TOOFLY & A.M. – Women In Urban Art

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by Alex Shtaerman

For decades following its inception, graffiti and the general practice of street art was an almost exclusively male-dominated enterprise. Often perceived as a form of dangerous and illegal vandalism, it seemed as if few women were willing to take up the craft full time or even gain acceptance within the tight knit subculture of male writers. Aside from a handful of female icons such as Lady Pink, the urban art landscape was largely devoid of talent when it came to the fairer sex. In recent years however, a trend that had persisted for almost as long as graff itself has been virtually turned on its head as more and more women continue to gain acceptance as well as become central figures in the growing street art movement sweeping the world.

Already a veteran of the NYC graffiti scene and painting since the early ‘90’s, TOOFLY has been part of the female contingent of urban artists for well over a decade. In 2007, TOOFLY joined forces with fellow artist Alice Mizrachi in founding YOUNITY, a collective of female artists and practitioners from around the globe. Serving as a networking forum as well as a vehicle for the free exchange of ideas, YOUNITY, as an organization, seeks to spotlight the growing assortment of styles and ideas radiating from female perspectives in the world of urban art. Starting on October 17th and running through November 17th at Alphabeta in Brooklyn, New York, YOUNITY will be hosting its second annual art exhibit featuring urban contemporary art from 60 different female artists including Lady Pink, Martha Cooper, SWOON, SHIRO (Japan), MAD C (Germany), Faith47 (South Africa) as well as many others. If you’re in Brooklyn, make sure you pop over and check it out! Recently we got a chance to speak with TOOFLY and Alice about their perspectives as artists, the plight of women in urban art, and of course, YOUNITY.

Click here to see pictures from this year’s YOUNITY art exhibit “Heart & Soul”.

GRAFFITI WALL MURAL BY TOOFLY

Toofly-ArtRIOTSOUND.COM: For anyone reading this who may not be fully aware of your respective histories within the urban art movement, can you give us some background on your lives and careers in urban art?

TOOFLY: I go by the name of TOOFLY, my [real] name is Maria, and I’ve been involved in Hip-Hop culture and the graffiti scene since the early ‘90’s. Basically I got into it along with some other artists that I was attending high school with. I got inspired to do graffiti and my own characters, so ever since the early ‘90’s and into the following decade I’ve been publicly painting graffiti walls with different writers and aerosol artists. I began getting recognized by the artists in the urban art world through the kind of artwork that I was doing such as characters, tags and handstyles, and then little by little all of these artists started getting opportunities to do gallery shows with their work, such as graffiti pieces on plastic trains or canvases and that kind of thing. So I think that’s kind of how I started meeting all kinds of different people and organizers. Eventually I met other women and we all started to build together.

ALICE MIZRACHI: My name is Alice Mizrachi and I go by AM. I’ve always been painting since a young age but I recently got into using spray cans. I come from more of a fine art background although I was exposed to [Hip-Hop] culture at a really young age because my brother was a b-boy and a DJ in the ‘80’s. So I kinda grew up with that around me a lot. After painting pretty much since I was a little kid I ended up going to art school and now I’m just working. I’ve been working in the industry for quite some time and I’ve just continued to paint and show my work. Recently I’ve done more outside stuff; we just got back from a We B*Girlz jam in Berlin and we’ve also done some walls in Minneapolis. Recently we formed YOUNITY which is a female art collective that kind of provides a platform for women artists from across the globe and it’s been really inspiring to work with all these other women as well as getting a feel for what’s out there that’s different or similar to what we do. It’s just cool to come together and make it happen and “create a new movement” type of thing.

“I definitely agree that the graffiti, the illegal and
the raw underground stuff that’s on the street
inspired people to think of anything that could
be on an alternative surface, from a lamppost
to a street surface to painting an entire building”

RIOTSOUND.COM: From about 1970 to 2000 when we talked about “urban art” it was mostly a reference to aerosol forms, but in the new millennium we’ve seen the genre expand to different mediums such as installations, wheatpasting, stencils and stickers, among other mediums. Why do you feel there has been such a dramatic shift towards diversity? Is the diversity in urban art today the ultimate reflection of the overwhelming success of the aerosol medium; in the sense that graffiti art became such a powerful platform for self expression that it attracted artists from a variety of disciplines into the urban space?

