Writing Gender on the Walls–Women and Graffiti Art

“…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).

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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.

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