“…it’s a perfect example of how a seemingly inconsequential—or half-destructive act—like writing on the wall can actually promote social change… [simply by] making their gender visible on the wall.” —Jessica Pabón
I love graffiti art. And I’m not talking about the sexist and racist tags you see in men’s bathroom stalls. I’m talking about the artwork decorating urban spaces that graffiti artists refer to as “pieces.” Graffiti is an interesting art form because the artists are–as Richard Lachmann put it–“involved simultaneously in an art world and a deviant subculture” (here: 230).
When walking past a particularly involved piece, I often find myself wondering lots of things. “Who took the time to paint this?” “Was it free hand or did the artist have a plan before starting?” “What does it say?” Or when I can read the writing, “What does it mean?” “When did the artist do this?–In the middle of the night?” “How did they get away with it?” These are fleeting thoughts, but I’m always struck by the reclamation of public space. It’s such a powerful, public statement, claiming and labeling social space. As Jessica Pabón puts it:
Graffiti is a form of writing and writing is fundamentally a form of communicating. So these writers are reclaiming public space. They’re asserting their presence. They’re saying, “I was here!… and here, and here, and here.” (here)
Rather than considering it a deviant act aimed at defacing property, sociologists have found that graffiti artists are drawn by twin processes of appreciating its aesthetic appeal in addition to considering graffiti a practice through which they can make friends and form and solidify communities (here).
In Elijah Anderson‘s Code of the Street, he addresses the ways that boys and young men navigate public space and engage in performances of self that garner “respect”–a resource providing status and safety. While the book is primarily about boys and men, masculinity is not a dominant topic of analysis for Anderson. Yet, his analysis of “the street” treats it as a masculine space–a space in which masculine identities and reputations are formed, validated, “put on,” challenged, and “on the line.” Graffiti might be understood as part of Anderson’s code. Graffiti has a very “masculine” feel to it, and–like Anderson’s work–scholarship on graffiti often implicitly assumes that it’s boys and men writing, drawing, and painting on walls. Why men are doing this, and what graffiti means is the subject of the majority of research attention. Less attention is given to analyzing why (or possibly if) girls and women might engage in graffiti too. Jessica Pabón (above) articulates some of the ways women have been able to accomplish this within the masculinized subcultural arena of graffiti art.
Pabón’s research led her to realize that graffiti culture in increasingly digital. “Crews” no longer span only neighborhoods, but are increasingly globalized through the use of technology. Indeed, digital spaces provide women graffiti artists a community that might not have been able to exist previously. This transformation in graffiti culture has enabled the emergence of all-women graffiti crews. Some of the women Pabón studied were also a part of graffiti crews composed primarily of men. Yet, technological changes in this subculture, relied upon by women artists feeling isolated, enabled the emergence of all-women crews.
[G]raffiti culture [is] moving into a more publicly accessible (yet, still counterpublic) domain as it increasingly exists online; the remarkable increase[s in]… female writers’ access to and presence within the culture; [challenging] the discourse of place itself, now slightly removed from the hyperlocal, reconfigured away from “traditional” notions of authenticity rooted in identity and into those rooted in performance and participation. (Pabón here)
Interestingly, Pabón found that most of the women graffiti artists she interviewed did not identify as feminists. Yet Pabón was initially interested in the topic because she understood it as an incredibly feminist act. And, as she later discovered, it is. Because graffiti is (arguably) an already-gendered act–by which I mean cultural assumptions lead us to presume graffiti artists are men–women face a unique dilemma: gendering their artwork in ways that “out” them as women.
No matter the words, you’re thinking about this guy [the graffiti artist], not that girl. So if this girl wants to be recognized, ‘Hey I did that graffiti,’ as a girl who did that, she has to mark it some way in her art. (Pabón, here)
These small gendered “marks” are political; they work to allow women access to this “masculine” subculture and practice in ways that simultaneously (and often subtly) challenge the gender of graffiti art. Naming their crews the “Stick Up Girlz” and “PMS” is one way they publicly announce their gender. Some incorporate cultural symbols of femininity in small ways into their pieces, like ribbons, bows and hearts. Potentially unrecognizable to the casual observer, graffiti artists incorporate elaborate methods of “signing” their artwork, and these are some of the ways that women graffiti artists gender their signatures in ways that might be read as small acts of gender resistance.