The Antifascist Graffiti Movement Knows No Gender

By Jillian Sequeira

Graffiti, for all its dedication to defying conventions, has historically been a boys’ club. Theories have been posited as to why this gender gap exists in an art form that, by definition, historically evolved to dismantle power structures — shouldn’t protest, like anger, be genderless?

What reality tells us, however, is that graffiti has been relegated to the same bifurcated sphere that nearly every industry suffers from; women, while as prevalent, educated, talented, and diligent as their male counterparts, are systematically overlooked.

Lady Pink, who wended her way into the New York City graffiti scene by way of Ecuador, told Catfight magazine:

“It’s a difficult field for a woman. There’s the attitude that women are too weak and therefore a liability, or the attitude that they just can’t do it. It’s hard for a girl to be a graffiti artist. You might as well throw your reputation in the dirt. Everyone thinks you’re a slut. I needed to hold my head up and prove that I could do it for other women.”

Graffiti artists climb towers and precarious ladders, dangle from overpasses, and wrangle public transportation late at night; they’re often-filthy creatures of the night and they’re often criminals, too. It’s not a classically feminine paradigm.

While hundreds of female graffiti artists are painting around the world, only a handful are as in demand or talked about as their male counterparts. A chosen few, including Lady Pink, Lady Aiko, and Swoon, have built parallel success in the graffiti and the conventional studio art world, but on the whole, female street artists are not garnering the same recognition as their male counterparts.

Yet interestingly enough, in one specific graffiti circle, gender is no barrier to success — because the very nature of the graffiti is based on anonymity.

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Credit: Jeanne Menjoulet & Cie/flickr

The phrase “Antifascist Zone” is prevalent in graffiti and stickers throughout Europe and is gradually spreading to other continents. The symbol of the antifascist movement is a double flag — usually one red and one black — framed in a thick black circle that often carries the Antifascist Zone slogan, “Zonaantifa,” in small letters. The tag is used throughout Europe, translated into different languages, but always with the same serifs and double flag. The tag marks a given street or neighborhood as unsympathetic to the extreme right-wing beliefs that have been resurgent in Europe over the past decade.

This movement has yet to be recorded or explored by the academic community, but a lengthy public record of the tag has emerged thanks to social media. A simple search for #Zonaantifa on any social site will retrieve thousands of hits, but no single author of the tag.

The term “antifa” can refer to the general culture of antifascist sentiment or specifically to the Antifascist Action network, which is comprised of independent groups across Europe that all use the double flag as their symbol. But it is not the work of a single artist or crew. Antifascist graffiti draws strength from anonymity — anyone can paint the antifascist tag anywhere, without permission or coordination from other artists. Because there is no clear record of whether the writers are primarily male or female, there is also no perceived obstacle in the way of aspiring female graffiti artists who want to join the antifascist movement.

Let’s take a look at Italy as a case study for the power of anonymous graffiti. Italy is a country we’ve romanticized again and again. Our collective imaginations — both personal and politically-created — have fostered an overly picturesque image of the country. Italy is renowned for its contributions to Western art and philosophy, while its political history is often forgotten. It doesn’t seem such a shadowy place.

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Credit: Delete/flickr

Yet, as Tobias Jones writes in The Dark Heart of Italy, this view of Italy is “essentially escapist . . . all cuisine and culture and nothing else.” Italy is, in fact, a country plagued by corruption, unemployment, inequality, and fascism. Italy’s modern history is one of violence: the crushing dominance of fascism reared its head during the 1970s (known as the “Years of Lead”), and corruption was rampant throughout the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in the election of Silvio Berlusconi.

Italian suffrage excluded women until 1945 and to this day, Italians cannot elect Senators until age 25 (effectively disenfranchising any youth voting bloc). The Italian government is still recovering from the trauma of Berlusconi, and sexism, bigotry, and extreme right-wing sympathies remain prevalent. As Italian law currently stands, the next generation of Italians will inherit this political system — one they had no hand in creating — unless they get creative.

