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Breaking Outdated Systems With Lisa King

Figurative painter and muralist, Lisa King, has been doing cool shit in the arts since the late 2000s. Starting with her own design studio and collective artist-run initiative in Adelaide, before flexing her skills in painting and portraiture, which saw her blossom into a kick-ass street artist putting up massive murals across Australia, the US, China and New Zealand.

While Lisa’s success can be attributed to her resilient nature and internal fire fueling her to fight for progression, the reality is that “fight” is a common theme that she, and most women in the male-derived street art and graffiti industry, have to do to get their voices heard.

Keen to open up a dialogue about what these systems look like and how they weigh on women and diversity as a whole, Lisa King joins Street Art Unearthed to peel back the structures that make up the street art and graffiti scene, pointing out the contractions and posing suggestions that can improve upon the movement; encouraging more authentic voices and diversity in gender and style.

Check out the podcast with Lisa King, or read on for excerpts from the chat.


Early Fights for Female Progression

I drew a lot when I was growing up as a kid and then as I entered into high school that kind of dropped off, as I guess it wasn’t seen as cool. We had a massive, massive performance section for music in our high-school. It was quite profound, actually.

I went to an all-girls school. There were only two all-girls schools in my city, and our main focus was on drama and music. But unfortunately, it was just performance, no theory. I wanted to go to Uni to study music, so I kicked up a bit of a storm and I just kind of said that without that stream of education there’s just no way that any of us was going to get into Uni for music.

It just felt like a little bit of a contradiction and a kick in the teeth for spending five years working your ass off but then not having any means to go further, so they introduced that.

The teachers were quite understanding. Where it was the most difficult was that my peers were pretty pissed off. It took all the fun away.

From Music to Art

Anyway, I applied for Uni and got rejected and so my second choice was visual art, which I picked up… I did year 12 twice. I went back for a second time to get a better score, so I could get into music, cause I was kind of flaking out a bit in my first round in year 12.

I just really wanted to go to Uni with music, so I went back to get a better score and still failed, so I picked up visual arts. I got into a Bachelor of Art in South Australia, which I was excited about but there are just so many foundations, and you just study everything in that first year, and I just didn’t find it very grounding, and I was getting distracted, and I just couldn’t really focus.

I’d get into sculpture and then film photography, and then we’d be thrown into exploring abstract art, and I just felt so lost, so I quit that and then I did a certificate 4 in design foundations, which they don’t have anymore. That’s at TAFE, that’s more of a hands-on institution, I feel, anyway. I did that. That was a year course.

Then I went into an advanced diploma of graphic design and marketing. Then I got distracted again and quit that, and then I just decided to open my own design studio and collective artist-run initiative in the city.

Naturally Finding the Path

I didn’t have the choice of going into music, and I was a little bit devastated… I guess I’ve always known since I was younger… I always had that itch and inclination that I would end up in the arts.

My temperament and growing up as a kid and expressing myself through creativity and escaping… I kind of used to play alone a lot and just, you know, be resourceful with creation and making. So I kinda had that inclination that I would end up somewhere…

I only had music and art, so it was a bit like “well, this is what’s happening for the time”, and I think I am a bit of a nowist in terms of… I don’t like to put myself too much in a box as an overall creative, so it’s just by chance happened that I didn’t get into music so when I opened my first artist-run initiative in Adelaide there was such a variety of artists, but a lot of them are from art school and painting and stuff, and I kind of got inspired by that whole community-based energy and I moved forward as a painter. It just kind of happened very organically, I think.

It’s like walking around with a little basket collecting all your own little eggs and everything kind of comes to fruition at some point with your own fingerprint and your own life experience kind of leads you to this pinpoint where you’re like “oh, this is what I’m doing. Cool.”

