Tackling Racism, Misogyny, And Harassment Through Street Art

On an afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were walking down the sidewalk, when a man rode by us on a bicycle and yelled out that he liked my hair.

I smiled, politely, and thanked him. Not because I was actually thankful to be yelled at about my physical appearance while trying to walk down the street. But because that’s how I’ve been conditioned, as a woman, to respond to unwanted attention. You smile, you seem thankful, and you do so because you’re hoping that such a response will satiate the catcaller and that things won’t escalate further. With every man that yells out at you from a car or on the street, you pray won’t be followed or attacked in some way.

If that kind of fear and worry in response to a man calling out a compliment about my hair in the street, sounds extreme. Then, you’re right, it is. But the problem is, you really never know if the catcalling is going to end just with the ‘compliment’. There’s always the possibility that this will be one of the days things go further.

Like, when this particular guy on his bicycle stopped a few yards ahead of us. Like, when he started slowly pedaling next to us, continuing to say things about on my body. Things like, “Hey baby, you’re looking sexy today.” Like, when it became clear that his intention was to follow us where we were going. That’s when my friend and I stopped walking in front of a frozen yogurt shop and my friend told him that it was time for him to move on and leave us alone.

Here’s what a lot of men don’t get about why we fear catcalling. The line between catcalling ‘compliments’ and enraged aggression is paper, paper thin. Because catcalling is not about wanting to give a compliment. It’s about ownership. Ownership of any woman’s body on the street. And when that ownership is challenged, when a woman says, “You don’t own my body, and I don’t want to talk to you,” men can snap very, very quickly.

“It’s time for you to move on and leave us alone,” my friend said.

“You f*cking, white trash bitch,” he responded his voice rising. “You don’t speak for her. I could snatch those f*cking glasses right off your face.” As he screamed at her, he leaned in, his body hulking over a woman who was probably a foot shorter and a good 100 pounds lighter than him. Here’s a man who is incredibly volatile. He’s aggressive. And we had no idea if or when this irrational anger turned towards us would erupt physically. We were scared.

In this instance, this man got too physically close, screamed for another 30-45 seconds, and then he rode off. Afterwards, two women with infants in strollers checked to see if we were okay. While another man who was sitting two feet away at a table eating frozen yogurt the whole time continued to do absolutely nothing.

What happened to my friend and I isn’t unusual. It’s a pretty common story of street harassment that women all over the world face every day. And it was that normalcy, that frequency of perpetual violence and harassment of women in public spaces that prompted Brooklyn-based artist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, to create a street art campaign. Because all women have a story of being harassed in the street. Most of us, dozens. And yet, we’re still told we should smile. That we should take street harassment as a compliment. And on top of it all, we’re still told by men that secretly, we like it.

So Fazlalizadeh created a project called, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” It’s an art series that puts portraits of women into public spaces with captions that speak directly to offenders. Captions like, “Women are not outside for your entertainment” or “My outfit is NOT an invitation.” The project, which started in 2012, has gained movement, and is spreading across the world.

One thing that has made Fazlalizadeh’s street art so poignant is that it takes the problem of street harassment, and faces it head on. She’s creating works about the abuse at the site where it happens. In the very streets where women are harassed, degraded, and attacked, her art speaks back. It reclaims the space as a place where women have voice and agency over their own bodies. Where women can say, “You don’t own me. I have the right to be in this space without your commentary.”

Fazlalizadeh, who was trained at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, started out primarily studying illustration and oil painting. However, while she was there she started working on murals in public parks. That’s when she got the bug to do her first street art project. She knew it had to be something about street harrasment. As a woman, she had spent her whole life being harassed, and she wanted to do something about it. So she went out into the street one night and put up a poster about harassment. And she loved the feelings of power and agency it gave her.

Since that first wheat-pasted poster, her life and art have become dedicated to causes of social justice. Fazlalizadeh has become a well-known advocate and activist. And whether it’s through her art or her many speaking engagements, she continues to work to combat street harassment and misogyny as well as tackling race issues and other types of injustice.

I spoke to Fazlalizadeh about her work just before she embarked on a road trip with two other female artists of color — Jessica Sabogal and Melinda James — to put up murals that tackled racial intolerance across the southeastern United States.

What are you working on right now? What projects do you have on the horizon?

Well, right now I am in Los Angeles on a tour of street art and activism with a couple of friends of mine who are also artists and activists. We are taking our work from LA, driving to Albuquerque and just putting up work in the street that is pro black and brown folk in high misogyny, high white supremacy, and high bigotry places. That’s what I’m doing right this minute.

That project, driving to Albuquerque with other female street artists sounds so awesome. What made you guys decide to do that?

We talked about it like a year ago. We wanted to work together and to collaborate for a while now. And it just made sense to do it. Leave our respective cities and take our work to places that we thought it might be useful and see what would happen.

Much of your work has dealt with women and street harassment, is there a specific moment on the street that you remember made you feel really afraid?

I’ve had scary moments on the street for sure. I’ve been harassed on the street before. But it’s not really about those moments. It’s simply the fact that it can and does happen. And will happen throughout my life. Which is what’s really scary about it. It’s knowing that when I walk outside a man can take it upon himself to harm me because he feels entitled to do that. Just that thought right there is the biggest issue for me, not necessarily any specific moment. That’s what we’re fighting against, what we’re working against, to try to eliminate that entitlement to a women’s body. That they can do and say whatever they want. It’s more than just an action, it’s the simple entitlement that they have reign over women.

I could give out examples but I think it’s just bigger than any just one moment, you know?

