Wildstyle women: female hip hop graffiti

Kara-Jane Lombard writes about the strategies of resistance and negotiation developed by female graffiti writers in the predominantly male subculture of hip hop graffiti.

Ladie Poise and BODE.

Hip hop graffiti is considered a predominantly male subculture, but girls and women have been consistently involved since it first emerged. While contemporary media accounts often overlook this fact, the first report of the subculture in the mainstream media, Richard Goldstein's 1971 New York Times article ‘“Taki 183" Spawns Pen Pals’, did mention Barbara 62, one of the first female writers. Barbara 62 was prolific on the streets and subways along with other female writers of the early 1970s, such as Eva 62, Michelle 62, Stoney, Cowboy, Grape, Charmaine, Kivu, Poonie 1 and Siku 1.[1] 

During the second half of the 1970s, female writers were less active, although in 1979 Lady Pink emerged, who “would become the most enduring and accomplished female figure in the history of writing to date”[1]. Since then, female involvement in graffiti has proliferated, and the website @149ST Cyber Bench: Documenting New York City Graffiti claims: “the new breed of female writers shows a level of commitment seldom seen in earlier generations”.[1]  

Until recently, scholarly work on hip hop graffiti has tended to neglect gendered accounts of the subculture. The female contribution has been particularly overlooked, with graffiti primarily considered in terms of constructing masculinities.[2] While graffiti can be considered an activity that allows men to “construct and confirm their masculine identities”[3], it is not as easy to map femininities to hip hop graffiti. Female graffiti writers complexify traditional gender notions – operating within the masculine spaces of hip hop/ graffiti and the public realm/city, they are part of a subculture in which authenticity is presented in masculine terms[4], yet they enter this subculture assigned a tainted set of traditional feminine qualities including being timid, delicate, and unable to deal with fear. While masculinity is upheld as her goal and female writers must work to prove they are not women, when a girl or woman demonstrates graffiti skill, she demonstrates her ability to be masculine, a display of female masculinity that patriarchal cultures find threatening.[5]

When asked why they thought women did not have a stronger presence in contemporary hip hop, SPIEone cited the usual (patriarchal) suspects and called for respect for females, while Neonski replied: “cause they’re not strong. Writing isn’t a woman’s thing”[6]. For Neonski, there appears to be something essentially male about writing. Nancy Macdonald’s study into masculinity and graffiti reveals that some writers position graffiti as men’s work[7], and the masculine nature of graffiti is defined using two types of accounts – firstly, that females lack the ability to cope, and secondly, that males are more motivated.

Female graffiti writers often recount that they are objectified or discredited. @149ST states: “the social atmosphere can be extremely harsh. Female writers are often subjected to all kinds of harassment. They are frequently the subjects of rumours such as ‘She sleeps around to get style’ or ‘Her boyfriend writes for her’. In general women have to struggle for respect for their accomplishments.” While these appear to be the most commonly reported reactions, two female writers indicate that male writers’ attitudes are more nuanced than this. Lady Pink has alternately reported that there were male writers who looked out for her like a sister[8], and that “there was sexism from the guys who didn’t want to believe that I was doing my own work”[9]. Prominent Australian writer Ladie Poise, who has been writing graffiti for close to thirty years, states that while graffiti is a boy’s club: “some women fit in, and some don’t. Unfortunately you’ll always be judged on what you look like (pretty or ugly) by someone in the game, and whether or not you ‘give it up for the fellas’, but this really reflects on the maturity of who’s judging you”[6]. There are also responses to female graffiti that elide gender, focusing on merit alone – Poise’s husband has said he had to lift his game when he began painting with her.[10]

Academic accounts of graffiti have often adopted a subculture perspective on resistance. Michael Brake argues that, “spraying graffiti on subway cars or ‘bombing’ are all visible symbols of resistance”.[11] For some female writers, their experiences of graffiti have little to do with resistance. For Lady Poise, her motivation is only partly resistive. She explains that writing graffiti “is definitely release ... it’s my happy place, and I love to create, and draw, whether it’s a big inky mess, or something really detailed and colourful. It’s the fun of destruction in a world where we really don’t get a say (even if authority has you fooled that you do) and a sense of freedom in doing something you’re not supposed to. It’s liberating I suppose”. Apart from allowing her a voice and a sense of freedom, Poise has also expressed that graffiti allowed her to experience a different life to her female high school peers – one outside the suburbs and the proverbial ladder.

Considering female writers in terms of resistance, like their male counterparts female writers can be seen to be transgressing space, albeit in a slightly different way than boys and men do. Susan Stewart argues that “the façade that graffiti inscribes is clearly a projection or an externalisation of the private body of the middle classes”[12]. It must also be an externalisation of the hegemonic male body whose realm has been traditionally considered that of the urban and public, which is perhaps why it is so crucial that graffiti be policed with such militance. In the case of female writers, the threat they pose in transgressing and reclaiming space results in renewed focus on their bodies. In one interview, American writers Claw Money and Miss 17 report being read as prostitutes while out painting at night – despite displaying none of the obvious signifers of prostitution. Claw elaborates: “we’re like covered in filth, like, and paint and they’re still honking at us and being really aggressive”[13].

