Faces to the Names: Women’s Issues in Street Art

Women Are Heroes via JR on Vimeo

As an art form, public art is all about scale: the larger the wall, the better. In transforming huge walls into canvases, street artists have found a way to transform the visual aesthetic, but also function, of a given space. Walls become not just surfaces for painting but areas for social commentary.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been interested in the ways that street art can create an experience — not only aesthetically, but through its ability to spark dialogue. Lately, I’ve especially been interested in pieces that address women’s issues, from violence against women to public perception. Check out a few of my favorite projects:


Photo by vincent desjardins

Women are Heroes 

JR often works with portraits, printing large-scale faces and affixing them to public spaces. For this piece, he traveled to Brazil to capture the faces and eyes of women. He then transformed these into large-scale pieces that covered Moro de Providencia favela. The work references the fact that women “are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism.” The project has also taken place in Kenya, India and more.

The simplicity of the project lies in its ability to put a face to the statistics, to humanize the many women who becomes just numbers in reports of violence. The project have gone viral and eventually resulted in a book also called Women are Heroes.


Stop Telling Women to Smile

I’m also a fan of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile‘ project which has now been installed in various cities. The artist takes a similar approach to JR in that she approaches women to draw their portraits. Fazlalizadeh also hosts meetings so that women can share their negative experiences with cat calling. She creates a safe space for them to discuss these incidents; the phrases included with the portraits are often taken from what the women share. Her work has appeared both on the streets — everywhere from New York to Paris — and in the gallery setting.

Fazlalizadeh told the New York Times“Women need to start talking about their daily moments because it’s the smaller stuff that affects the larger things, like rape, domestic violence, harassment in the workplace.” The pieces reverse the male gaze, throwing back the action of scrutiny with a confidence and assertion that is palpable no matter the city.


Photo by shoehorn99.

Portrait of Sylvia Elena 

Swoon creates intricate paper pieces that she often posts in public spaces. A multifaceted artist, she also creates installations and floating pieces. In 2008, visitors to Honey Space could descend into a cave-like space underground. There, they encountered the Portrait of Sylvia Elena, a paper piece featuring a teenager in her quinciañera dress. A victim of the violence against women in Juarez, Sylvia Elena died at a young age. Swoon met with her mother and learned more about the other dead or disappeared women in the region and created this piece.

After its initial installation, other iterations of the piece appeared in outdoor spaces in San Francisco and Mexico. Paper, a fragile medium, peels away and disintegrates eventually — reinforcing the tragic nature of the violent incidents.

Girls Can Do Street Art, Too

Talking about women and art might be a worn subject by now or you might say this is a post oozing with feminism, but it’s interesting to note that most of the time the first names that pop up when talking about street art are those of men. At least that’s what I’ve noticed from talking to people who are only slightly interested in street art and those who are a tad bit more obsessed with the phenomenon.

But that doesn’t mean there AREN’T any women artists out there. Since decades ago, there have been women also going behind the police’s back to post their art. I imagine putting on the same dark outfit, pulling on a hoodie and getting to work.

Back when plenty of guys were posting their art on New York subway trains, Ecuadorian artist Lady Pink decided to join in on the fun. She became such an important figure in street art of the late 70s/early 80s; she was even featured in Wild Style, a much-revered film from 1983 that also features legendary graffiti figures like Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you’ve got artists like Swoon, who I mentioned in an earlier post and who was in the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit “Art in the Streets” this past summer. The women’s styles and mediums are completely different – decades after the New York subway train graffiti movement, street art has evolved and it has done so thanks to the help of a few innovative minds, including women artists.

Another artist with her own quirky style is Becca, a street artist who started out in the late ’80s. I found this piece while on a quest to find other pieces.

She was an important street artist in Los Angeles in the ’90s when the street art movement hadn’t really taken off yet. And like any good street artist, she’s got a style that makes her pieces easy to recognize. They’re usually vintage-style figures that remind me of old-school Barbies. She also signs all her pieces with the same lower case b and the same crayon-esque look. Her work has been everywhere from Beverly Hills to Downtown Los Angeles.

All street art pieces have names/signatures near them but if you walk around enough, at least some of the pieces you see are by women, too. Thus, the street/graffiti art is not just for guys. Girls can have their fun, too.

I agree with something Becca told The Dirt Floor in an interview last year and I think it sums up nicely how art, and by inclusion street and graffiti art, is universal.

The question was “Why should people care about art?” to which Becca responded: “Because art can be mind blowing and strengthen your heart.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Sound off in the comments about Becca, women and street art and anything in between!