The anonymity that is often a requirement of street art could easily hide the artist’s gender. Most tag names are androgynous, and the secrecy surrounding artists’ true identities means people wouldn’t have to know what sex they are. But female artists have steadily been infiltrating the male world of street art, marking themselves on the scene with a sense of ownership characteristic to their chosen medium. Living Walls, a street art advocacy group in Atlanta, is hosting the world’s first all-female street art conference next week (beginning Wednesday, August 15, 2012, with events through Sunday) to encourage this shifting dynamic. Twenty-six women, arriving from several continents around the world, will collaborate on several large-scale murals that will grace the sides of walls all over the city.
The five-day conference intends to inform the public about street art, particularly the gender politics involved, in addition to facilitating new murals. Events include a two-part lecture series, the first discussing “gender, identity, and artistic community intervention,” as well as a movie screening hosted by Vandalog’s editor-in-chief RJ Rushmore, an abandoned art house opening, and other opportunities to mingle with the ragtag crew of artists, some of whom are flying in from as far away as Switzerland and Australia. The complete schedule of events can be found on the Living Walls website.
Alex Parrish, Living Walls’ director of communication, explained over email: “Over the past two years, over 50 artists have participated in [the conference]–only two were female, and neither of them had a chance to paint a wall. In fact, we looked across the world at street art conferences and festivals similar to ours with a small number [or] zero female artists participating.” This lack of female representation is common. And while it’s true that there are still far fewer female street artists than male, the amount of publicity for women in street art is disproportionate to how many are creating important works.
As a recent Vandalog article “Artists Who Are Also Women” discussed, the politics of equality become quite contentious in the street art world, as with any situation in which a minority seeks to be recognized. Robin Grearson writes, “Consider that the most powerful and the most personal work is not necessarily going to resonate as strongly once it crosses gender lines …. And that’s how it works: women don’t end up on too many ‘greatest’ lists, if the guys are the gatekeepers.” The article points out why it’s vital for women to insert themselves into not only the practice of street art, but also the advocacy of women in street art. Living Walls–founded by Monica Campana and staffed almost exclusively by women–is trying to provide that context for females in street art this year.
The lack of female visibility in street art is a bit of a gender-equality conundrum. Alternate identities–made mostly through tag names and a consistent, recognizable style–must be created to protect the artists who may or may not be acting within the boundaries of the law. This cloak of invisibility allows artists to take a step back from humanity, turning their artistic visions into overarching concepts and their personalities into alter egos; such rebirth offers female artists a rare chance to act outside of their gender. But it seems that most women are creating personas that make their femininity accessible; more and more murals depict female subjects, often young, fairy-like ladies with colorful swirling hair and delicate features.
Indigo from Vancouver and Swoon from New York, two artists who will be participating in this year’s conference, often depict ethereal female figures that can alternate between vulnerable and idealized. The oft-transforming nature of street art allows these figures to be both at once. Unlike portraits viewed in a gallery setting, the aesthetics of street works are constantly shifting: a sunny day can brighten a moody work, and the presence of a Walmart across the street can turn an unassuming depiction of a flower-filled field into political commentary.
One of Swoon’s better known works has occupied a wall in Manhattan since 2003, and between then and 2007, it underwent more permutations than the number of years it had existed. Beginning as a simple stencil of four young women, it was covered over numerous times in an escalating show of disapproval by other street artists, and each time Swoon created a more elaborate work to replace it. The latest incarnation of the wall is a full-color picture of a pregnant-looking lady with a cartoonish sun bursting below her in lieu of legs.
Without knowing the history of the wall, this would seem overly precious. Yet the way the woman cranes her neck–fixed on the spot next to her where one of Swoon’s vandalized and painted-over women stood years before–darkens the work. And this kind of darkness represents a particularly female knowledge of loss, which can be applied several ways. There are the possible narratives of a lost child, of a girl who becomes a woman too quickly, or of an expectation to nurture anything and everything and not being able to. Mother figures, at any moment, teeter between being highly glorified and ready to face tragedy.
Women in street art are using personae that universalize the female experience, showing people–lots of people, unsuspecting people, as the genre tends to do–what it is to be female. Living Walls wants to show what it is to be a female making art in a highly public and physically enormous setting. And, hopefully, this conference can reduce gender tensions in street art by temporarily highlighting them, serving as a reminder that the female experience is significant simply because it is part of the human experience.