NYC Taps 'Stop Telling Women to Smile' Artist to Help Fight Street Harassment

Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh talks about collaborating with the city's Human Rights Commission and how street harassment relates to the #MeToo moment.

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Feb 15 2018, 7:42pm

Courtesy of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

Most people will recognize Tatyana Fazlalizadeh from a black and white self portrait featuring a fed-up glare and, in bold lettering, the words “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” The message is also the title of the Brooklyn artist's ongoing public art series combating street harassment, which first garnered widespread attention about five years ago.

It started in Bed-Stuy in 2012. Sick of the way that men catcalled and badgered her and other women in public, Fazlalizadeh started using wheatpasting as a way to let women talk back to their catcallers without putting themselves in danger. After talking to women about their experiences, she would draw their portraits and paste them up in public emblazoned with rebuttals like, “Harassing women does not prove your masculinity,” “I am not here for you,” and “My worth extends far beyond my body.”

Fazlalizadeh has since taken the series across the United States and around the world, attempting to understand all the nuanced ways that “people experience public space, and public space experiences them,” as she described it to Broadly. And as the United States continues to grapple with the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, the New York City Commission on Human Rights has tapped Fazlalizadeh to help extend its work into the streets—where harassment is even harder to regulate and find justice for.

The commission’s work includes empowering employees against discrimination, in part through extensive testimonial research on what it actually looks like—similar, in a way, to Fazlalizadeh’s methods. But how are those same marginalized people also discriminated against in public? Through New York City’s year-long Public Artists in Residence program, which “embeds artists into public agencies,” Fazlalizadeh will be helping to answer that question by using the commission’s work to inform a large-scale public art piece addressing street violence and harassment with an (as always) intersectional approach.

“Street harassment isn’t just a woman being sexualized on the street,” said Fazlalizadeh. “It’s also a Black, trans woman experiencing a very particular type of violence on the street because of sexism, transphobia, and racism all intertwining.”

As she embarks on the new project, Broadly spoke to Fazlalizadeh about why street harassment is so pervasive and how it fits in to the #MeToo moment.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Courtesy of the artist.

BROADLY: You started off doing Stop Telling Women to Smile as an illegal wheat-paste artist and now you’ve moved on to doing sanctioned artwork in collaboration with a public agency, how does that feel?
TATYANA FAZLALIZADEH: It feels fine. Stop Telling Women to Smile was one project that I did that’s still ongoing, and I still feel very strongly about that work, and a part of that work needs to be illegal. There’s something about taking back walls without permission that’s very much so a part of that project. But even before Stop Telling Women to Smile, I was working in Philadelphia as a public artist with permission doing large scale pieces with proposals and working with business owners. … The reason that I [decided to collaborate with the NYC Human Rights Commission] is because they are doing work themselves that aligns with the work that I am doing. … This residency is me basically using them as a resource to get into the city more. They have eyes and ears and surveys and they work with communities and they really are bringing in people to hear what their lives are like, and that’s great, because that’s what I do, too.

For the work that you do, does it often feel necessary for it to be out in public as opposed to, say, in a gallery?
Yeah, for sure. Public art is so special because the work becomes a part of a community in a way that other artworks don’t really allow, and it also becomes a part of the environment. … And that’s why, for the work that I’ve done, its been really important because a lot of what I talk about in my work is how people experience the public space, and trying to change that public space for the better. So, whether that’s women being catcalled or Black people experiencing violence on the street, how do I change the environment with this artwork? That’s something you really can only do, in my opinion, with public art.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Courtesy of the artist

Over the years, having these conversations with women from all over, have you noticed any broader shifts in the ways that people talk and feel about street harassment?
Over the years, the conversations that I’ve had with women about street harassment have shifted a little bit, and I don’t know if that’s simply because I’ve been doing this project for so long that I’m trying to figure out new angles and perspectives to come to this conversation with. But it has moved from, in the beginning, just very specifically hearing what women go through every day. So, what are the actual things that you hear on the street, what are your actual experiences, and how can we challenge and react to that? The conversations still include that, but now kind of look more broadly at: Why is this happening, what are the larger societal lessons that we’re all taught when we’re kids that contribute to how we treat women as a society, and how do we change that? And also looking towards the future. So, what does it look like if street harassment doesn’t exist and how do we move to that space? How do I include men in this conversation in a way that is actually useful and not harmful?

What have you learned over these conversations? Why does this happen so much?
There's a ton of reasons. One of the reasons is how we’ve been groomed to consume women’s bodies and and assume that women are only there for the pleasure of men—that women are only there as entertainment, as decoration, particularly in public spaces. It’s as if men have a right to be in this space because they are working, or they are on their way to work, or they have a function in society. But a woman’s function in society is to look beautiful and pleasing and attractive to a man.

There are so many reasons, and it really depends on who the woman is as well, because one oppression doesn’t work alone. It’s not just a woman being sexualized; it’s her also receiving racist or homophobic or transphobic or fatphobic comments as well. So it’s all working together and it’s all very complicated.

Courtesy of the artist.

The Human Rights Commission works specifically on sexual harassment in the workplace and that’s a larger conversation that we’re having right now as a culture. What do you feel are the similarities and differences between harassment at work and harassment on the street?
There are a lot of similarities. The work I did for the Stop Telling Women to Smile series could quite easily be placed inside a private building and still apply and be very relevant. It’s ultimately sexual harassment in both cases, it’s just that the environment is different. … In the workplace, you're working with people you know and see on a regular basis, and who sometimes have a very recognized power over you. So, that makes it a little more difficult, I think. With street harassment, you're obviously walking by strangers and there’s this sense that they’re a larger threat and they’re more willing to get physically violent with you. So there’s this very real threat of physical violence on the street, and in the workplace, there this very real threat of your livelihood being affected. Both of these things have very real consequences...and I feel that’s what people don’t really realize, is they look at harassment as just an annoyance or something that is just normal and women have to just deal with. But it really does affect our lives in very real ways—financially, emotionally, and your actual physical life.

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