you don’t you don’t.”
Akit expresses rather frankly: “pointing out female involvement is just banging on about something that should be accepted, like ‘wow you’ve got tits, oh my god you can hold a spray can’, that’s no big deal.”
You could say female recognition is the first step towards equal recognition, and there is certainly plenty of female recognition, something that Ayaan Bulale is very pleased by. “There were 100 hits on google about female street artists, now there are literally millions with a capital S,” she quips, and begins to reel off the names of female artists in the UK, one letter of the alphabet at a time.
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