Artists who are also women

July 24th, 2012 | By | 15 Comments »

Shamsia Hassani. Photo courtesy of Combat Communications.

This is a guest post by Robin Grearson.

So here’s the deal. Complex asked Vandalog founder-leader RJ Rushmore to create a list for them, “50 Greatest Street Artists Right Now,” and that list came out this month. When I saw it I was surprised. Out of 50 names, the only women to make the cut were Faith47 and Swoon (and a few who make art with male partners).

Yes, I know that any person who makes up a list like that would come up with a different list. But the intro to the list read, “Public art has a whole new set of powerful voices. We’re celebrating those.” And 48 of the 50 entries on a list designed to celebrate powerful new voices were men’s voices. That’s not a lot of diversity. It’s not even a little diversity. I called out RJ for his selections, via Twitter.

We volleyed some names back and forth but ultimately my argument was not with his exclusion of any particular artist. In exchanges with RJ and others, the questions came up–as they tend to when women are breaking into boys’ clubs (politics, business, race-car driving, etc.): Should there be a separate list for women? (No.) Should there be a quota for women even if they’re “not as talented” as men? (No, but, false question.)

If I were RJ and knew the work of as many street artists as he does, I would start with my favorites, and probably run out of room just listing those artists. So I wouldn’t have to go looking under rocks to find artists I had never heard of before. If I were RJ, I might think that if there were any women (or men) doing truly great work, I would have heard about them by now. Except that’s not necessarily true, especially with women. For instance, RJ mentioned a few female artists he considered…but he didn’t put them on the list.

Consider that the most powerful and the most personal work is not necessarily going to resonate as strongly once it crosses gender lines, which is not a minor point. For instance, RJ said he’s not a fan of Olek. And I’m not a fan of Lush. And that’s how it works: women don’t end up on too many “greatest” lists, if the guys are the gatekeepers. And if they’re not on the lists, how does anyone hear about them? It’s a little like the axiom about getting a job: you can’t get hired till you have experience, but if you can’t get hired, where do you get experience?

After our exchange, RJ offered me an opportunity to write a post for Vandalog about women street artists, and I respect him for that. So here it is, there are five artists in particular who I think fit the Complex criteria but didn’t make the list. As I began researching the post, I asked around for referrals. Emails arrived all week with the names of talented women making great art all over the world. So as a deputized one-time Vandalog gatekeeper, I want people to know about established as well as emerging talents like Alice Mizrachi, Bastardilla, Bunny M, Cake, Elle, Fafi, Georgina Ciotti, Gilf!, Hyuro, Imminent Disaster, Lady Pink, Liliwenn, LMNOP, MISO, Miss Van, Sheryo, Shin Shin, Sofia Maldonado, Tati Suarez, Toofly, and Wing. Just to name a few. Because there are so many more.

The work they are making reflects their communities, it beautifies blighted areas, it makes us laugh, it breaks down gender barriers and smashes stereotypes and speaks out on behalf of women and children and parents and humanity. It is sensual and funny and simple and complex and symbolic and speaks of rights and wrongs and freedom. And these women have these strong, powerful, fierce, witty voices that we all need to hear. Why? Because they make images to express what we as viewers can’t articulate until we see their work. And then as it pierces our hearts and minds we say, simply: yes, that is exactly how I feel, too. But this is not because they are women. It is because they are artists.

After the jump, check out what these five world-class street artists who also happen to be women have been up to in 2012.

Aiko. Photo by Luna Park.


Lady Aiko has worked with Takashi Murakami, collaborated with Banksy, and helped found art-collective FAILE. She is a filmmaker, graphic designer and street artist who blends American contemporary art with a Japanese traditional aesthetic to create images that often explore femininity and female identity. The high-visibility corner of Houston Street and Bowery has been one of New York’s most exclusive curated walls since 2008. Os Gemeos, JR, Shepard Fairey and RETNA are just a few of the artists who have painted or installed artwork there, and this month, Aiko becomes the first female to paint the coveted spot.

