A voice for the voiceless?
By Jordyn Butler
Street art is a culture known for being a ‘voice for the voiceless’, but in terms of gender is it really?
“Like this is genuinely disturbing. Like look at that.”
She hands me her phone looking at her Instagram: @rose.wh1.
I’m looking at a photo of a mural in Richmond, depicting naked women, bond and gagged like horses. It’s juxtaposed with a young innocent looking girl holding a rag doll, sitting in in a carriage led by the women.
“It’s kind of like a chastity belt and they have like a bit in their mouth. And also their boobs pushed up. It’s just like, you don’t want to see that.
“As a woman you don’t want to be walking around your daily life and just be assaulted by that kind of image,” says Rose.
I’m sitting down for coffee with Rose Wh and Alex Mooney @alexpostsphotoshere, two young women studying politics and languages at the University of Melbourne.
This semester they are both taking a breadth subject on street art in Melbourne, but it’s something they’ve had an interest in for awhile.
“And this street artist is really famous. This won’t get painted over,” continues Rose.
The whole wall mural is by US cartoonist and street-artist Mark Bodé, who travelled to Melbourne at the end of last year.
Rose explains because street-art and graffiti culture is dominated by men it changes the streets.
“I feel like it can because it makes spaces and public spaces unwelcoming, but artists don’t even think about it.”
Alex adds, “It just makes you feel uncomfortable.”
“And when you bring it up, it’s like you’re the bad guy.”
Earlier in the semester, Alex and Rose attended a QandA panel at Melbourne’s Blender Studios as part of the street art class.
Blender Studios is an art complex and an intuition for artists, allowing them space to practice and get a wider variety of opinions. It’s a community for all art, but it has roots in street art, founded by street artist @doyelsart.
On the panel were some of Melbourne’s most well known street artists: @doylesart and @junkyprojects.
“Well they kept on going on about how freaking revolutionary street art was, and I remember them saying how street art was a voice for the voiceless,” says Alex.
“We’d been sitting there awhile and I was like ok, and I put up my hand.
“And they were like ‘yes’, and I was like ‘To what extent do you think that street art could be considered a voice for the voiceless when the majority of people that are making street art — like prominent street art in Melbourne — are middle aged, white, straight men, compared to someone who I would consider to be voiceless like an immigrant woman who has to take care of the family who can’t just go out on the street and make art?” she says.
“And they got so mad,” Rose laughs.
What happened next was what Alex and Rose describe as very intense.
Judy Griffith, studio manager at Blender Studios, attended the QandA.
She tells me, “It stirred up a couple of the artists on the panel and then it got quiet heated.”
“We’ve been told multiple times since then by everyone that we’ve spoken too, ‘they’ve had such a hard time because they all started out like tagging’. Even a decade ago street art wasn’t accepted…so they’ve really had to fight everyone in order to like keep doing it and be legitimate,” sympathises Rose.
“So when I came and asked them a question which was challenging their ideals, they saw it as a challenge instead of me asking a question because I want to learn,” says Alex.
After the QandA ended, the argument then spilled onto Instagram, when Rose posted an image.
I’m flicking through the the comments. One catches my wandering eye:
@doylesart “I was 21 when I set up Blender studios it wasn’t about race creed sex it was about art. If all you walked away from my talk was sexism… then you are a dick without a brain.”
I point it out to Rose, who says she’s glad the discussion spilled onto online.
“They really come out of the wood work — when they are just spewing angry shit at us, they just can’t hide what their actual opinion is,” she says.
“It’s just disappointing because I respect them, I respect what they do. But clearly they have absolutely no respect for me,” says Alex.
The young women say weren’t suggesting the studio was sexist but rather they wanted to discuss the barriers to entry in the culture.
Judy acknowledges that the artist’s responses were defensive.
“Everyone here spoke about it for days afterwards and came up with plenty of reasonable answers that we [Blender Studios] should have given, but put on the spot an artist is not a public speaker, and they are not necessarily an academic like these girls.”
The discussion: Can anyone do it?
Judy says the whole idea behind street art is that everyone has access to it.
“It comes from it’s roots in graffiti, so like when graffiti first kind of evolved in Philadelphia and New York in the early 1970s it was basically kind of the lower socio-economic kids that were doing it.
“So it was the kids that felt left out and forgotten by there society and it was their way of reclaiming space and saying ‘Hey, I’m here and this is my city too’.”
She says street art is the only unfiltered medium where “anyone can say whatever they like”.
“A lot of artists started painting on the streets because they were approaching galleries and they couldn’t get into them or couldn’t secure a show, so they were like ‘alright screw this I’m just going to put my artwork on the streets where everyone has to see it anyway’”, says Judy.
Male dominated graffiti culture.
Judy says today there is a huge difference between street art and graffiti culture.