Lack of Equality in the Roots

I think the way that I have defined my experience is that you’ve got lack of equality in all of our industries, and you’ve got lack of equality in the arts. And I feel like there is this extra, kind of depth to lack of equality in street art and that’s because it’s derived from grassroots of graffiti which is very competitive; you have to be really agile, there were no women really… the stats are super low… and so street art being a new movement from graffiti, which I think is a very new movement… Having those kinds of systems in the backbones of the arts, in general, has really kind of made it hard for women.

Street art is just so multi-faceted. It’s male derived. It’s built of mostly men, and then there is this extreme masculinity ontop of that, which is gang-related. It started out illegal, so there’s lots of systems and harsh edges to the whole movement, and I think as a woman starting now, even 10 or 5 years ago, or even now… it’s just breaking that mould, and it’s like banging your head against a brick wall sometimes, that’s how I feel in my experience.

I feel like the good thing that’s got me through is my internal and ingrained resistance to life in general, but it’s been quite frustrating. I can’t imagine a female that’s had similar experiences that might not be as resilient, but it’s just fighting for opportunities and getting your voice heard. I feel like I’ve had to fight. Especially when I was living in Adelaide, because it’s a smaller town and it is a little bit conservative, it definitely felt like I was pulling teeth at the beginning of me trying to, like, break into the movement and the industry.

Harsh Edges Disadvantaging Diversity

When I started out, the kind of conversation that was coming at me was… and this is again this evolution from graffiti to street art… and in no way at all am I disregarding the root system of graffiti and I have many many friends in graffiti, but there has been a shift, and it has been an addition, and an evolution in this industry and that is more in street art and artists coming into this medium…

And so the conversation that would come at me a lot of the time was like “you’ve got to earn your stars and stripes, you can’t just walk into this industry and think you can do what you want, you haven’t done the hard work, you don’t have the backbone”, and it’s just so boring and outdated. There’s no room for any diversity or anyone that wants to push themselves.

Especially when you have a voice, and you have something to say… not in terms of statement, but in opening conversation… your voice gets really drowned out when you’re trying to adapt to be a different gender or something you’re not. It’s just really dangerous as well.

I just think we take our age and our health for granted, now I am 38 years old, and I’m like “fuck, I just don’t want to fight anymore.” It’s taking its toll on me and my body, and for me, the big flag is women and women’s health… and men and men’s health… but if we’re just fighting and having to shift into different personalities to fit in, it just feels like a contradiction to an authentic voice as a creative. What’s the point if you can’t be your authentic self and you can’t really speak your language.

Sexism On-Site

Oh god, it’s ridiculous. The undertones are so prevalent. I can kind of deal with that. For me, my experiences have been quite harsh. One of the worst experiences I had was when I was going to get a cherry-picker licence, and the trainer was just this fucking… old… I don’t know, I don’t want to sound like an asshole. Basically his tone was “women shouldn’t be driving these machines, and they shouldn’t be in the construction industry”, and he kind of put me in a one-on-one situation outside of the guys and he interrogated me and made me cry.

I had to engage with a lawyer… I just couldn’t be bothered going through the whole… taking them to court. He failed me, and I went back, and I had a mediator to sit in for the whole time, but he was trying really hard.

When I was up in the boom lift doing my practical, he’s supposed to be my spotter, so I’d be asking him to spot me while I navigate through a difficult obstacle and he’d be saying “you’ll be fine, you don’t need a spotter”, and he’d be kicking the dirt around, and he’s just so aggressive and so pissed off that he knew that I was capable to have this ticket and to work in the industry, but he just couldn’t let it go.

There’s just been a few little things like that. I guess in street art moving forward, and the commercial work… a lot of it is in construction, and that’s where that multi-faceted angle plays out because you’ve got fine arts and you’ve got this graffiti industry that’s rooted in systems of lack of equality, and then again you’ve got this… if you want to be working commercial work… you’ve got the construction industry which is another whole kettle of fish. It’s just super hard.

It’s where I get a little bit sad about the ideas of this world and how it can be quite cruel. Just the conditioning of humans is something that I can’t really foresee ever changing, besides us standing up and protesting and fighting to break those systems.

