Tue, Mar 19, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Graffitti art and a woman's place

By Bih Herng-dar 畢恆達

There has been a lot of gender talk in politics this month. Female legislators and city councilors held a press conference in the Legislative Yuan under the header "Female politicians under the microscope." The first woman to be minister of economic affairs received "special" attention from male legislators and the media and there has been discussion about whether the Gen-der Equality Labor Law (兩性工作平等法) protects women while also benefitting both sexes. With these homegrown political phenomena whirling around my head, I found myself in the graffiti culture of New York City.

In the 1970s, painting graffiti in New York's subway system was quite popular. Thousands of street kids painted subway cars at night, turning the mass transportation system into a medium for their talents. Over 90 percent of the artists were boys. We might ask why girls were so absent in the graffiti culture, and why boys were so passionate about it.

Graffiti painting in subways is a dangerous game. The kids had to spend a lot of time and effort developing a signature style, as well as playing hide and seek with the police. Graffiti artists had to know the labyrinthine underground tracks like the back of their hand and be able to outrun the police and their dogs to avoid arrest.

As a result, the ability to beat and even humiliate the police became not only a tool of the trade, but the trade itself. But more importantly, while it might lead to arrest, it would at the same time bestow on one the consummate image of manliness.

While graffiti artists were placing themselves in physical and legal danger by challenging the capitalist system, however, they also restated society's sexual prejudices. Or as one graffiti artist put it: "Whether you're black or white, rich or poor, you are what you paint, unless you are a girl."

Male graffiti artists felt that graffiti was men's stuff. If a girl became a graffiti artist, it must have been because her boyfriend was one. She had to make even more of an effort by following different graffiti groups around to prove that she really had painted what she had painted. At the same time, she had to do her utmost not to accept any help from a boy to avoid becoming the target of gossip.

Boys couldn't believe that girls could be so dedicated or brave, or that they were able to escape the police. Gender, rather than their enthusiasm for or ability to create graffiti, was all that mattered.

When males were working hard creating their graffiti to gain the respect of their own generation, girls had to work even hard to overcome sexual prejudice.

Male graffiti artists had double standards when it came to women artists. If they didn't look down on them, they just glibly approved of what they painted regardless of how good or bad it was. In the eyes of boys, it was irrelevant how dedicated a girl was or how well she painted. What was important was how good-looking she was.

Male graffiti artists thus turned female artists into sex objects, while also denigrating their achievements and the challenges they posed by inserting a female vision where male concepts once stood unchallenged.

The marginalization of women was not only a function of society's sexual prejudices, but the result of the boys' attempts to eliminate the "female threat."

Looking at gender politics in Taiwan from the perspective of the gender politics of graffiti artists in 1970s' New York gives a distinct sense of deja vu.

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