TOOFLY: I definitely agree that the graffiti, the illegal and the raw underground stuff that’s on the street inspired people to think of anything that could be on an alternative surface, from a lamppost to a street surface to painting an entire building. The aerosol medium is also more accessible these days. You got Montana [paint] and Belton [paint], there are all different rainbows of colors available. The tools have gotten better, for example, now we have all different kinds of caps. Also, when the internet hit, people were able to share any kind of idea, whether someone did a stencil in three layers or an intricate sticker that they bombed all over the place or wheatpastings. Now a lot of people are combining graffiti letters with characters, stencils and wheatpasting. I just think everything now is a big mesh and I do believe that graffiti and the raw stuff on the street influenced it as well as technology.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Are today’s trends in a way the ultimate vindication for graffiti art, which was for decades labeled as vandalism and now we see artists from different disciplines and from around the world joining into the movement?

ALICE MIZRACHI: Well, I don’ think people are joining one certain specific style of art. The really great thing about being diverse is that you are able to explore different avenues and break out of a box and kind of break out of that tablet that’s already been set. And it’s nice to explore those avenues and experiment and see what people come up with using all these different techniques and tools to express themselves. And I think that is an evolution, I wouldn’t consider [the new trends] a bad thing or as undermining another form that’s been really really loved and appreciated throughout the years. I think it’s actually continuing and evolving and morphing into something even more beautiful in a way, you know.

RIOTSOUND.COM: In 2007 you jointly founded YOUNITY, an organization that would create a platform and a forum for female urban artists from around the globe. Why did you feel the need to do something for women in particular and how did the idea originally come about?

TOOFLY: In the early part of this decade there was a lot of graffiti productions that were being put together and obviously it’s very male dominated and has been for a long time expect for the very few, such as people like Lady Pink who we’ve been able to build a relationship with over the years because she’s really the one who started to invite other women to paint at these walls because there was just so many guys. And I think that’s what started with us building relationships with people such as MUCK, who are now part of this collective. So we’ve been building this up all the way back since 2000.

As the culture started to expand and started to put together events like B-Boy BBQ and the Rock Steady [Anniversary], with us being the organizers that we are, we would always try to have a female presence at [these events]. We would just find a way to get in there, demand wall space, demand canvases, demand supplies, anything so we could show that there is a female presence and it’s not always guys. And then through those events we started to meet other women that weren’t necessarily just graff artists. There would be fine artists who would combine graffiti with fine art inside a wall space as well as street artists and stencil artists. And we all just started to talk like, yo, we’re always at the back stage at the events or we’re always like the show on the side or something like that. And we were like, why don’t we just put together an event that really highlights all of us, our art, our graffiti, our visual illustrations, our videos; why don’t we make our stuff the highlight of an event? So I think that’s how it kind of started happening.

ALICE MIZRACHI: I think YOUNITY definitely provides a platform for all of those artists. It allows us to bring people on board and not feel uncomfortable. Many women might not necessarily go up to a wall and ask to get down. But they would come to us more easily because we are so open and focus on sharing and want to really spread the love and the knowledge and the skill, you know. I mean, everyone has the right to get on a wall, whether you do graff or street art or whatever. It’s just nice that we’re forming an organization that’s so open to different kinds of styles and different kinds of women. And also what is important is being able to take [that idea on inclusion] and grow it and let the different artists go back to where they live and create their own little collectives and start building on that and keep spreading it until it just spreads like a wildfire.

TOOFLY: It’s just like leveling out the playing field, just so there’s diversity as far as male and female artwork and everything is diverse.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Running from October 17th through November 17th, YOUNITY will be hosting its 2nd annual art exhibit entitled Heart & Soul at Alphabeta in Brooklyn. You have also released your first book which features work from all 60 artists that are featured in the exhibit. What type of works and flavors can people expect when they come down to Heart & Soul and check it out?