Banning Together as Women

I often kind of get lost among the shitstorm of everything that’s going on. For me, I just have to bring myself back to what I can do, my experience and my voice and I think that specific… when we’re talking about equality with women and diversity, especially with the street art, I think there needs to be a massive change, and I think that no one is talking about it and I think that it just really needs to come from women right now.

I think the good thing about the street art and graffiti scene is that… in terms of we are the minority which is really kind of crap but being the minority gives us — if we glue and mould together — gives us quite a big platform. Getting us all together and just being like “hey, with the lack of diversity in the arts and where we’re going.. the industry and the movement is never going to evolve, and it’s never going to grow”, which is such a contradiction to the arts, in general.

Contradictions in Street Art vs the Arts

I feel like the street art, and graffiti scene holds so many contradictions to art… Say two artists are given the same size wall, with the same client, the same timeline, but one may be a stencil artist or more of a two-dimensional artist… Not directing or making a divide between authenticity of styles… but in terms of the process and how long it takes and how the style is effecting each person…

You know, it might be more strenuous to do one thing than the other and you start adding up 10,000 hours in each person’s career and there’s no understanding… which there is in the arts.. you have the whole spectrum of styles and there’s a real understanding, but in street art, you’re thrown in, you’ve got to be agile, you’ve got to be fast, you’ve got to be quick. It’s cut-throat, you’re expected to work, you know, 12 hours a day and then go home and do emails and design new walls and it’s just… I think that especially with women and women’s health we need to just get together and pull apart and unpack the massive flaws that are holding us back — and the industry as a whole — and just start fucking kicking shit around a bit.

There’s just all these contradictions, I think, that are embedded into graffiti and street art scene that there just needs to be more conversation around it and relating back to the relativity of visual arts.

I think in the near future, things are going to get a lot easier. There’s going to be more understanding of diversity and also… I mean, for me, I say to the client “yeah, I may be taking a little bit longer, but man, my process takes a hell of a long time” even pre-production takes a long time, and then I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I mean “either you can cut my time in half and get a shit painting, or I’ll do something simple, or you can give me an extra week for a work that’s going to be sitting in your space for ten years, which statistically is fucking nothing and just let me give you a good product”.

That’s the thing; there’s all these rules and standards which are so detrimental to the project outcome — unless you’ve got just ten years up your sleeve and just smash it out, which a lot of people can’t.

Education Across Street Art

I think it’s just a conditioning and a system. It’s a systematic thing. Again, it comes to… street art is a new movement. Especially now I feel like in the last five years a lot of fine artists, a lot of artists that don’t have a background or aren’t disciplined in street art and graffiti are coming forward and wanting to practice in this field… But it’s not taught. There is no practical education. There’s no training for this. That makes it really, really difficult.

There has been no grounding and education to clients and curators. I feel like most of the curators and project managers, again, are men and they’ve just got this kind of harsh edge to them, and there is just no understanding of even personality.

Health issues, weight… if you’re more agile, more physical, if your process is more fine art and you’re a realist painter vs someone that can paint three times faster than you. There’s no education in this industry, there’s no new topic of conversation in where we’re heading and just basically bridging together the fact that we have evolved into a subculture from graffiti, which is street art and street art has a lot of fine art, but fine art hasn’t yet been bridged to this medium, and it just feels broken, and it’s just frustrating.

Every scene and movement and industry evolve over time, but I just think the pace needs to be picked up a little bit more because I just feel so empathetic towards younger female artists who don’t necessarily have any support or education and they don’t really feel comfortable getting into it because they’ve just got no idea and it’s just really sad. With the global impact of public art, we could just be missing out on so much amazing talent.

Art Needs to Breath, Process, Evolve

I was just thinking about the hare and the tortoise yesterday because I am a little bit slower and that’s just because I don’t like to just be looking at my work as an asset for commercial projects.