Despite the cultural links — graffiti is more male dominated and physical (climbing high buildings for example) compared to street art, which is now done a lot of the time in the middle of the day.
But she is hesitant to make generalisations.
“There’s definitely chicks out there that would love to take crazy risks and get a thrill out of that sort of thing” she says.
Chris Honig, is a street art lecturer at the University of Melbourne, and Rose and Alex’s teacher.
He believes while usually you take a risk with a goal in mind, when it comes to graffiti culture the risk is the goal — and this kind of behaviour is linked to building a masculine identity.
“So like driving your car fast or like free solo rock climbing or doing transgressive things like breaking into train yards and doing graffiti and things like that.”
While he understands the concept of street art and graffiti culture being a ‘voice for the voiceless’ he doesn’t believe anyone can go out a mark a wall.
“That’s kind of bullshit.”
“If you have a disability you can’t really go out and do graffiti. That’s sort of an obvious one, but then there are others like normalising social pressures sort of make it easier for men to do graffiti, and it’s just harder for women to do it.
Like if a man goes and marks graffiti his friends might be like ‘oh yeah that’s kind of cool’ but if a girl does it, people don’t respond to it n the same way.” he says.
Rose believes one of the reasons why women find it hard to get into street art and graffiti culture is because of the aversion risk.
“The risk taking argument makes sense because there are obviously barriers for women like you don’t want to go out into alleyways at night, because like obviously…”
She gives me a knowing look. It’s a look that all women understand. Most women try to avoid these risk taking activities; like not walking alone at night, trying not to get arrested, taking a short cut down a lane way or catching public transport alone when it is dark.
This reality is not lost on Alex.
“The reason why I don’t take risks is because of that learned behaviour. Like when I take risks people are really upset, you know? Socialisation is funny isn’t it?”
It’s a sad reality; and traditionally this is where the politics of street-art and graffiti culture thrive.
“You know how street art is really concerned with capitalism, and they don’t want to have commissioned areas where anyone can paint because that would be the defanging of the movement.
But it also kind of sucks that is the perception when like having areas where it’s legal would allow for other people who — for example women — can’t take the risk taking behaviour to join in,” says Alex.
She believes this traditional philosophy — rooted in graffiti culture — doesn’t consider the needs of minority groups or vulnerable groups in society.
“I feel like it’s not enough — you can’t just say that you are a political movement but not actively be a political movement. Like a part of actively being a political movement is like self-monitoring and trying to improve,” says Alex.
Judy understands, but believes the culture is still for everyone with access to the streets.
“It’s frustrating because as a female myself, I’m always like ‘why is the studio full of guys?’ or ‘why aren’t there many female street artists?’
“But at the end of the day when you understand the movement and understand that no one invites you to be a street artist, no one is like standing there being like ‘no you can’t be a street artist because of this’ anyone can do it.”
“You know what it might be?”
I wonder with her, trying to figure out a solution to this gendered issue in a culture that has been known for being so progressive.
“It might be a lot of street artists start out like graffiti writers and the learn how to use spray point and they learn kind of the landscape and the whole kind of culture of the streets through graffiti and then they evolve their art, and that’s how a lot of the big street artists did initially get involved.
“And that’s probably one primary reason, like the introduction into street art. There’s not enough women out there that know this, that know that they can just go out and do it,” she ponders.
Alex and Rose know the limitations, and they know street art isn’t a collective movement.
“Treating street art like it’s a unified movement or any kind of unified body is not correct. Most street artists just work by themselves and they have to be anonymous,
“It’s not really a community of people who are just making these decisions together or like driving a movement, it’s just kind of happening,” explains Rose.
“No one artist can speak for the whole street art world. Because it’s just a big odd ball collection of lots and lots of different artists, who have different views and different opinions on things.”
Street art and graffiti culture is known for politically empowering for those who do not usually have a ‘voice’ in society. Themes of capitalism and class warfare are regular themes on our streets making us think, feel and speak differently through art.
“But as soon as you bring up gender they say ‘no it’s not about that’ it’s just about art. It’s only about art and you’re like ‘ok but you just said it was about politics’. So you can’t have both,” says Rose.
“I really appreciate what they’ve done. But I think in order for us to take them seriously, they need to take it to the next level,” adds Alex.
“That’s why we want to talk about gender, and we want to talk about class but it’s not all we want to talk about. It’s not the only politics that exist.”
Judy tells me it is something she thinks about quiet often too.
And while it’s not perfect, street art is still an avenue for the voiceless.
“That’s the whole thing about voice for the voiceless, it’s the most unfiltered medium or platform to project a message that there is.
“Everything else is filtered, but the street isn’t until it gets buffed it is out there for everyone to see and anyone can do it, it’s just obviously the risk factor involved.”