Fefe Talavera. Photo courtesy of Fefe Talavera.

Fefe Talavera

Your basic badass, Fefe is a street artist who paints around the world, a fine artist who shows in galleries from New York to Portugal, and a singer & dancer. Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Madrid, Spain are home bases for Fefe, whose colorful monsters express the feelings and longings hidden in darker parts of ourselves. Last year the Nike Foundation commissioned Fefe to create artwork for The Girl Effect, an organization trying to end poverty through “helping girls help themselves.” This month, Fefe completed a huge mural in Amsterdam featuring two characters, Brazilian Indians wearing animal masks, as part of a local protest against big utility companies.

Jilly Ballistic. Photo courtesy of Jilly Ballistic.

Jilly Ballistic. Courtesy of Jilly Ballistic.

Jilly Ballistic

The world discovered Jilly Ballistic this summer. Jilly’s been leaving clever “ad bombs” that resemble Mac OS error messages around NYC’s subways, and everyone from art blogs to major media have been talking about them (Reddit, Laughing Squid, Juxtapoz, Buzzfeed and Mashable, among many others). Jilly also puts up historical photos in the subway that are custom designed to fit their environments—environments which include not just platform walls but inside train cars on seats, on windows, over ads. Her work is being shared and reblogged and Instagrammed because it’s gratifying–er, relatable. The error messages are witty and fresh and capture what most of us think when we see bad movie posters and dumb ads. Yet even with the name “Jilly,” press sometimes describes her as a “he.” What, girls can’t make art about computers? But they do.

Olek. Photo by Rhiannon Platt.


Olek did not invent crochet or street art, nor was she the first artist to bring the two together. But Olek’s style and her passion have made her the one we associate with yarn-bombing, and with Olek, a home-based, traditionally female craft of crochet hit the big time as street art. Not everybody likes it, not everyone gets it. That’s cool. I’m not sure what she was doing hanging up a crocheted baby carriage featuring the words “If You See Something, Say Something” at Welling Court. But there is no denying Olek has broken new ground. Or that she is one of the year’s most visible artists. Or that she has opened doors for everyone—by expanding our ideas about what “street art” needs to look like, and what materials we can make it with. She’s currently part of a “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” exhibit that just opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Shamsia Hassani. Photo courtesy of Combat Comms.

Shamsia Hassani

Earlier this year The Guardian called Shamsia Hassani “probably her country’s first serious graffiti artist,” but Shamsia didn’t pick up her first spray can till December 2010. To measure a street artist’s talent, many say you have to consider context. If you are a young woman who wants to paint in Kabul, Afghanistan, you can’t just go down to the corner store and pick up some Krink markers and a few cans of Montana Black, Montana Gold, or Montana anything and start learning as you go. Painting outside means going outside, which even for a woman wearing a burqa means getting sexually harassed about exposed hands and ankles. Also, there are landmines to consider. Still, Shamsia is committed to creating more art in Kabul streets, believing it’s a critical step to helping the city rebuild. “If people see an artwork,” she told The Guardian, “it will perhaps only cause a small shock to their mind, but that can grow and grow.” Hope so.

Photos by Luna Park and Rhiannon Platt and courtesy of Fefe Talavera, Jilly Ballistic and Combat Comms

Category: Featured Posts, Guest Posts, Random | Tags: , , , ,
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  • This is great, because for a long time I have been asking the question why is street art a boys-only club? I KNOW that there are hundreds of women involved in graff, but you never hear about them. So you’re right, lists like this are super important! Big ups to Swoon, Olek, Aiko, Gilf, LMNOP, Sheryo, Elle, and Jilly Ballistic! Fanks for a great post on a great debate!

  • Caroline Caldwell

    If the underlying message is what I think it is, than this post is ridiculous. It seems that Robin is trying to say that there are plenty of talented women street artists, and that the community/bloggers/documenters are at fault for not giving these artists equal recognition. Can you elaborate on your answer for “Should there be a quota for women even if they’re “not as talented” as men? (No, but, false question.)”? Gender shouldn’t enter judgement of talent, yet you’re suggesting all of these female artists that could have been included.