The first time you put up a piece without permission were you nervous about repercussions, like being arrested?

No, I wasn’t worried about being arrested. I mean I was a little nervous just because I’d never done it before. That night I hit up something on the street that I didn’t have permission to do. But once I put it up, it was great. It was fun. I felt it was doing what I wanted it to do. It was a portrait of a woman with words underneath that said, “Women aren’t seeking your validation.” I immediately felt like I had done what I was trying to do. So, I wanted to go out and do it more and more… and I did.

You’ve talked to a lot of women over the course of this project about street harassment they’ve faced. How have those interviews shaped your work?

Yeah, so I have been interviewing women for almost five years about their experiences with street harassment, and it really did extend the project in a way that became more complicated and more complex and more thoughtful and more inclusive. I started the project just talking about my own experiences with street harassment and my own thoughts and reflections. But once I started interviewing women, I began to see just how street harassment is based on who a woman is, where she’s from, and what her background is.

So it’s not just sexism that we are experiencing. We are experiencing racism, ageism, classism, and homophobia and transphobia. All of these things really do determine how a woman is treated and perceived in the streets. And because of that, because of those interviews, the work became more well-rounded and more inclusive. So it was a really crucial part of the project to be able to talk to various women.

You’re from Oklahoma City. I’m interested to hear how that shaped you as a person and artist. I spent a year in Oklahoma City recently, and found the conservatism and in some cases, overt racism, really challenging in the short time I was there.

Is that something you found growing up? And how did Oklahoma shape your political views and activism?

It’s interesting because in Oklahoma growing up as a child, I didn’t really know anything other than Oklahoma. We don’t really understand places outside of where we’re from or where we’re growing up. So Oklahoma for me was … it’s a very white place. But I come from a black family, went to a black school. I grew up in a black neighborhood, a black working class neighborhood. And so that was my life, that was my experience. Southern black culture was my experience growing up and when I look back on it, I love it, and I have nothing but great memories of Oklahoma.

I think that experience of growing up with my family, my home, that neighborhood, and the schools that I went to is what influences me as an artist. When I’m creating work I’m thinking about young black girls and how the work that I’m creating will benefit them. Being an adult, when I go back to Oklahoma City to visit, I am thinking about how my family and all the people that I know and black folks there are experiencing the political climate in a place like Oklahoma. And so I’m also thinking about them when I’m creating artwork. Oklahoma is very much a part of my life even still, and still part of the work that I create and why I’m creating it.

When you went back and did a mural in Oklahoma City, how did that feel? Were you excited to be back and creating art specifically for people there?

Yeah, it was great. It was the first piece of public art that I’ve put up in Oklahoma. I knew that in November, after the election, that I had to do something. And so I created that mural and surprisingly it was very well-received. So I do want to go back to Oklahoma and do more work.

How has the outcome of the election affected your work? Your art always had a strong bent towards social justice, but have you found it politicized your work more?

I think it has in a way, in that it’s created this urgency for myself. I think I, along with a lot of other artists, feel that we have to be doing something now. We have to use our art and our skills in our community to push back and to resist. To not let what’s happening in our government become normal and accepted. And so I think that’s what I’m trying to figure out how to do. But I have been thinking about how to be focused and intent in what it is that I do. And actually focus on what’s important to me. There is a lot happening, and there is a lot that we have to push back against. So I’m thinking about women’s rights, and thinking about immigration, and about all of this stuff.

But while I feel that need to create work and to be active, I also feel the need to step back for a second and to think about what my focus is and what’s important to me so I can move forward with a very clear head and a very strong intent. So that’s where I am right now.

When you’re delving into these hard topics like with your interviews with women about harassment, it seems like you’re tapping into a lot of frustration and pain. How do you take care of yourself and not get overwhelmed?

Yeah, you’re taking on a lot of other peoples’ trauma when you interview them about things that are very traumatic. And not only that, but I interview women about street harassment, I talk about street harassment in lectures and then I write about it and then I go outside and explain street harassment. lt’s a never-ending thing for me. And that can definitely be overwhelming emotionally.

So I do try to step back and take care of myself. And get away. You know go on a hike, or go to the beach, or do whatever it is that I need to do to get away from New York City and all the noise, and all the street harassment. I do think that for people, artists or whomever are working in the social justice world, that there’s a huge need to fill yourself before you go out and give all of yourself away. So, yeah. That is something that is always on my mind. And I’m always trying to figure out the ways to do it.

Have you felt like your work advocating has made a difference? Has it made a difference in the minds of men you’ve encountered? Have you had people come up to you and say , “I’ve never thought about it that way, or I didn’t realize I was causing that kind of trauma?”

Yeah, I have. I have had men come up to me. But more than that I’ve had women come up to me and tell me ‘thank you’ and that they feel that they have the confidence to be more assertive and go out with a certain presence on the street, asserting that they are geared not for men.

It’s a difficult conversation a lot of times to have with men because you are telling them that what they have been socialized to do and think is normal and okay is not normal and okay. And whenever you say that to someone, no matter what it is, whether it’s talking to white people about race, or talking to men about gender and sexism, they’re going to get defensive. They’re going to push back and it can be difficult sometimes. Especially when I’m coming about it in a way of storytelling. My work is about telling stories and telling experiences.

That can be difficult because a lot of times when women tell their stories or tell their experiences, people don’t believe them. They’ll try to discredit them. So yeah, it can be challenging but I do feel like my work is making a difference. I do feel like my work is helping shift the culture to make it a better place for women. I really do think that.