Global Track is our bi-weekly street art column by Rhiannon Platt.
Author Linda Nochlin famously explored the role of women in art history in her essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” Nochlin states, “But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist ‘controversy,’ it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’" These problematic negations of women artists are repeated in various forms to excuse their absence from the canon of art history, including work created in the streets.
Over four decades later, it still took four years for a woman to be given a spot on the famed Bowery/Houston wall in New York. It wasn’t until 2012 when Aiko was invited, fresh on the heels of Faile no less, to tackle the iconic space. With gatekeepers holding access to permission walls, female artists have taken to reclaiming their space in the public on their own terms.
Lady Pink is considered to be graffiti’s female leader. She climbed walls, jumped fences, and went to great physical lengths to prove her prowess in the '70s. Writer Elle can be seen as today’s New York equivalent. There is seemingly no medium the artist does not use to leave her mark on the city. Elle covers surfaces in any way imaginable using stickers, extinguishers, aerosol tags, wheatpastes, and mops.
However, feats of strength, physically and mentally, remain contemporary challenges for women artists. Elle states, “It is particularly important as minorities to band together and support each other, but it is just as important to prove that we are just as good, if not better than our peers, regardless of sex—and that has been my main motivation in graffiti and street art. If a dude can grip a billboard, so can I.” By diversifying and hitting the streets hard, Elle has worked tirelessly to prove that she can claim the same heights occupied by her male counterparts.
Today, being connected to feminism’s past is just as important to women street artists as persevering in their craft. Women artists today are drawing upon their predecessors for inspiration, including the founders of feminist theory. Elle lists off many artists who were notorious through the writings of revisionist art historians like Linda Nochlin, including Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and Marina Abramović. Through art historians like Nochlin, these women have become a part of a canon that places emphasis on an intersectional rather than the predominate narrative. By questioning the place of women alongside their male counterparts, these early feminists have become inspirations for future generations of artists, such as Elle.
Artist Cake describes herself as having a Teflon exterior. The artist points to this movement as a continued source of strength, stating, “I am not afraid of the word ‘feminist’ anymore, instead I feel connected to it, energized by it. It is not a negative or an annoyance, it is the key to a certain freedom for me as a woman, in and outside this scene.”
The group of artists I spoke with all echo the adversities they face as causes for strength instead of weakness, helping them to push forward. For Cake, it permeates into her daily life. For Vexta, she states, “I also felt I had to work harder and be the best that I could be...or at least that’s how I felt coming up in that scene...and that's a good thing. Work hard, get up, make something original and awesome or stand down.” By mastering her craft, artists like Vexta and Elle have strived tirelessly to prove their unequivocal places in street art. These artists bend mediums to their aesthetics and seemingly no wall is too tall to climb.
As a full-time nurse and artist, Shiro depicts her Mimi character as the multi-armed Hindu Goddess Durga. The figure represents her balance of the many roles in life but can extend further to reflect women artists. Within and outside of their fields, artists such as Shiro, Cake, and Vexta have been challenged to have both a breadth and depth to their knowledge.
Since its inception, feminist art historians have been questioning the canon. In the decades following its rise, classical era portraitists have been underscored alongside the da Vincis of their time. However, as strides have been made to correct the past, inequalities in contemporary art still remain a pressing issue. In a field that exists both legally and illegally, women are pushing to prove their right to exist in the space. Illegally, artists hone many mediums to diversify their presence. However, with legal spaces such as the Bowery Houston Wall taking four years to feature a female artist, strides are still to be made. Until then, women artists are in the streets experimenting and pushing the boundaries, regardless of repercussions.