Overcoming Anger Through Street Art: A Sexual Assault Survivor’s Story
An artist known as ‘Miss Me’ has used artful vandalism to reclaim female power — and in the process, her own life.
Before it happened, Miss Me had been living a “normal life,” she says. Everything fit: her job, her friends, her understanding of the world and herself.
But then she was raped, and suddenly that life did not make much sense anymore.
Miss Me spent months living at her parents, trying to work through the trauma. Notions of time evaded her. “It was a sort of strange trance,” she says. “It took time and determination to get back on course; to eat, socialize, go back to work.”
She knew she couldn’t return to the life she had before, even though it had once made her happy. So she quit her job at an advertising company and took up something she never thought she would: art.
“I’d made a list [of things I wanted to do], because I was scared to end up with nothing and to get confused, and on this list, [art] was at the bottom. It said, ‘paint and draw again,’” she says. “It’s the only thing I’ve done since.”
She’d taken up drawing again after her assault, but the art was private, confined to her personal notebooks. After she quit her job, in an effort to leverage her work for social good, Miss Me decided to take to the streets.
One morning at 3 am, in the dead of winter, she put up wheatpaste posters on a wall in Montreal. The images were simple: female characters from pop culture touching themselves, proudly owning their sexuality.
“The first time, I was so scared,” she says. “It was -12 [degrees Celsius, or 10 degrees Fahrenheit]. I was alone and I told myself ‘Okay, do it!’ I didn’t know what to expect; didn’t know if there would be people around or how it worked.”
In the six years since that fateful night, Miss Me has become an internationally recognized artist. She divides her art into two categories: legal work and vandalism. Her work adorns the streets of several cities around the world, from Hong Kong to Havana. She regularly sees photos of them tagged on Instagram.
Calling herself the “artful vandal,” Miss Me represents women as unapologetic and powerful; she has depicted nude women wearing Mickey Mouse-eared balaclava, feminist icons like Malala Yousafavzai and Frida Kahlo in striking poses, and proudly veiled African Queens.
More than an act of activism and a statement to the world, her art is closely connected to her experience as a woman and survivor.
After her assault, Miss Me’s anger was so powerful that it nearly destroyed her. Convinced she was to blame for what happened, she turned her rage inward, and began to hurt herself. “Then, at one point, I decided to say ‘it’s not my fault.’”
To seek release, she screamed, she exercised — and she turned to art. With art, she says, “You build something; you give form to an emotion and sometimes it does you good.” Drawing and doing street art became a “positive addiction.”
“It liberated me a lot,” she says. “I had the feeling I was saying ‘fuck you’ to everything and everyone. I knew [my art] was going against everything I had been told to do, everything I’m supposed to do.”
As a woman, anger was not an emotion she had previously felt comfortable expressing. “When you are angry, you pass for a ‘crazy’ person, a ‘hysterical woman,’” she says. “These are labels people use to diminish our emotions…to tell us, ‘Look, it’s nice what you’re saying but there’s no reason for it, you’re making a scene for nothing so please shut up.’”
I had the feeling I was saying ‘fuck you’ to everything and everyone.
In contending with the aftermath of her abuse, Miss Me started understanding herself in the broader context of feminism. While she remembers acting in ways that “were not expected from a young woman,” she didn’t consciously consider herself a feminist for a long time because her life “worked.”
But after being forced to reflect on her life during those months of post-trauma healing, she became “hyper conscious” of all the double standards women face.
This realization has shaped her work — as in her first series of drawings, called “Dessert for Breakfast,” which depict half-naked women with heads of popular cartoon characters like Betty Boop or Hello Kitty touching themselves or in sexual positions with other women.
Miss Me wanted to “be proud of [her] sexuality again, to refuse being humiliated, to refuse women being humiliated because of their sexuality.”
From her “normal life” as an art director at an ad agency to an acclaimed artist channeling her feminism into striking street art, Miss Me has undergone a dramatic evolution — and it’s one she admits she sometimes feels uncertain about. “My life is a bit of a mess when you think about it,” she says.
But whenever she reads messages from fans, which includes people of all genders expressing the way her art has moved and changed them, she embraces the power of what she’s doing. “It touches me so much; I find that magical,” she says of the responses she’s received. “What’s interesting is that what [these visuals] represent to others is not what they mean to me. People can find their own meanings; they belong to them.”