And more vocal.

So they’ve taken the political agenda to an alternative arena; Italian graffiti artists rely on the “Zona Antifa” (“Antifascist Zone”) tag to promote the elimination of exclusion, oppression, and silencing.

In Italy, antifascist graffiti manifests in three ways: suppression, transformation, and creation. Suppression involves whitewashing over fascist graffiti (swastikas, racist, and xenophobic slogans, threats, etc.). The white paint — through which the letters or symbols may remain semi-visible — serves as a warning to future fascist graffiti artists: you are not welcome and neither is your ideology.

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Credit: Jonathan Davis/flickr

Transformation occurs when graffiti artists alter fascist graffiti by transforming disturbing symbols like the swastika or by spraying the word “Anti” in front of a fascist slogan. Artists will often connect the ends of the swastika to turn it into a diamond or paint hearts over each arm of the swastika, effectively stripping the power from the potent symbol.

Creation — in which artists paint their own slogans and images on spaces not already occupied by fascist graffiti — is the medium that utilizes the “Zona Antifa” tag. From Venice to Salerno, Italians have used the same “Zona Antifa” stencil to push back against fascist sympathies. The stencil is available online for anyone to print out and use, but artists often choose to paint freehand, adding the name of their city or their neighborhood to the tag.

Graffiti renders political participation accessible, simple, and formidable: it exists in a public space where it is visible to all members of the electorate, its anonymous nature protects the writer from abuse — from the community as well as the police — and anyone can write graffiti, regardless of age, gender, skill, or socioeconomic bracket.

A key tenet of civil rights activism is the idea of “safety in numbers” — it is much more difficult to diffuse a massive protest than a small-scale one — and anonymous tags provide that exact kind of safety for writers.

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Credit: Raphaël Vino/flickr

In fact, anonymity has been a key tenet of the Italian political process since the Roman Empire. The secret ballot (a tradition that originated in the Roman Republic with Aulus Gabinius in 139 BCE) protects voters from unwelcome attacks from their political opponents. Anonymous graffiti let slaves and servants protest their overlords, but without putting themselves in immediate danger. The inscriptions on the walls of Pompeii are profane and threatening, but they also represent a healthy desire for political change. Modern Italian graffiti functions in the same way — it’s become the secret ballot of a disenfranchised generation, letting them present their political ideas without fear of retribution.

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Credit: AKA Francois AKA Mister Pink/flickr

Graffiti lets members of any political party participate, but it also opens the political conversation up to perspectives beyond the traditionally polarized right and left. Graffiti artists are not tied to a fixed political identity, and unlike many forms of political activism, graffiti remains virtually impervious to corruption. There is no profit associated with anonymous graffiti, and unless politicians begin hiring professional writers — like their ancestors craftily did in Pompeii — it will continue to be an enterprise that nets a writer no financial gain.

Graffiti writers are not elected officials; they have nothing to gain from protecting the administration or disguising flaws within the system — when they write political commentary anonymously, they are seeking to advance an ideology rather than publicizing their own brand or tag.

While the “Antifascist Zone” tag first cropped up in the early 2000s, the symbol itself of the double flag is about 80 years old. The speed with which it has spread across Europe suggests that it appeals to a broad swath of the population; there are parallels to be drawn between this movement and that of Shepard Fairey, famous for his “Obey” stencil from 1989 that still thrives today.

The members do not know each other, do not plan together, and do not paint together, but they have united for a common goal. There is no prejudice based on gender, race, or class because they do not even know those details about each other’s identities.

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Credit: J. Crest/flickr

There may never be a record of exactly how many antifascist graffiti artists are working in Europe today, but the anonymity that the antifascists rely on has created what may be one of the world’s largest graffiti crews.

These antifascists could spark a conversation for political organizers — perhaps even serve as a working model — on public dissent, not only in Europe, but across the globe. With two words, these artists have built a multinational united force that requires no organization or compensation. Just imagine what they could do with a whole sentence.

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