    I agree with any frustration over there being 2 females out of 50 artists on a “top talent” list. But I, in no way, believe that this imbalance stems from lack of recognition or respect for female artists. I research street art on a daily basis (through emails and through artists’ flickrs/websites etc., not through “gatekeepers” like Juxtapoz or whoever.) and the fact of the matter is there are waaaay fewer women in this community than men. If you’re mad about it, start rallying women artists to get up.

  • C.S.

    Wait are you serious!? Males dominate (in every facet) every art circle that exists, including ours. As a woman, I am dismayed by your lack of solidarity at a really nice shout out to a bunch of smart, vivacious, creative, talented, not so talented, hard working women. Its not just the bloggers etc, its just the way is it across the board. I don’t think this blog is to blame at all, but there is an issue here, has been forever and still needs to be addressed. Because this is just the tip of the iceberg for the misogynist climate here and everywhere, a symptom of a belief system that females are the lesser sex, and that which follows. We have this on a lesser degree than say the mind blowing horrors against women in Syria, which this is absolutely related to on a far horrific scale. Because the seed is the same everywhere, luckily we are just talking about Art here, and not anything life threatening, degrading or horrific, but it all relates. Its all there. You have to have an attitude of support across the board, from supporting women’s rights in the middle east, to supporting the growth and talent of women making art and everything in between. Because our lives are at stake.

  • The short version of my response to Robin’s post is this: I agree with Caroline’s
    point that the real issue here is that, while there may be a lot of
    women getting up, there are a hell of a lot more men getting up. I wish
    there were more women doing street art.

    I remember making a really embarrassing mistake the first time I wrote
    about Fefe’s work. I had no idea her gender, and so I just assumed that
    she was a man. I was quickly corrected. Can we get into a lot of
    intellectual reasons as to why my mistake was really sexist and
    terrible? Possibly. But in my mind, I often assume that 90% of the
    street art I see is done by a men. Is that unethical? Maybe. Does it
    mean I’m using the wrong pronoun if I point at a piece of street art and
    say, “that artist, he is talented.”? Usually no.

    Robin brings up an interesting point about gatekeepers. Maybe my
    tastes, and the tastes of other art bloggers, are not suited to the sort
    of work that female street artists are doing. Well then, I hope someone
    out there with different tastes starts a blog or a flickr or something
    along those lines and starts posting work that’s different from what
    ends up on Vandalog. But, as Caroline noted, she and I get emails all
    the time from artists asking us to post their work. That’s how a lot of
    things wind up on Vandalog. The overwhelming majority of emails I get from artists, even artists whom I’ve never been in touch with before, are from male artists. If there are just as many women doing street art as there are men, a lot of them aren’t promoting themselves or trying to raise awareness of their work, at least not through Vandalog. So if gatekeepers are an issue, then maybe promotion and initiative are too. Good on Jilly Ballistic for making it onto the Huffington Post recently. I don’t love her work, but at least she is getting it out there.

    I find it disappointing that Robin chose to brush aside two women on my list who happen to collaborate with men: Myla of Dabs & Myla and Hera of Herakut. Particularly in the case of Herakut, I don’t think either artist works as well on their own as they do when working together (and if I really had to pick one to, I’d say Hera works better on her own than Akut). This seems to be, as C.S. put it, “a symptom of a belief system that females are the lesser sex, and that which follows.” I tried to put these artists on par with their male partners, but it seems that Robin has tried to discredited them because they are not out on their own.

