The graffiti scene has long had the stigma of being a field dominated by males and criticised as vandalism. But a local female graffiti writer, who goes by the pseudonym Sany, has changed the scene for females in the graffiti scene. She made a documentary about women in the graffiti scene, appropriately titled Girl Power, featuring recognised female graffiti writers from Lady Pink, the first woman to be recognised as a graffiti writer, to Utah, who is wanted in many countries due to the scale of her graffiti writing.

Sany began graffiti writing when she was 15 and formed her own crew with other female graffiti writers. She explored her female identity through the graffiti domain. She received hatred from other graffiti writers, tagging over her writings ‘go back to the kitchen‘. Despite the discouragement she received from these writers, she continued to make graffiti and ended up shooting Girl Power.

“It’s about a lot of things. I talk to a lot of girls and they see their stories there because they are going through the same things. So it’s not only about graffiti but emancipation in general for a lot of girls.”

Featured in the documentary is Panmela Castro, also known by her graffiti name, Anarkia, who is a graffiti writer, turned social activist, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has used her graffiti to spread messages about the status of women, and specifically the violence and mistreatment against women in Brazil. In an interview with Sany in Girl Power, Anarkia says, “I use graffiti to make people think.”

Similarly, there has been a movement of young people in the city of Raqqa, Syria, who go out at night and write messages like ‘Stop ISIS’ around public spaces. Graffiti in the form of a simple tag is not one that many would find aesthetically pleasing, but the emphasis is not on the appearance of the piece, rather the message itself. As Sany says:

“Sometimes graffiti can be very powerful, even when it is not beautiful…It is on the street so everyone can see it, and this way it works like advertising.”

Sany goes on to compare graffiti and advertising. “Right now when I look from my window, I see a big billboard and there is an almost naked guy with Calvin Klein pants. No one asked me if I want to see it everyday when I look from the window!” The justification is that these advertisements have been paid for by companies and allowed through financial agreements, but there is still a need for some to advertise what they believe to be important. Just as Mezza Coric, a graffiti artist, said in the documentary; “I think it’s important that public space is not only shaped by paid advertisements, but also by people who live in the city.”

The graffiti subculture began in the late 60s in New York City, with teenagers from the South Bronx and Queens wanting to send messages to Manhattan about their lives. “They started to write messages on the metro trains, because they knew that the metros would go through the Bronx, to Manhattan and people would then see the message.” Thus, graffiti becomes a form of communication and self expression.

“People have been doing graffiti for thousands of years, like Altamira [cave paintings]. People were painting their hands to say ‘we exist’” Sany says.

However, the reality behind graffiti is that it is still a crime. Provision 182, from the Czech law, states that any act of damage or defacement to public property faces up to 6 years of imprisonment.  

The social stigma surrounding graffiti affects the way writers approach their friends and family about the topic, often leading them to live two lives. Sany, too, faces this issue; her parents are unaware of what she does. “I did not want to get my parents involved because I did not want to be the kid who doesn’t appreciate what they had done for me.” Not only would she be facing criminal charges but her parents would be affected negatively too.

In an article by Independent, a judge by the name of Christopher Hardy, stated in a case involving graffiti tagging, that despite some notably artistic graffiti; “the trouble is that it has been sprayed all over other people’s property without their consent and that is simply vandalism.”

Reaching a sort of compromise, many cities, including Prague, have created specific walls where graffiti is allowed. Even Komwag, the Prague city cleaning company, has started a program since January 1st in 2010 to clear buildings off graffiti, and have successfully cleaned almost 400 public spaces and privately owned buildings.

Despite the laws and efforts to clean, new graffiti continues to arise around cities all over the world.

So, the next time you see a tag while walking past the building next to your home, take a moment to observe and think about the purpose behind the creation of it. After all, we all want ourselves to be recognised to have existed and to leave our story in this world, as people did in the caves of  Altamira.