ALICE MIZRACHI: We definitely have some really really dope women in the show, we have everyone from people who are just coming up to people who have been known and have been heard about for a long time. We have SWOON, she submitted a piece this year and last year, she’s featured in the book as well as the show. And then we have Sofia Maldanado, who’s from Puerto Rico and does some beautiful characters that are just so gracious and really really fly! And then we are featuring photographers as well, even down to someone like Diana McClure who’s also a writer and runs the site CultureServe.net, which is kind of like a lifestyle web mag.

TOOFLY: We also have someone like Martha Cooper who’s a big supporter of [graffiti culture from the early days]. She’s been photographing us for many years now at the walls and is a big supporter of the b-girl culture and the graffiti girl culture. So she’s been documenting that as well and we’re featuring some of her work at the show. There is also work from Lady Pink, who’s been there since the beginning and building with us and guiding us through stuff. Then there’s someone like NIZ, who came down from Texas and she does some beautiful three and four layer stencil work. We even put down people who weren’t even expecting to paint but they were like “wow, I wanna learn this”. And I was like “get down, there’s some spray paint here, c’mon let’s do it!” So it involves all kinds of different women. There’s a lot of women that are flying down [for the event] like Amanda Lopez, who’s a photographer from San Francisco.

ALICE MIZRACHI: Some girls are coming from Chicago. I mean, at this point I would say we are pretty much global [laughs]… we have women from all over totally supporting us and it’s really dope.

TOOFLY: All the artists [featured in the exhibit] are in the book and the book is amazing! It’s an 8” by 5” postcard style book that displays all of the 60 females’ work that took part in the exhibit, including our three YOUNITY Youth members. You can tear out the pages and use them as postcards or you could even frame them. So with the entire book you have 60 beautiful pieces of work ranging from illustrations to photography to stencil art and graffiti and all kinds of beautiful imagery. The books will be available at the show and if we do a reprint we will put them online to be purchased for $20 and there will also be a few of them available that are signed by all the artists, which will go for $40. Yup, self published by YOUNITY Arts.

ALICE MIZRACHI: Oh, and we gotta give another artist a big up too, SHIRO. SHIRO is down with us too, she’s from Japan. She’s in our book and has a piece at the show and she’s a really really dope artist that we tend to meet at events a lot and travel with.

CITYSCAPE PAINTING BY ALICE MIZRACHI

CITYSCAPE PAINTING BY ALICE MIZRACHI

CITYSCAPE PAINTING BY ALICE MIZRACHI

RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as urban art and the whole notion of trademark styles; through the years a lot of urban artists have been known for either writing their name or employing a particular distinct style which enables them to be identified. For example, Toofly, you are famous for the woman character that you draw and that’s something I’ve personally seen many many times around NYC. Does an urban artist sometimes feel pressure to stay within a certain style or form simply because that’s what they are identified by? As far as just exposure goes, if you paint different things every time many people may not realize it’s the same person doing it. Is there that dynamic going on in urban art?

TOOFLY: With a lot artists, they want to break out of what they are known for. I love to just draw my character and I’m trying to expand into my letters but until I can really rock my character super solid I won’t be happy [laughs]. So, you know, that’s why I keep painting her but I also do different canvas works that show different styles where not everybody knows that that’s my work.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Can it bother you when you do something that’s different from your more known work and people might not even realize that it’s you that did it, simply because of the stylistic difference?

TOOFLY: It doesn’t matter to me, as an artist people should just do what they love to do, switch their styles around or anything else. With artists, there’s so much beautiful stuff to do, it’s like, if we only had the time to expand the amount of ideas that we have. Unfortunately because of time, I might get a wall and it’s like, oh shit, I gotta go do something at a certain time so it’s like, lemme rock out my character since I only have three hours. But if you have more time you’re often developing something completely different, you’ll start adding shit or you might be collaborating with another artist to do some wheatpasting or stencils and you start getting influenced by their style too and then you end up trying new shit. It’s just dope to do that and that’s why collaborations work really well as far as doing shows with other people, because it’s then that you start getting new ideas and are able to flip things around.

