While female artists have long been underrepresented in the art world, it has been all the more acute in graffiti. For several decades, the art was almost exclusively dominated by men, as breaking into the all-boys club had proved challenging, both in terms of safety and entrenched sexism. Violence against women in Colombia was, in recent years, especially rampant. According to a report published this summer, between 2010 and 2015, 16 women each hour were the victims of sexual violence.
Today, a year on from the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), which ended fifty years of armed civil conflict that caused over two hundred thousand deaths and displaced nearly seven million people across Colombia, women are re-negotiating their roles on the streets, using graffiti to challenge preconceptions relating to gender, race, sexual violence and then some.
VICE Impact spoke to Bastardilla, Nandy and Vera, three young and engaged graffiti artists in Colombia, about their work and why graffiti and street art is much needed to help catalyze change in 2018.
VICE Impact: Can you tell me about your first graffiti?
Bastardilla: I was working as a decorator, painting houses. In a moment of boredom, I started scribbling an image on the wall and I left it there. After that, I couldn't stop.
Nandy: I did it at the ‘mirador’ (viewpoint) of Commune 20, known locally as Siloé, in Cali. Up until that point, I had only done graffiti on my terrace using spray paint. I was really nervous. I was going to paint with a really good collective called ‘L’Etincelle’. All I could think was, ‘What if I mess up? What if I don’t do it well?’ But everything went well, I felt welcomed. It was new to me to have people stay and watch me work. This made me a little nervous, but it made me want to do more.
Vera: At first, I just did tags or very small drawings in the streets, using markers or stickers. But really, I was dying to paint a wall. The first time I painted a wall was in an abandoned factory. I had spent a lot of time trying to convince a friend who did graffiti to teach me how to paint. When he finally agreed, we went to this factory and he told me, ’You paint from here to here and I’ll paint from here to here.’ He put on his headphones and did not interrupt me for the rest of the time. I felt overwhelmed and scared, but after starting the first strokes, I loved the feeling. It was something inexplicable. I loved the feeling of painting, moving the whole body, the arms, the legs, to extend, to feel the space, the people, the street life.
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Your graffiti challenges preconceptions about race, gender and combat violence against women. What inspires you?
Vera: These themes are important simply because I am a woman. I paint women as a way to reclaim the visual space of women on the street. For decades our image has been used by advertising to sell, distorting it at the whim of the market. For me, this has had an effect on our way, as a society, of perceiving femininity. It's a patriarchal vision that honours the religion of banality driven by capitalism that I refuse to accept, that's why I paint women in the city. Big women who represent other dimensions: mystical, natural, sentimental, etc. Women that are not for sale.
Nandy: When I started painting faces, I did not discriminate. If I liked a face, I painted it. But later, an incident impacted my work, which led me to address the issue [of race] more actively. I was studying at the Instituto Popular de Cultura, making a linocut. My picture represented an African woman. A fellow-student approached me and asked, ‘Hey, why are you drawing so many blacks?’. So he would leave me alone, I said, ‘Because I feel like it.’ Then I couldn't stop thinking about it. Why should it be strange to draw ‘so many’ blacks? I thought of art history, where all ideals of feminine beauty had a light-as-possible complexion. I decided I wanted to change that.
Bastardilla: Poverty, violence and women’s issues are not isolated issues and not more or less important than climate change, extractivism [economies reliant on the extractive industry], discrimination, migration, indigenous issues and education. I think it’s important to look at what all these have in common, I look for similarities and try to bring together the voices of other people with my own.
How do people react to your graffiti?
Nandy: Let’s say 85 percent of the people who see them, like it. The other percent, don’t. Sometimes it’s because they just like white and plain things. The most common reaction, however, is that people are surprised to see this little female ‘cuerpesito’ (little body) painting in the street.
What is the hardest graffiti you have worked on?
Nandy: The most difficult for me, was one that I did in Manizales, an urban narrative festival. It was a subject that had touched me, was very serious but necessary to capture and denounce: sexual abuse.
Vera: The most difficult was ‘Allpa Mama. It is the biggest I have painted. The wall measured 19 meters wide, and there was only one scaffolding, it was a sole prototype was 6 meters.
Why do you consider graffiti as an important form of advocacy?
Vera: Graffiti is the most democratic way to make art, it is accessible to all and brings art closer to people naturally, and thanks to this, it has the ability to catalyze multiple processes, to tell stories, to question directly, to help to build identities, and of course to advocate!
Nandy: Graffiti was born being public and will always defend the public. It's a way of saying, ‘Here I am and this is what I think’, when everyone else wants to shut you up. Graffiti is resistance. It is a way to defend your individuality and collectivity.
Bastardilla: Streets are spaces within cities where different realities have the opportunity to meet. But streets have, for some years now, been depoliticised, because of gentrification, businesses. Many large spaces are now only used for transit, and not to meet. This has to change. Graffiti can help.
What would you like to see in 2018 for women and minorities in Colombia?
Nandy: 2018 is another year of in which I’ll continue to fight. I wish with all my heart that the rates of femicide would go down, and why not to the point that they do not kill you for being a woman. I would also like more sisterhood among us. And in the artistic field many pints and more women are encouraged to experience this artistic practice.
Vera: I want to see a freer, safer and more loving world. A world that allows us to play and do what we love. In words, it sounds very utopian and simple. But the truth is that being a woman means that any activity requires double the motivation, desire, effort and work. Our countries are very macho and the global construction is patriarchal, but I have hope because more and more active voices are asking questions, demanding rights, putting the voices of the women out there, so today, there are more and more rebellious ‘brujas’ (witches) waking up. I feel that good times are coming, times of awakening, times of embracing the feminine energy that lives in everyone and everything.
Want to leave your mark? Graffiti Camp For Girls is a group that gives girls a creative opportunity to enhance their graffiti techniques. You’ll learn the process and skills to collaboratively create a mural based on themes you care about. Check out some more examples of Bastardilla, Nandy, and Vera's work below.
The interviews were translated from Spanish to English by the author and have been edited for clarity and brevity.