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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Glimpse of French Graffiti Art in LA

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As oftentimes happens, I leave my camera at home right when I find something good.

This particular time, that special something was a piece from French graffiti artist TILT. He stands as a good example of the thriving street art scene in France which is just as happening as the one here in LA.

TILT employs a really cool technique in which he uses bubble letters – the stylizing of letters seen in a lot of old-school graffiti writing in New York, Los Angeles and other parts of the world – to create different shapes. Sometimes you can read them so they mean something, sometimes they don’t. They might shape something familiar, like this star, but it takes more work to decipher the letter or words hidden within. Can you spot ‘Los Angeles’ spelled out in this one?

At his show in Fabien Castanier in Studio City last year, he took the theme of American Food and gave it his own twist. “All You Can Eat” transformed the gallery into a visual feast with giant hot dogs and hamburgers made up of the bubbly letters. It was a great merging between gallery and street art not only because of the giant pieces that still held an urban, edgy feel but because of the videos TILT included. In those, you could see a white wall transformed into all-black by TILT’s spray can gracefully forming a number a number of shapes or a black wall turned into all white through the same process. It was a simple but strong statement about the power of one spray can paint color to transform an entire wall.

When I bumped into this piece in LA, it reminded me of the ongoing magnitude of street art. TILT’s site names a long list of places where the artist traveled to explore and “leave his mark.” The artist left the States after his show closed but thankfully he left this token behind for Angelenos – a reminder that street art really does use the world as its canvas.

I Want to be a Beautiful Loser

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Ok. So. Last time I posted I was asking if YOU were out there. If you were reading.

That was mid-year 2012 and we’re in 2013. So, actually, I have to prove that I’M still here. I haven’t posted in a veryyyyy long time but I hope don’t think that’s because I grew out of my love for street art and decided to stop writing. Preposterous. It’s actually the opposite – I started writing SO much more, started meeting a lot of artists and snapped enough photos that I had to purchase a new SD card with more memory capacity.

So why haven’t I been sharing any of this with you?? Mmm I don’t have an answer besides the semi-pathetic but still-true excuse that there’s not enough time in the day. But it’s better late than never right?

I’m not trying to brag and say I’m a seasoned writer and street art expert but I am SO grateful to have met a lot of really great people and stumbled across many pieces in the span of 2012. It’s ridiculous how I moved from writing a few occasional art show reviews for a school paper to branching out into other outlets in the publishing world and discovering more art. Any weekend I’m not at a gallery opening, I feel strange.

I could post plenty of photos from gallery shows – which I will, I promise – but a certain set of photos puts my point across better I think. As I photographed and wrote about more and more shows, I always kept in the back of my mind where I’m from and why street art first called to me.

If you drive near my place of residence you see plenty of trash. You see broken sidewalks. You hear sirens. This isn’t a sappy, pity-me scene. It’s reality. That’s where I’m from and I’m grateful to have grown up in a less-than-aesthetically-beautiful neighborhood that shaped me to be a loving person and a tough woman at the same time.

But when you walk on those cracked streets you can also find art when you look more closely. Yes, sometimes I encounter art pieces when I’m driving, not just aimlessly wandering, but the fact that I found art pieces in the middle of a neighborhood where you can’t find a gallery for miles is something that fueled my love for street art.

I was working on a project for a photography class and a friend suggested we visit an alleyway where he discovered art.

There, we took the photos I needed and then just wandered around the alley. It wasn’t a pretty sight, believe me – a pair of broken heels, a dirty Q-tip, a torn bed – but the art showed someone’s genuine efforts for creativity.

I recently watched the movie “Beautiful Losers” which follows well-known, successful artists like Shepard Fairey and Barry McGee and how they started. Basically, friends got together and started a small gallery in NY which was one big party. But they all stressed the idea of a need to create – a very human, automatic instinct to just MAKE something.

The movie got me itching to create and I wondered how that idea changed from NY to here in California and in a neighborhood with residents that perhaps can’t spend tons of money on art supplies or even known of a gallery to visit. I felt frustrated at the idea that in my neighborhood I couldn’t name one person that made art; I don’t remember it seeing hanging on the walls of  my babysitter’s house or even a family member’s place. I remembered that not until I went to private high school was art something that truly mattered. Even then, I didn’t feel the need to create – I learned to be careful where I walked, to work hard so I could make my parents proud and one day move my mom out of her house in a dangerous city. I didn’t learn to want to create; I didn’t learn to value and love art.

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Ultimately, I found art in the streets. It was there to make me learn to love and praise art and the process of creating. It was there to inspire me to make little pieces of art in my room, to walk into Blick with no clue about spray paint and pick random cans in weird colors.

I owe a lot to street art. Though I’ve met well-known artists and told them my love for their work it’s the nameless figures who created the art around my streets that I want to say thank you to the most. “Beautiful Losers” made me want to create and it reminded me that while the gallery holds art, the streets hold the people that inspire me to create freely, openly and without worrying about impressing anyone. Just creating.

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