Aiko, a Japanese-born New York-based artist, working on a piece of street art on Coney Island. Aiko, a Japanese-born New York-based artist, working on a piece of street art on Coney Island. Aiko, a Japanese-born New York-based artist, working on a piece of street art on Coney Island. (Photo: Martha Cooper / AIKO)

Female artists use the streets as their studio

With an unlimited audience of passersby, the public domain has become the new gallery.

The anonymous aliases so often adopted by street art creators reveal no hint of gender. Popular opinion has the street art scene pegged as a man’s world, though. Male artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey are the subject of omnipresent coverage and the media frequently references their world as a machismo realm, drawing parallels between street art and primitive scent-marking.

But a little scratch beneath the surface shows female street artists are no invisible outliers. In fact, there are many female artists active on the streets who are capturing the public’s attention and making waves through their art.

For Maya Gelfman, an Israeli artist whose works can be found across five continents from the U.S. to Argentina to Kenya, street art is not about dominating a space. “I don't try to ‘take over’ a wall and make a mark, but rather to explore the option of integration with the urban fabric," she said. "I want to relate to the fast-changing context of the street, so I make a point out of being in the moment. Every wall, season, time of day is a different setting to a work, and I strive to be mindful to the seen and unseen details that makes it unique.”

Artist Maya Gelfman using yarn as she works on her "Black Birds" installation which is visible from the street.Artist Maya Gelfman using yarn as she works on her "Black Birds" installation which is visible from the street. (Photo: Roie Avidan/Courtesy Maya Gelfman)

Gelfman’s work stands out not for being bold or brash, but rather for its delicate, minimalistic style and her use of less obvious textural materials, such as yarn. Gelfman said that street art was initially “another way to engage with art… but I fell in love with the immediacy and direct contact to the people that the streets offered me. Ever since that day, I stay active outside as well as inside the ‘white cubes.' Artistically speaking, it keeps me on my toes by raising theoretical and technical questions that broaden my way of thinking. I find myself looking for ways to translate the subjects and materials with which I work in the studio to a public context – facing the non-sterile, noisy, dense reality it presents. The solutions I find open my mind and my eyes.”

But what of gender? Gelfman says that gender is a facet of her identity and therefore intertwined with her work. “I do feel that there is something feminine in the way I contain the surroundings of my work and try to channel it into the work itself as an inherent part of the creation process,” she said. Yet gender is not really at the forefront of her art. Instead of focusing on women’s issues exclusively, her work explores broader human concerns. “It deals with the most basic of human questions, self-identity, the struggle with inhibitions, hope, love, pain, fear and how all of the above can become generators for a change."

A work by Zabou entitled "Until Death Tear Us Apart" painted in Sweden in 2014.A work by Zabou titled "Until Death Tear Us Apart" painted in Sweden in 2014. (Photo: Zabou)

For other female artists, the lure of the streets is much the same as it is for their male counterparts: a sense of freedom. “Creating art in public spaces is amazing because it enables artists or anyone really to interact with their environment, take control over it, play with it, make it more interesting,” said Zabou, a French-born London-based artist whose crisp, vibrant stencil works explode from the dull walls, shutters and surfaces of London’s East End. Though the streets of London are her de facto gallery, she also travels abroad to create. Her work has adorned the streets of numerous other European countries, from Cyprus and Spain to Sweden and the Netherlands. “It's free for everyone to see and there is no censorship,” she said. “I guess being a female artist means that I can express points of view and feelings that male artists might not – or at least express them differently. Although a lot of people used to think I was a man!”

For Aiko, a Japanese-born, New York-based artist, the freedom offered on the streets was a big draw. That, combined with the thrill that comes with the uncertainty and uncontrollability of the process, drove her away from the studio and out in the open. “It is very unpredictable and often hard to make the perfect plan and, to be honest, it’s not always a good result,” Aiko said, “but I prefer this process than being in a studio and working with a gallery all the time. It's exciting.”

One of Aiko's murals on a wall on Coney Island features skulls and mermaids.One of Aiko's murals on a wall on Coney Island features swimming mermaids. (Photo: Martha Cooper/AIKO)

In Aiko’s murals, which have been widely praised, female figures feature prominently. They are bright and eye-catching, blending pop art-style elements and Japanese influences. Aiko draws from her own upbringing, experiences and sense of identity in her work. “I simply enjoy being a woman and I enjoy drawing sexy images, romantic stories and cute kawaii stuff, ” said Aiko. “I was born and raised in the traditional way in Japan, and my heritage has so much interesting stuff that you can draw inspiration from. And I like to share with other people as well.”

Street art has a boundless audience, often attracting the attention of passersby and people who would never consider visiting a gallery show. “It gives me the chance to reach the random people who pass through the street on their commute,” said Aiko. It is this potentially limitless audience that makes it even more important that all kinds of artists are represented in the realm.

Aiko, Zabou and Maya Gelfman are just three of the many female artists creating interesting, boundary-pushing street art in urban centers around the globe. While some of these artists’ work put women’s experiences front and center, others pay no heed to feminist sentiments. Nevertheless, all of them help broaden the range of perspectives on display and that, surely, is a good thing.


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