A radical new documentary, reviewed by Maria Paradinas, talks girls, graffiti, and not giving up.
Girl Power, the first documentary about women graffiti and street artists, was shown at the Bristol Radical Film Festival last week. The film follows Sany – Czech graffiti artist and founder of the Girl Power crew – as she connects with, documents, and extols girls that graff across fifteen countries internationally.
The documentary is multivalent in its radicalism. It is a romantic ode to graffiti, presenting this art form as the people’s way of decorating their space, connecting with their city and engaging with their environment. Originating in early 1980s New York, tagging* has established itself as a way for marginalised young people to mark their areas, and therefore express their identity within the city; it allows them to affirm their state of being, and creatively articulate their relationship with their space.
Girl Power questions why, legally, public space is only allowed to be adorned with advertisements on billboards. The film asserts the fact that public space belongs to the public; it should not speak at them, but be their mouthpiece. One writer explains that when a city is ‘bare’, it is sad, like it’s dead. Girl Power is a consecration to women writers, an exploration of their stories, the risks they are willing to take for their art – and a declaration that girls graff, too.
Sany explains that when she started writing graffiti in Prague, male writers would deface her tags with sexist and humiliating statements like ‘get back to the kitchen’. She was told by male counterparts that she wouldn’t last more than a couple of years in the graffiti scene – but Sany has now been active for more than sixteen years, and has even been featured in the eastern-European graffiti magazine CONCRETE. Despite the dissolution of her crew, Sany continued to carve a space for herself in the ‘boys club’.
Sany is shown ‘bombing’* and ‘tagging’** trains with her crew and other women that she records in the film; her face is never shown, and many of the featured artists that are still writing illegally wear masks or balaclavas to protect their identities. The documentary is radical even in its mode of creation; the tapes that recorded the illegal activity of climbing into train yards at night and tagging carriages, over the seven years that it took to compile, could have been used as evidence against her and the other writers in court.
Sany’s documentary demonstrates the inevitable difficulties of making such a film. She was told by many of the women filmed that she could not use the clips showing them, for fear of legal action being taken, meaning many months of work seemed fruitless. She was even blackmailed by an ex-member of the filming crew for money, when he threatened to go to the police with the tapes. During the course of making the documentary, Sany sacrifices much of her ‘normal’ life for her ‘graffiti’ life: the passion that she refuses to give up on, despite wanting to over the years it took to finish.
Girl Power is raw and authentic, and tells a story that is never told in the mainstream media. Despite the ‘real life’ identity of the writers often being hidden, and their tags often being covered up or washed off, the documentary celebrates the voices of women graffiti artists, and their artistic contribution to urban spaces. It is a testimony to defiantly pursuing a passion and a radical vision.
*A graffiti slang word, meaning the act of writing a tag in a highly visible and illegal public place
**A personal signature, written in graffiti.
Illustration by Maria Paradinas.