Street Heroines Crashes Through Graff Ceiling, Gives the Ladies A Voice
A documentary on female street artists from around the globe.
Photos by: Alexandra Henry
Like other facets of hip hop culture, graffiti has traditionally operated as more of a boy’s club, an underground scene dominated by testosterone-laden adolescents where no girls are allowed in the clubhouse. But since the outlaw art’s inception on walls and in train yards, handfuls of women have been on the ground, chopping it up with their male counterparts. Filmmaker Alexandra Henry hopes to capture that underrepresented history with “Street Heroines,” a documentary film project chronicling the “courage and creativity of female graffiti & street artists from around the world.”
Laying the groundwork with interviews with trailblazers such as graffiti pioneer Lady Pink and photographer Martha Cooper, Henry goes on to interview over 20 women artists (Alice Mizrachi, Danielle Mastrion, Fusca, Gilf, Magrela, Shiro, Toofly) the give the viewer an in depth perspective of what it means to be a female graffiti writer/street artist today.
A “Street Heroines” Kickstarter was launched to raise to help finish the film this summer and release it in 2017. Mass Appeal reached out to Henry to hear more about the project
MASS APPEAL: How did “Street Heroines” come about?
Alexandra Henry: I have been documenting graffiti and street art for 16 years now and not until I was walking down in the street in Queens one day, going to take some pictures around Five Points, did I see for the first time women who were putting up a piece. That was such an “Aha moment” for me. I had never even considered that women were part of the culture. I felt pretty ignorant. So I spoke with them and I realized that yeah, women don’t have a lot of recognition. That’s how the idea was born. All the graffiti documentaries I had seen featured maybe one or two women at most, and those were not widely released.
Will Street Heroines tell the entire history of women in graffiti or are you mostly focusing on the newer stories?
I’m looking to establish three main things.
First, we are going to provide a context in how we can talk about women’s participation and contribution to the street art and graffiti movement, starting from the 1970s on. So that’s when we’ll hear from Lady Pink and Martha Cooper who are the pioneers.
Second is to basically look at the activism that’s also behind the messaging and behind the artistry itself. It’s inseparable to talk about graffiti and street art and not talk about the message, especially when it’s coming from women because it’s totally about the female perspective, the female identity, so we have socio-political issues to bring awareness to.
And the third thing is to really have the film stand as this testament to women’s voices and this emergence of how women are shifting the perspective in our societies that have always been kind of under the construct of patriarchy and, in Latin America especially, machismo.
How is the structure for the Street Heroines story laid out?
We are definitely hearing from the pioneers, but the film focuses on three characters and follows them more in depth.
Toofly is originally from Corona, Queens and then spent time between Queens and Ecuador. We see how she’s gone from being a young aerosol artist, one of the only women in the game during her generation, and how she’s evolved into this strong, respected community organizer who is still working with younger generations and creating a movement for women where it doesn’t exist. Case in point: the first all female urban art festival that she did in Quito, Ecuador last fall.
In Sao Paulo, I’ve been following Magrela, who is a street artist and muralist. With her work she’s bringing awareness to what is the real female identity in Brazil. Is it this completely media sensationalized story on what the perfect woman should look like? The Brazilian butt and the perfect face and all of these things aren’t a reality for most of the population so…what she does is paint these interesting, poetic women in very compromised positions to kind of shed light on what their daily struggle.
And then the third character is Fusca from Mexico City. She rides that fine line between tagging and going out with all guy crews and then also doing commissioned murals. She has a lot of interesting things to say about the lawlessness in Mexico and Mexico City but also how other countries look to subjugate Mexico as a violence-ridden country.
It seems like the women have the added responsibility of having to have use their art to address societal and political issues whereas the guys just get to go out and make art. Is that accurate?
You have some artists who are really waving the flag to say ‘Hey, we are women and we’re doing this and it has to be heard because if we don’t talk about it who is going to?’ We have other women who have been in the game for a while and who have been doing what the guys have been doing. And they treat their art like the guys treat their art. Some women don’t want to participate in the conversation about identifying as a woman. They just want to identify as being an artist or a graffiti writer. I think all of those angles are really important to look at. I can tell you that what women bring to the street art community and the graffiti world is a different sensibility. Just as we have this ingrained in our subconscious that graffiti is a guy’s game and always has been, well now we’re shifting.
What are some of the struggles that female graffiti artists have faced and has that changed over the years?
I think today women still face the same risks and obstacles they faced back in the day. Stories from Lady Pink range from having to having to run away from the police, but also having to defend herself and having to run away from rival gangs back in the 1980s. When they went into a train yard and she was painting there, she didn’t want to get caught by them. She couldn’t wear very feminine things, she had to fit in with the guys in order to distract from her body image.
I think those things still happen today. Some female artists now embrace their womanhood and flaunt it in a sense. This is a big conversation today – there are a lot of artists who dress a certain way, and take selfies, and do certain things to maybe get more likes because there’s this whole other side of street art that lives on the internet and women kind of definitely provoke “likes” in a different way.
Do the guys take the women more seriously now than back in the day, and does it matter?
I think the men definitely take the women more seriously. But as Martha Cooper said, that the camaraderie that guys have amongst themselves is so strong, it’s still hard for them to let women in.
There is no better gratification when I can show a picture to someone and their minds are blown that a woman did it when they never had any inclination that women were out there doing these things.