1UP Graffiti Crew Discuss the Challenges of Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Scene

"The graffiti world is still structured by who can paint the best. But it’s especially hard for a woman because you're not the hero; the major actions are still done by men."
01 July 2020, 3:13am
graffiti crews
All images supplied by Cpt Olf /  @cpt_olf

1UP are one of the most well-known graffiti crews in the world. Hailing from Berlin, their name is an acronym for "One United Power", and they’re known for their uniquely ambitious acts of vandalism—like painting abandoned ships outside of Athens, for example, or entire carriages of the U-Bahn train system in Berlin.

I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time, so I leapt at a chance to go to a film screening of _Martha: A Picture Story—_a documentary chronicling the life of photographer Martha Cooper and, among other things, her recent work with 1UP.

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For me, Martha is an idol. She was one of the first photographers to introduce the world to New York’s graffiti scene via her 1984 coffee table book Subway Art. Now, at 75, she’s still running with and photographing graffiti crews, and has become something of a countercultural hero in her own right.

Ostensibly the film is about Martha, but really it’s examining the role of women in counterculture. As you’d imagine these scenes are almost entirely dominated by men, which has been something that both Martha and the film’s Australian director, Selina Miles, have had to overcome.

As we watched the film in a room filled with guys wearing North Face jackets and Ralph Lauren polos, it seemed odd to me that so many dudes had come to see a film celebrating a feminist icon. To many in this male-dominated scene, Martha is known as the godmother of graffiti. I wondered whether the irony was apparent to them too.

Later, I was invited into a back room to witness a conversation between Selina Miles and a female member of the 1UP crew, who directly addressed this irony. The observation turned into a broader examination of what it means to be a woman in the graffiti scene. It was a fascinating, revealing conversation—so I recorded and transcribed it. Here’s what was said.

Selina: What is the ratio of all the women you have painted with? Say out of 100 people, how many would be women?

1UP Member: Out of my experience and perception, maybe 10 out of 100.

Selina: Some guys have maybe never come across a female graffiti writer.

1UP Member: When we meet new people as a crew, nearly all the time they talk to the male crew members to discuss the action, not to me. Most of the time I get asked “are you checking the lookout” and I’m like “oh no I’m painting” and they're like “oh! Really?” Some of them are friendly, but there’s always this sexist structure that encourages them to talk to the male person.

It's a problem and it takes a lot of energy. Because me, for example, I just want to paint, do actions, have fun with my friends and have a great experience. But on top of that, it’s a confrontation between men and women. It’s a hustle. No one ever says “females aren’t allowed, fuck off”—but it’s like “you can’t run as fast as we can so please don’t take part”.

Maybe also for a female photographer it would be a problem, but now you [Selina] a great standing so I think it’s different. You've made a great reputation and graffiti writers can profit from your images. You are this outside person and they get fame through great images. So I think if you are already a good photographer with a certain standing and reputation, they don´t care if you're a women or not.

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Selina: It’s like a co-dependent relationship. Also there is an element of graffiti that attracts people with a lack of social skills. A lot of people you may come across just genuinely don’t know how to speak to women. They don’t have any in their lives or female role models—they think it has to be super different, that it’s worlds colliding and there's this cognitive dissonance of “she’s writing but she’s a women… she can’t be both”.

It’s not about physicality because I’ve seen some really unfit dudes writing graffiti; it’s not that strenuous that if you’re small and short and tiny and female that you can’t do it. I know lots of women who are way thinner, faster, and better than their male counterparts so it’s not like “you’re not going to be able to climb over this fence, therefore you’re a risk to us.”

1UP Member: The graffiti world is still structured by who can paint the best. Who is aesthetically the best, or who does the main, hectic actions like whole cars, or whole trains. But it’s especially hard for a woman to find a position in this because you're not the hero; the major actions are still done by men. Or it's done by a group of people, but they only see the male.

I think idolisation is problematic. When somebody does a really great action, video, piece or whatever, they give him respect, but idolising is problematic because there’s always a crew behind it. There’s several people working on it but at the end there’s only one hero, who is usually male.

Selina: That’s the whole story of 1UP: it’s about getting rid of the individual hero and being a collective that doesn’t idolise singular names. That’s what attracted me to document 1UP in the first place. As far as I know you’re the only ones to get rid of that concept, which is why you’re so effective and why you’re able to do so much stuff. That’s why you have so many people interested in your stuff and are able to do important work.

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You know, as a side note, when I made this drone film in Athens I wasn’t going to use my real name. I had this fake name that came about as a joke because in an interview somebody miscredited me as Steve Mills. Ever since my friends have laughed about someone calling me Steve Mills, so I was going to use that. Then I was telling some of the girls of 1UP that I’m going to be Steve Mills and they were like “Selina, if you don’t want to use your name that’s fine. But if you’re going to be credited make sure people know it was a woman that did this.”

1UP Member: Yeah we discussed this: put in a fake name, we don’t care—but put in a female name. A lot of videos are made by males, or only the boys get credit. I thought it was a good thing to put your real name on it because it was so much hard work for you. We are in the video so it’s also a credit for us that 1UP is in there.

Selina: Isn’t it ironic that someone misquoted me and turned me into a guy and I thought it was funny so I adopted it then you girls were like “NO”. It’s these little things that you start to notice. I feel like the girls in 1UP crew need to get more shine. Every time I see a video that has a girl twerking but not painting I send it back and say “that’s not good enough, I don’t want to see that anymore.”

1UP Member: Its not free from a certain perspective—male or female. The positive thing is that we can talk about it and say “no twerking girls” and when a girl paints, film that.

Selina: I’m waiting for a video that has girls painting and hot dudes as the sex objects.

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1UP Member: Another problem with graffiti videos is that the people are covered, wearing hoodies and face covers. We look like guys. Then what should I do? Wear a dress for people to see I’m a girl? So that’s also a problem in graffiti videos that we just look like little boys. One time we painted in Belgium, there were these Instagram photos, and somebody wrote “are there dwarfs and giants in your crew” because I was short and the other one was so tall.

1UP Member: We recently did this collaboration with some guys from Barcelona who make hand-mixed markers, and they made this rainbow coloured one for the 50th celebration of the gay pride. So we did this rainbow-coloured whole car, and a lot of LGBTQI+ works on the streets.

For that video we got a lot of hate comments, a lot of stupid comments such as “graffiti is not gay” and “if we see you we will throw stones at you”—a lot of really violent comments. This hit a nerve. But I think it's good to get more political. We are still a graffiti crew and love to paint but we got more conscious about social problems such as homophobia, sexism and racism, so we think more about it and try to push it in our videos and art in general.

Selina: Its very non-conventional for the graffiti scene and it's about time somebody talked about this and used this platform for positive messaging.

1UP Member: We have the feeling we can reach people through our work, and I think it's really important in these times.

Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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