Incisive street art reclaims public spaces for women

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, illustrator and painter, has launched a project challenging perceptions of women around the United States. Photo courtesy of the New York Times
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, illustrator and painter, has launched a project challenging perceptions of women around the United States. Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Brooklyn-based illustrator and painter Tatyana Fazlalizadeh visited the College this Thursday for a workshop and lecture about her project Stop Telling Women to Smile. Stop Telling Women to Smile is a series of street artworks in response to gender-based street harassment. Fazlalizadeh’s sketches of solemn women above simple statements against harassment have been posted in several cities in the United States as well as in Mexico City. Fazlalizadeh is from Oklahoma City, Okla., and is now based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is also known for her oil paintings and her large mural in honor of The Roots, commissioned by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

On Thursday evening, Fazlalizadeh explained her process and discussed its challenges and potential with the public. The artist began the ongoing project in 2012. Her sketches start small in her sketchbook. She then scans them into high-resolution images and scales them to size. The artist posts them in strategic public spaces where she feels her images will be seen and not immediately removed. Fazlalizadeh was invited to post outside the East Boston Social Centers’ Central Square Center. The images appear in various sizes; three women’s portraits stand approximately 15 feet high and 25 feet wide above the statement “Women are people not just bodies.” Other images are closer to standard poster sizes. Once she has scaled and printed, Fazlalizadeh prints multiple copies of each image and uses wheat paste, an adhesive made from flour and water commonly used for street art, to paste them in other public spaces. By nature, they are temporary installations. As far as she knows, the longest any single image has lasted is 15 months.

Fazlalizadeh at first juxtaposed sketches of her friends with her own statements, but quickly expanded to include women she had not previously known. She also began asking the women to specify their own statements. Sometimes women know exactly what they want to say, and sometimes the statements gradually become clear during Fazlalizadeh’s interviews. All of the artist’s phrases are short and direct, meant to be consumed quickly along with her quick sketches. Examples include “You are not entitled to my space,” “My outfit is not an invitation” and “Women are not seeking your validation.” She stated that her decision to post sketches rather than photographs was both an aesthetic choice and a way to shield individual women’s identities. Fazlalizadeh has sketched women of a range of races and ethnicities, and has worked with translators to represent women and their statements in Spanish. While one woman’s poster says “My name is not baby, shorty, sexy, sweetie, honey, pretty, boo, sweetheart, ma,” another’s image asserts, “No me llamo mamacita, chiqita, preciosa, cht cht.” While she has worked hard to represent a diverse group of women, Fazlalizadeh has yet to represent trans women. She hopes to do so soon.

Fazlalizadeh also hopes to better document reactions to her work. Video cameras were set up in Mexico City to record passersby, but the artist has not yet seen the footage. The artist has noticed several responses to her work written directly on the images. She is pleased to see dialogues develop, and she has seen multiple people write comments in response to each other on the work. One response included a numbered list of counter arguments, another respondent took the time to type, print and tape his response. However, Fazlalizadeh is troubled by the sometimes violent defacement of her work with gendered derogatory names and phrases. She suspects their reception would not be so vitriolic if they did not include the words, but she registers no intent to remove them. She affirmed that none of her interviewees have reported personal attack due to their participation in her project, noting that the sketches are not identical images of the women.

STWTS has expanded beyond Brooklyn to cities including Chicago, Il. and Oakland, Calif. Fazlalizadeh’s Kickstarter campaign financed her travel. She ensures that the images of the women she depicts go up in those women’s cities and neighborhoods, but she also posts their images outside their hometowns. Fazlalizadeh is currently soliciting funding and supporters in cities outside the United States to make her project global and multilingual.