Graffiti in Paris: pushing boundaries and asserting femininity in a male-dominated subculture

Art and Foreign Affairs Editor Maggie Nicoll on why Parisian graffiti artist Lady K is her alternative feminist icon.

It sounds like a cliché, but Paris really is one of my favourite cities in the world. I love it for all of the clichéd reasons, too: the joy of people-watching from a café terrace, going to the bakery in the morning to pick up fresh pastries and bread, turning a corner to see the Eiffel Tower looming above me when I least expect it. I love the importance placed on food and wine, the wealth of galleries and museums, the sheer beauty of the buildings and monuments.

However, if you travel to Paris expecting this to be your entire experience, you will be sadly mistaken. It is not uncommon for travellers to experience ‘Paris Syndrome’, characterised by symptoms of anxiety and dizziness, due to their expectations being so far from the truth. So, it is through embracing the reality of the city that I came to love it so much: the culture of protest and strikes, the I-don’t-care attitude and, above all, the graffiti scene.

Canal Saint-Martin

Although, I must say, if like me you are a graffiti and/or street art enthusiast, it is almost too easy to fall in love with the city immediately. If you’re not, I hope to give you a glimpse into why some people do appreciate the subculture, and why it makes walking around the streets of Paris a thousand times more fun when you do.

The French capital is full of talented writers and muralists working legally and illegally, attracting others from all around the world to come and paint on the streets. I could wander around forever admiring the various styles of graffiti and street art, taking pictures at every opportunity and never growing tired. It was on one such excursion that I discovered the writer Lady K, a woman unafraid to throw herself into a male-dominated scene and command respect on the streets – unashamedly feminine, unashamedly Parisienne.

The graffiti, or ‘writing’, culture to which Lady K belongs is one that is often misunderstood – hated by many but loved by a significant minority. It pushes the boundaries of what can be considered as art, testing society’s definitions of public space and ownership; there are many who would complain until they were red in the face about graffiti but not bat an eye at a billboard advertising a morally bankrupt multinational company, for example. Graffiti’s provocative visibility calls this into question.

Love is not equal to killing, Collages Feminicides and  Lady K

Unfortunately, graffiti writing is still very much a male-dominated culture and it can be difficult for women to succeed in this underground scene. Lady K, however, uses her femininity to her advantage and actively incorporates it into her style, proving that women can do it too – maybe even better. This is evident in her chosen name, which maintains her anonymity but still attests to her existence, not only as an artist acting in the public space, but as a woman proclaiming her agency and, if I may, her right to write.

Due to the illegal nature of her art, which I do not condone but simply wish to analyse, Lady K exploits her feminine appearance to go unnoticed as she paints her unique calligraphic tag in the street. As the stereotypical image of a graffiti writer is (often wrongly) considered to be a hooded man or gang of youths, when Lady K casually strolls through the streets of Paris in a dress and a sun hat, hand bag delicately held in the crutch of her elbow, she is rarely suspected. This, along with a significant amount of outrageous bravado, allows her to paint in broad daylight, finishing and blending back into the crowd of passers-by before anyone can process what they have just witnessed.

Furthermore, Lady K has had a hand in a recent country-wide campaign to paste slogans in the public space, raising awareness about domestic violence in France where women are disproportionately affected. Started by artist Marguerite Stern, the ‘Collages Feminicides’ have been met with varying reactions; some support the sentiment and share photos on social media or make their own phrases to paste up, others do their best to tear the messages down. Upon seeing the damaged and destroyed works, Lady K took it upon herself to paint in the missing letters and paste new slogans, ensuring the longevity of the message. Seeing Lady K pushing against the destruction of important messages such as these raises the question, again, about why we as a society are happy to see posters and billboards from politicians or giant companies, but react so quickly to a message that brings to light the reality suffered by many women today.

In France, there’s a rape every 5 minutes, Collages Feminicides

While there are of course very legitimate arguments against graffiti, its aesthetic quality is subjective. For some, it intensifies Paris’s beauty, and for others, it ruins their perfect image of the city. Can we really say that either are objectively wrong? Whatever you believe, it is clear that Lady K, my alternative feminist icon, not only fights back against a rampant and misogynist patriarchy within her subculture, but also works alongside other female activists to highlight problems faced by women in wider society – and it is all visible in the public space. I think that is pretty important and, dare I say it, rather beautiful.

Maggie Nicoll, Foreign Affairs Editor

Photos: authors own

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