I know artists that have spent the last three years back to back in projects, just being thrown in by their management and curators, back to back, back to back, back to back and it’s just bullshit because education in women’s health and you know…

But also there is just no time to process yourself as an artist and where you want to evolve, and there’s no time to process your mistakes. It’s just really detrimental, and again it’s a contradiction to the arts — the foundations of the arts…

You need time off. You need time to process, and also some people need longer on a job. For me, I sometimes need a little bit longer because I question myself a lot, and that’s just fucking life. There are ups and downs and negatives and pros for everything, but there is no room in commercial work, and commercial work is what kind of keeps our head above water in terms of finances.

I understand you can’t just go into a commercial job where a client is paying you well and just be like “I’m just going to sit in the space, you know, for the next four weeks and faff about and see what I come up with” and be aloof, so there’s this fine balance…

Culture Change or Burnout

I just think curators and managers, especially… This is also the background of that graffiti art mentality where it’s like go, go, go, go, smash it up, get in, get out, like you’re agile, you’re competitive, you’re just like big and ballsy, and it’s just like… No. You’re really stagnating the creative process and the authenticity of being an artist.

So many street artists are just thrown into the deep end, one after the other on projects, and I just don’t see any growth in their work for like five years, and that’s the only time that they stop and then they’re so burnt out that they just don’t have the energy to push new ideologies and to keep up with the time and the culture and the world in which is changing. I mean that is part of being an artist, you want to be adaptive and relevant, and if you’re just too busy being a machine or a financial asset just smashing stuff, it just seems like, again, a contradiction.

What’s On Now For Lisa King

I’m activating three murals inside a cafe design with Juddy Roller at the moment, and I’ve never done three complex murals together in one space, so I’m just trying to figure it out aesthetically without it being too complicated.

I’ve been plugging away on it for about six weeks, but the whole project in its entirety… was kind of an empty space, so we had to build walls, plaster, do flooring, carpentry, designing and selecting furniture, trying to get local makers, visiting studios. It’s been a new experience, but I think considering all of us involved are kind of just doing this type of project for the first time, we’re working quite well together, but the deadline is next week… so, it’s time to get in there and finish it off. But it always ends up, in the last 20% of the time it comes together so quickly.

I’m hoping to finish this project next week and then… obviously because I’m in iso there’s not a lot of stuff going on at the moment, so I’m going to be doing some one-on-one tuition and oil painting workshops with Scott Waddell in the States. He’s a realist painter that’s got kind of some deep roots stemmed from traditional painting techniques.

I’m just gonna take a step back from the commercial stuff for the next, maybe three to six months and just try to hone in on some skill stuff. Get some new skillsets. I feel that covid and iso has slowed everyone down a bit, and I just want to use this opportunity to get a little bit better and a bit more confidence in my work, so yeah, I’ll be in the studio a lot — painting in pyjamas with cups of tea.

Who Supports Women in the Arts

The first one that comes to mind is Guerrilla girls. They’re kicking ass. I’m actually working with them to put in an installation in this Juddy Roller job, which is pretty cool cause there are only two female artists in the curation and, you know, that’s just by chance, it’s not that Shaun or Juddy curated it to have his man pals on… It’s not a dig. I just thought it would be really cool, for me as a female artist to have them on.

There is also Girl Space in Adelaide, which is doing really good.

Advice to Female Artists: Get a Girl Gang

It’s easier said than done but I can only go by the mistakes I made and my experience, but I just wish I had a little bit more confidence to reach out to older peers or other female artists for a little bit more support because I didn’t have any women around me in the early days of my career. I feel like if I did just have even one, it would have made such a difference.

Moving to Melbourne and meeting a few younger artists recently who have had a few struggles and issues, I just want to make sure that I am present and giving them space if they need that support. I just think it makes such a massive difference.

I would just wholeheartedly suggest seeking — especially in street art and graffiti where we’ve talked about the lack of education and training in this whole movement — good support, maybe a mentor and maybe some workshops with other women. Get a girl gang!

Written with excerpts from the Street Art Unearthed podcast with Lisa King.



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