For female writers, regardless of their location, their experiences of the urban spaces in which they paint are profoundly gendered. As Lady Pink remarks about writing graffiti in the 1980s: “running around underground as a female was hugely dangerous. I had to disguise myself as a guy and try not to stand out ... The police would threaten us if we were female”[14]. On the other hand, British writer Akit has found performing her gender to be an advantage. She explains: “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 a fresh still-wet piece/tag and people would completely disregard that I could be the perpetrator”[15]. These two accounts indicate the range of gendered experiences encountered by women writing graffiti.

A further example can be found in a 2012 article on Colombian female graffiti writers. The article outlined the discrimination, violence and fear felt by Colombian women, who face additional adversity in a society already characterised by forced displacement, drug abuse, and social cleansing. These experiences mean that for female writers in Colombia like Hera and Pura Amor, graffiti allows them to protest and deny the violent reality of being a woman on the street, and proclaim their right to be there and to exist, despite their fears.[9] Graffiti allows these writers to respond to their lived circumstances, and thus their resistance is directed at different phenomena to that of Lady Poise’s, for instance. Although Australian women do not experience the same cultural and societal circumstances as Colombian women, there is a similar understanding of the street and the dangers it poses for females. In one interview Lady Poise explained that while “being female in the early days was not as dangerous as it is now, she recalls a few ‘hairy scareys’ while painting the train lines which prompted her to stop going out painting alone”[16]. She states: “there’ll always be the safety aspect of being a female out on your own at night, and police and security issues, but in honesty, if anything it has got a little more challenging of late”[17].

Because of their gendered experiences of urban spaces and graffiti culture, female writers have developed a number of strategies of resistance and negotiation. These often involve relationships with other female writers. Some of the forms of resistance developed by female writers revolve around safety, while others are more strategic such as all-female graffiti crews and female graffiti jams. In Australia, the annual Ladie Killerz Graffiti Jam has been running for six years and has grown from five to forty participants. As one of the organisers of Ladie Killerz, Ladie Poise aims for the event to be a unifying factor in the female graffiti scene. While not a traditional mentoring program, Poise explains: “you could start writing as a young chicky, and the boys would give you shit flat out if you can’t handle it, or be tough enough to say ‘fuck you, I do what I want’, then you kind of don’t progress, but with Ladie Killerz they don’t have to put up with that shit. They can just hang with us, have a beer, and it’s all good – we don’t give a shit if you’re a toy and just started this week, or you’ve been writing twenty-odd years plus like Chez, Spice, Thorn and those other girls”.[9]

 

Footnotes

  1. a, b, c @149ST. 2003. "Female Writers" @149ST The Cyber Bench: Documenting New York City Graffiti: http://www.at149st.com/women.html.
  2. ^ N. Macdonald, The Graffiti Subsculture: Youth, Masculinity and Indentity in London and New York, Houndmills: Palgrave, 2003; M. A. Monto, J. Machalek and T. L. Anderson, 'Boys doing art: The Construction of Outlaw Masculinity in a Portland, Oregon, Graffiti Crew', Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 42:3, pp. 259–90, 2013; K. Lombard, 'Men against the wall: Graffiti(ed) masculinities', Journal of Men's Studies 21:2, pp. 178–90, 2013.
  3. ^ Macdonald, p. 96
  4. ^ Macdonald, p. 134.
  5. ^ Macdonald, pp. 130–31, 141.
  6. a, b Spie, Poem, Neonski, and Art Student, 2001a, 'Graffiti interview Part 2', Hip-Hop.com: http://www.hip-hop.com/section10/interview2.html.
  7. ^ Macdonald, pp. 98–101.
  8. ^ E. Horan, New York City's Queen of Graffiti: Lady Pink, 2012, Vimeo video: http://vimeo.com/52906120.
  9. a, b, c E. Clift, 'Graffiti: Women artists make their mark', Women's Media Centre, 2011: http://www.womensmediacentre.com/feature/entry/graffiti-women-artists-make-their-mark.
  10. ^ C. Hughson and M. Quinscara (writers, producers, directors), Lady Poise, 2007: http://vimeo.com/64428426.
  11. ^ M. Brake, Comparative Youth Culture: The Sociology of Youth Cultures and Youth Subcultures in America, Britain and Canada, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, p. 127.
  12. ^ S. Stewart, 'Ceci Tuera Cela: Graffiti as art and crime', in Crimes of Writing Problems in the Containment of Representation, Durham: Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 206–33.
  13. ^ Claw Money Miss 17 Graffiti interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4G77apHP3VY and E. Gentry, 'Girl's night out: Female grafitti artists in a gendered city', Masters diss., Graduate College of Bowling Green, 2008
  14. ^ E. Clift, op. cit.
  15. ^ L McGillicuddy, 'Graffiti: Meet the Street Writing Women', The Independent, 14 December 2011: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/graffiti-meet-the-street-writing-women-6276454.html.
  16. ^ 'An interview with Lady Poise',Wordplay Magazine 7, 2013. 
  17. ^ Personal communication, 8 November 2013.

Kara-Jane Lombard teaches in the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University, Western Australia. Her research interests include youth culture, creative industries and governmentality.