    Getting down to specifics about artists…
    I regret not including Bastardilla on my list. She is one more woman who probably should be on there.
    Shamsia deserves a lot of credit for being a female street artist in Afghanistan. I’m not sure that the place for that credit was on a list where social significance of the work was one of the criteria but certainly not the only one, but that’s certainly debatable. I’d never heard of Shamsia before Robin showed me her work, and I’m really thankful to Robin for the tip.
    As Robin mentioned, I’m just not a huge fan of Olek’s work. A number of artists (including Elaine Sturtevant if you’re looking for a feminist take on things) have done the “let’s screw with originality and appropriation” thing in more interesting ways. Olek may have opened doors as to what street art can be, but so had Mr. Brainwash, and I didn’t put him on my list either.
    Again, not a fan of Jilly Ballistic. That may change, but, for now, she is not for me.
    Fefe is great. I really love her work and can’t wait to meet her and see what she does at the Living Walls Conference next month. But, unless she is doing a lot of street art and not posting photos, she does not seem to have been very active over the last year, besides the one mural that Robin has put in this article. I wanted to put Fefe on my list, but then I began researching and realized that she just couldn’t fit in a list of the greatest street artists of RIGHT NOW.
    It was a similar situation for Aiko. Undoubtedly, the highlight of her career over the last 12 months has been to paint the wall at Bowery and Houston. But that hadn’t happened yet when I submitted my list to Complex. I’ve known Aiko for a couple of years, and it was exciting to include her in a show that I helped curate last May, but, again, the decision not to include her in my list came down, at least in part, to timing.

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  • lancephoto

    I think it’s great that this debate is even taking place at all. There are some good points in each perspective. I think the “gatekeeper” effect does indeed play some role in our consumption of media in general. But we don’t want that to force us into thinking about women in a different category when it comes to art. And frankly, art shouldn’t be a competition anyway. I think this post “Artists who are also women” would be a good idea even if it didn’t mention the Top 50 List at all. It’s cool to see some of the women artists I’ve never heard of before. And Robin is right on when she says: “Consider that the most powerful and the most personal work is not necessarily going to resonate as strongly once it crosses gender lines.”
    I think, even in traditional art circles, that’s true. A female curator may have a completely different take on an artist than her male counterpart would. (Lucian Freud comes to mind.)
    And of course everyone has their friends and favorites.
    One of the most talented, original and hard working street artists I know is a woman, and she’s never been mentioned in this blog to my knowledge.
    Perhaps a weekly feature on female artists would bring more of the unknowns into the light? Or would that just add to their segregation? I think, as a male, perhaps it’s not my place to say…

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  • Robin

    Caroline, you make a good point: any of us could choose what we think are great artworks, and we don’t care who made them. But this is an amazing year for women breaking out onto world stages and accomplishing big things in street art. Fountain Art Fair and the upcoming Living Walls are excellent reflections of this, so is Aiko painting the Houston & Bowery wall and Olek being shown at the Smithsonian. Together these are part of a significant cultural shift that sets “street art 2012” apart from “street art 2011.” A 2012 list misses its mark if it does not recognize or acknowledge such a major and visible cultural shift. I expected to see more women on the list not because of a quota, but because without more women, the list simply wasn’t a reflection of what’s great about street art this year.

  • Robin

    Regarding your comment on Herakut & Dabs & Myla. I didn’t feel I was discounting them so much as I was responding to the way they were counted as only half of a partnership. Like, Dabs & Myla was one “artist” and Herakut was one “artist” and Sten & Lex was one “artist.” I’d rather have seen you stand behind your choices and use up three spaces on the list for six people–even if partners were listed together entry. 48 out of 50 spots on the list included male artists, that was shocking. If recognizing all of the artists as individuals meant bumping 3 other artists off the list, that would have been a larger commitment on your part, to recognizing those artists.

    I am happy to see this discussion grow but I am not a visual artist or a street artist, I’m not sure your readers know that? So there are elements of the discussion I can’t speak to. I hope others will contribute their experiences. Peace. 🙂

  • I think the question is WHY are there so few female identified street artists? What is different about a women’s experience in the world then most men? I know from my experience as a 6’2″ white cis man that I have a easier time navigating the city, especially at night. Women, and out queer street artists should be given a lot of credit because of how much of a greater risk they face putting up work on the street illegally.

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