Ultravenus welcomes our new ghost writer, Iris.
I’ve listened to many stories involving ‘missions’ that have happened all around Europe and the UK, about things that I did not fully understand or I was able to picture in my mind. I began observing from a distance, watching films or documentaries made by anonymous ‘celebrities’ of the scene, breaking into unauthorised areas to ‘vandalise’ equipment (mainly subway and commuter trains). I learnt while glancing over the shoulder of my instigator – watching online clips of masked individuals with 3 to 5 letter ‘nicknames’ belonging to ‘organisations’. What I was actually watching were very ordinary people, mostly intelligent, with complex strategies and an urgency to express themselves. For me, this wasn’t an act performed by some out of control youth, deliberately breaking into locations just to ‘fuck the place up’. This was a chance to be known. These are people with every day mediocre jobs with families and friends, just like you. Whether it’s a tag on a bridge or a piece on a train, this was a chance for them to make a name for him or herself, to be a ‘someone’; except they were all men.
Firstly, it became apparent to me very quickly that this wasn’t for the general public to view and express their opinion on; it was all for the other graffiti writers; a competition to see who could get to the highest, hardest and most respected spots. Phrases like ‘oh, ____ is still about’ or ‘____ has passed through here!’ could be heard, when catching a glimpse of a tag from a long lost writer or, again, using the term ‘celebrity’ of the scene. Perhaps it was someone from another country you admired and had followed for many years in graffiti magazines and online blogs. The more I became educated about the scene; historically, worldwide and locally, the more I wanted to participate. Of course, the artistic aspect of it screamed out to me, having attended art courses in school and college, I had discovered being creative was the only thing I was good at. But I questioned my instigator on numerous occasions about the attitude towards female writers and if he knew of any? I hadn’t seen a single one in the films or documentaries I’d been educated with. I became fascinated with the idea of participating and succeeding in a predominantly male territory; even though this is probably the case for most women.
Graffiti began to appear in the city of New York in the 1970’s after initially starting in Philadelphia. When discussing the subject of subway art at this time, it’s very evident that female writers were just as involved on the scene as males. Renowned writers such as Eva 62, Barbara 62 and Lady Pink were as hardcore as the rest, joining male writers on missions into yards, accepted as ‘part of the gang’. There are many ‘all-girl’ crews in the UK and around the world but there’s possibly only a handful of girls in crews made up of predominantly male members. Personally, I don’t know of any other female writers in this town. My instigator has advised me of many names from the past but none that have really ‘taken it seriously’. Or maybe they were serious? This prompted me into a long and on-going search to find other female writers, using hashtags and scouring other people’s followers to unearth them – yes it really was that difficult. When I found them I was surprised to discover a pattern of comments from men spouting sexual remarks – “girls painting is so hot”, “nice legs” etc. Thinking back, I don’t really know why I was so surprised but I hadn’t seen a single comment on a male writer’s photo about his sexual appearance – A man painting a wall, for example, gets “fresh” or some other congratulatory comment. Let’s not forget the endless photographs I found of girls posed in front of graffitied walls in their underwear or less. Most of them are posed with their faces covered with balaclavas or bandanas under the hashtags of #girlgraffiti or #graffongirls. Though there are many issues on the subject of graffiti, what interested me the most and what probably hasn’t even been considered is: Why are women sexualized once they pick up a spray can?
Someone that fascinates me is ‘Utah’. Not necessarily for her talent, which she does possess, but for her activeness. From stories told on social media and graffiti blogs, this is a strong, powerful woman who goes out with the boys on hardcore missions, travelling the world and painting trains globally on an unprecedented scale. She has been to prison for her art. Though she has had a great and active career in graffiti, I can’t help but notice the male attitude towards her. In an interview with blogue.us, one of the first questions she’s asked is “Is being a woman an advantage or disadvantage? (Sorry, had to ask)” she replies that ‘It’s a non-issue’ for her but the question itself raises an issue for me. Especially as the interviewer expresses the fact that they know it’s wrong to ask. The male equivalent would be deemed a ‘King’ and his gender wouldn’t even be questioned. Again, I noticed the ever-growing sexual comments on photos and videos of ‘Utah’ on social media.
Gender roles determine how males and females are supposed to think and act, amongst many other things, within the context of society. Men/Boys are portrayed as mischievous, rebellious and more likely to break the law and so fit the profile of a graffiti writer. Along with these stereotypical characteristics, you also have the theory that all men are stronger and faster than all women. As graffiti can be a very physical activity which often includes climbing over fences and running from the authorities, they may as well have asked her, “Was being a woman a disadvantage because you couldn’t keep up with the guys?” because what else could the disadvantage be?
There have also been occasions where I have arrived at ‘graffiti gatherings’ and felt I was being sneered at as a tag along. “Pffft…no one else has bought their girlfriend along with them?” is the look they have on their faces, until I begin to take cans out of my tote bad, shake them and start sketching up. I constantly feel as if I’m not being taken seriously…because I’m not; much like those girls who had ‘been and gone’ in Reading. My crew members and other guys I have befriended along the way have given me nothing less than complete support and encouragement, raising my confidence enough to not care about those who may think I’m insignificant or a joke. Along with my interests in feminism and feminist issues, I’m constantly debating and analysing the ‘social norm’. If I wasn’t persistently trying to push the boundaries, I think I would probably have been too brain washed to have a ‘boy’s hobby’, as it’s so often called. I have no conclusion or resolution to the problem; I don’t think I ever will. What I have is the ability to educate others and compare these experiences with those who may have had similar encounters, even if it’s completely unrelated to graffiti. Most importantly, I want people to know that sexism happens even in the most unknown and hidden of lifestyles.