On 17 December 2012, I received one of my favorite kinds of emails:
Hi, My name is Katrine and I am from Montreal. [...] One of my friend who is a writer here in Montreal sent me a link where I could read your article published in the C.O.P Magazine and watch your TED talk. I was so happy to see that another woman was also working on female graffiti artists. I have just finished my master on girls writers in Montreal this fall 2012 at the University of Montreal. [...] I met 8 female artists and I interviewed them all; it was so inspiring to hear them talk about their experience in the subculture as woman. I found my self in that, because the graffiti subculture is after all a mirror of every woman life, not only writers. [...]
It’s always a pleasure hearing from other scholars and/or practitioners interested in female graffiti artists. The more the merrier I say! And Katrine was particularly interesting because she has a connection to Montreal’s graffiti scene and had done some ethnographic work with a few women there. I asked if I might read her thesis—she said yes and sent it along, but alas it is in French…so I asked if she might be down with being a guest blogger and sending me something from her masculinity chapter. I want to support her work and the interest she took in the women participating in graffiti subculture, and so below, you will find the excerpt she sent along as the first official guest blog.
While we do not draw the same conclusions about gender in relationship to genre (characters and letters), or analyze the dynamics of masculinity and femininity in the same ways, we are both doing the work of thinking critically about the performance, centrality, and effects of masculinity in relationship to women identified women and their participation in graffiti subculture. And if we do not think critically about masculinity as a community of scholars interested in subcultures, then we are essentially saying it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth our time—further marginalizing and erasing women from graffiti studies. And clearly, that’s unacceptable.
I hope you enjoy it!
An Excerpt from Le graffiti à Montréal : pratique machiste et stratégies féminines.
A Master’s thesis completed for the University of Montréal, 2012.
Over the past three years I have been studying the Montreal graffiti subculture as my Masters research project. The masculine overtones and machismo culture appealed to me more than anything else. I couldn’t ignore the obvious gender relations and issues so I looked at female writers experiences within the context of the traditionally patriarchal history of the arts to illustrate how they visually distinguish their work and practice from their male counterparts.
Dominant cultural institutions and models that shape our understandings of gender and sex relations are reified by writers both in the practice of graffiti and the lifestyles they lead. Masculine identity is confirmed through taking of voluntary risks to achieve higher status amongst other males in the subculture. As Ruby explains, the graffiti writer communicates this status by saying he’s “tough” and “larger than life,” and as women, we are not pushed to prove this type of physicality.
In The Graffiti Subculture, Nancy Macdonald investigated the marginal activities of groups of male writers whose rebellious attitudes could not be fully shared by girls because they did not feel the interest or the motivation for it. Boys “may therefore get something out of graffiti that girls do not; namely, a relevant and meaningful identity. In which case, girls may be brave enough, but not sufficiently interested.” (Macdonald 2002: 100)
In others words, girls lack this motivation because they haven’t been socially instructed to communicate a propensity for marginality. As Throne clearly explains
“You have to have balls. I don’t know too many girls, when it’s raining, when it’s two, three in the morning, who would like to leave the house to go, put themselves in danger, paint a roof top [...]. They’d rather to be home, take a tea, watching Gossip Girls .”
Thes also specifies that the adversity encountered in the act of graffiti lay precisely in the gender question: being a girl can be an obstacle because you put yourself in something that is illegal . According to Macdonald, girls starting in the graffiti subculture are easily ascribed ‘traditional’ feminine qualities – bordering on the stereotypical – such as delicacy, anxiety, and sensitivities to fear, risk and challenges in general (Macdonald 2002: 130). The common assumption is that the graffiti writer is a young male. As Ruby says, a graffiti artist gets dirty, carries stuff, and needs strength , which means, culturally at least, that it’s understood as a man’s job, so people generally see it being done by a guy. Although there are far less female writers on the streets, those out there practicing graffiti are inhabiting roles and behaving in ways that are traditionally considered to be masculine in orientation. They subvert, even break with, popular models of Western feminine culture by asserting new modes of female individuality and empowerment. They show that they are equally capable of taking on the risks and challenges in doing illegal work. Indeed, as Macdonald explained “female writers must work to prove they are not ‘women.’” (Macdonald 2002: 130).
