(This article has been translated from Spanish to English by the author’s publisher)
In the 1970s, Martha Cooper one of the first women hired by the New York Post as a staff photographer, wandered the streets of New York hoping to photograph children at play outside of their homes. It was another time, unthinkable today, when kids spent hours playing in the street, far removed from adult supervision, in dilapidated buildings, with old mattresses and abandoned bathtubs. It was here where Martha came across young people who would creatively write their names and nicknames on walls from sketches in their notebooks and among whom there was a range of abilities – in other words, she encountered the first graffiti and street artists.
At first, she thought it was a game that would never extend beyond the Big Apple and was destined to be short lived. However, media attention and increasing competitiveness among the graffiti artists to come up with the most original compositions and locations helped it to spread rapidly, not only in the United States but outside the country’s borders.
Martha realized that this urban phenomenon was growing in interest and impact and wanted to publish, with Henry Chalfant, a book about it. She tried in the United States but graffiti had a bad reputation there and no publishing company was interested in publishing it. As a sign of the official disdain for graffiti, the mayor of New York at the time told the press that if it was up to him, he would use wolves instead of dogs on graffiti artists, whom he considered a threat to the American way of life.
Yet Martha Cooper is not a woman who gives up easily. So, she went abroad, to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the publishing company Thames & Hudson agreed to publish her book. Subway Art, the book’s title, was released, eventually achieving the fame it deserved, and today is considered the graffiti bible.
That Martha Cooper was present at the birth of graffiti, witnessed its infancy and sensed its amazing potential makes her fascinating experience essential for anyone who wants to study its history. Her work is also relevant because it sought to provide a voice to women who were there from the first stroke on the walls but did not receive as much attention. For this reason, Martha was the first person who came to mind when I decided to write about graffiti, street art and mural art from a female perspective. Indeed, Martha herself published a book entitled We B-Girlz that explores hip-hop culture and the presence of women in the movement, based on what she had witnessed in those early years.
Another unique experience in the history of graffiti is found in Allison Freidin, who with Alan Ket opened the first graffiti museum, in Miami, dedicated to preserving the history of graffiti and celebrating its appearance in design, fashion and galleries, as well as promoting related events.
I can think of no better way to engage in research about a topic than speaking to the people involved, in this case artists from countries around the world with established and successful careers, and learning about their opinions and stories directly. This was the second step I took in my study of graffiti, street art and mural art created by women: interviews with more than fifty women within the movement.
Let us not forget that we are an eminently urban species. Since the beginning of the 21st century more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and concentration in urban areas continues to grow. Everything that transpires in the city is important and affects us in some way. What does the graffiti, street art and mural art phenomenon mean for cities?
On the one hand, it transforms our gray metropolises into open-air museums, with murals inviting passersby to stop, admire and even reflect. Without a doubt, urban art is a form of creative expression that has recast the aesthetics and landscape of our cities. In addition, graffiti, street art and mural art have always contained an element of rebellion, a reclaiming of public space for urban inhabitants against the control of the walls the law concedes to the propaganda of politicians and multinational corporations.
Within this vast universe, street art, mural art and graffiti have gained international recognition as forms of urban art full of color, powerful messages, and a unique social voice. While historically more associated with men, women have emerged as prominent figures within these disciplines, leaving an indelible mark and challenging established norms. In other words, graffiti, street art and mural art contains the added value of offering women the opportunity to shatter stereotypes and have their voices heard.
Indeed, street art, mural art and graffiti have provided women with a creative space, allowing them to express themselves, tell their stories and communicate powerful messages. These forms of artistic expression have been a vehicle for empowerment, protest, and recognition of women’s rights in a world historically dominated by men. Through iconic images and visual narratives, female artists have had a powerful impact inside the world of street art.
In addition to focusing on gender-specific issues, among many others, women’s presence in street art, mural art and graffiti has contributed to diversity and representation in these artistic genres. Through their hard work, women have challenged gender stereotypes and shown that talent and creativity transcend sex. They have provided their unique perspective, expanding the visual narrative within the domain of street art.
Despite the progress made, women still face challenges and obstacles in street art, mural art and graffiti, as the interviews with artists from all over the world make clear. Still, female artists continue to overcome hurdles, paving the way for future generations.
Graffiti, street art and mural art have firmly established themselves in cities throughout the world and help to change people’s minds. While perhaps our cities are not as safe as they used to be – today we do not see so many boys and girls playing in the streets of New York as we can in Martha Cooper’s photographs – at least we have made strides in equality. As a result, today many more women are recognized and listened to when they decide to follow their passion in this area of artistic endeavor.