ALICE MIZRACHI: I think also that even if you do different characters or a different kind of piece, I think stylistically your hand somehow always comes out. You can always kinda tell. Plus I think being versatile is very important because as artists we have to wear a million different hats. We gotta be able to design, we gotta be able to install a show, we gotta be able to paint on a wall, we gotta be able to do our canvases, our t-shirts, our jewelry. With all of our shit we have to be able to be versatile, because if we don’t do it, then who is… you know [laughs]. No one’s going to do it for you so it’s a good thing to be versatile. And of course as you grow your style it’s always going to progress and change but your hand always comes out at some point – even from your early stages to your later stages in art – you can always see that same hand in it.

“Many women might not necessarily go up to a
wall and ask to get down. But they would come
to us more easily because we are so open and
focus on sharing and want to really spread the love
and the knowledge and the skill, you know. I mean,
everyone has the right to get on a wall”—

TOOFLY: I think we all grew up in that era of Video Music Box, where you would come home after school and watch that show. I don’t know, just growing up with that music and the way you were wearing your clothes and the way you were talking and who you were hanging out with and your little mannerisms – when I was drawing stuff in my books I was drawing little hoodie girls with gold doorknocker earrings. That whole energy and that whole time period, it was an influence all around you. It was just the energy that was going on.

The street graffiti tags in different buildings and on the subway; I feel like that entire energy is a part of us and it comes out and it’s Hip-Hop. I wasn’t listening to no punk music or rock ‘n’ roll or any of that. I mean, now that I’ve gotten older I have a whole bunch of different songs that I listen to, and my parents have passed down some of their music to me, my younger sisters have passed on indie music to me. So now I have a diverse taste of beautiful music. But I think when we were growing up it was Hip-Hop. I think we’re just Hip-Hop kids, we grew up with that, it was our time.

Right now I feel like kids are growing up with a lot of indie music, a lot of punk music. Their style is different, they’re wearing tight jeans, they’re wearing a lot black makeup and their hair is jet black, it’s just different. For us, we were like completely, you know – gold jewelry and hoodie clothes. So I think we’re Hip-Hop kids and I think the whole graffiti and the whole urban [movement], it’s all a part of us.

RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as YOUNITY goes, what direction do you see the collective headed in going forward? This is only your second year and you are publishing your first book, what do you think the future holds?

ALICE MIZRACHI: One of the biggest achievements that I feel that we’ve made already is that we are able to bring artists together that wouldn’t necessarily come together unless we had provided that type of platform. So I think that is a really great accomplishment, that we’re able to bring women together to paint and have a good time and really have everyone express themselves. In the future I’d love to see more of what we’re doing spread into different places, so that it not only stays with us but it also expands and it reaches out to the youth in other countries and other cities so they can pass the torch on. Because eventually we’re going to get tired, we’re going to want to be sitting in our studio and doing our shit and not being bothered, you know what I mean. So we hope to create this movement that eventually will continue on in the future and be passed down.

TOOFLY: I totally agree with that. Because we need to get in the studio and paint and sometimes wearing so many hats as far as organizing, building with different artists and going on trips, it’s wonderful and it’s a great time to be doing it now but as women we want to build families and we have personal lives that are just as important. We have business on the side with our own artwork and we really want to take time and work on this beautiful project but we do also want to build with other people that can spread it. Because really, the whole thing is like a huge message, it’s the philosophy of building with people and breaking barriers between ages or where you are from or what your skill level is. People just need to build and break out of that.

ALICE MIZRACHI: Yea, I think people are really caught up in keeping shit closed and not sharing because there are business and money reasons. And of course if we make money off our books, it’s just going to help YOUNITY grow and continue for longer, but we’re more in it for the love of it and for the ability to be able to set an example and then have other people do this as well. It’s quite possible and it’s happening. So it’s also really interesting to be a witness to it, to be part of it and involved. I feel really honored meeting the people that we’ve met, it’s just really special.

For more news and info on YOUNITY, TOOFLY and Alice Mizrachi check out www.TheYOUNITY.com as well as www.TooFlyNYC.com and www.AM-Files.com

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