Unlike the overwhelming majority of male writers who focus mostly – if not entirely – on painting letters, there are a significant numbers of female writers who paint characters. Half of the female writers I interviewed for my research devoted most of their energies to painting characters. At first glance the average passerby would most likely not associate these characters with a female writer. A closer and more critical look, however, reveals distinguishing characteristics that can help to differentiate between the types painted by female writers from their male counterparts. When female characters are painted by male writers they tend be portrayed as scantily dressed or not clothed at all, in a submissive posture to a male character (surrounding an authoritative male or in a sexual position), demure, voluptuous, or implying some level of sexual promiscuity, and generally in a passive manner. On the other hand, characters painted by female writers tend to be portrayed as strong, dynamic, active, and even authoritative in nature. They are mostly clothed, fashionable and generally chic.
Some members of the subculture argue that the work done by these female artists is nothing but repetitive, banal, unoriginal characters. Throne says,
I’ve been told by several writers that, as a girl, I shouldn’t focus on doing girl characters because it’s really overdone .” Stela argues that there are virtually no female characters in Montreal precisely because there are so few girl writers on the streets as compared to the overwhelming majority of males. She says that the only way to get over this masculinist discourse is to just not care about it .
Miss Teri admits that her paintings are often the target of criticism, mockery, and disdain because of the perceived feminine qualities of her characters and settings she portrays them in . She does graffiti but tends to focus on painting characters and settings, so the challenge is in trying to establish a presence or identity without being immediately rejected for her style of art. Indeed, her work challenges the existing aesthetic simply by being there. This reaction to her work is considerably more critical given the implied cultural values associated with the abandoned and derelict locations (risky, questionable, even dangerous locales) she has chosen to place her graffiti and paintings.
Not all female writers from Montreal focus on characters. Some, like Ruby and Thes, devote more of their energies to honing their skills in calligraphy. Lettering is generally understood as inhabiting the masculine side of the practice and characters more towards the feminine. Not that these categories are gender locked or anything, but there are tendencies in the population for one sex to gravitate towards a particular form than the other. More guys do letters and more girls do characters. Graffiti tends to be produced in an illegal, risky, even dangerous urban context that, given the popularization of risk taking behaviors increasingly seen in young Western males, it is not surprising to find many males doing graffiti. It is also not surprising to see that female writers have a more difficult time asserting their identities on the streets because it is a space dominated in large part by male writers. Even if they are noticed, it is assumed that they are male writers because of this overpopulation issue. When Thes was starting out her gender wasn’t questioned, many thought that she was a male writer because, as a cultural standard, you just don’t see girls like her breaking the law and seeking a marginal status of identity.
To be a noticed and respected female graffiti writer demands more than just solid can control. In fact, the qualities (courage, risk taking, cunning, fearlessness…) recognized and valued by practicing members of the graffiti subculture are constantly sought by female writers as much as by their male counterparts. Being a female writer means facing a lot of the same challenges met by women in the everyday (sexual discrimination, sexism, etc) only magnified because of overwhelming number of male writers in the subculture. These challenges can make a female writer’s career a difficult one but not impossible. The woman who contributed to this article have shown that the qualities, skills and risks are shared by all writers and artists out on the streets regardless of gender or sex. Importantly, these women are on the front lines of negotiating new challenges in asserting women’s identities in the city and in the arts today.
A special thanks to Thes, Stela, Miss Teri, Ruby and Throne who allows me once again to quote their words, obtained in an interview conducted for my master thesis.
COUVRETTE, Katrine (2012). Le graffiti à Montréal : pratique machiste et stratégies féminines, Master thesis, Montreal : University of Montreal.
MACDONALD, Nancy (2002). The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York, New York : Palgrave.
POLLOCK, Griselda (1988). Vision and Difference; Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, London: Routledge.