The Boundary-Breaking Women of New York’s Graffiti Scene

Kelsey Ables
Jul 31, 2019 10:06PM

Artwork by Ming. Courtesy of the artist.

In the late 1990s, Claudia Gold showed up at an all women’s photoshoot for the graffiti magazine While You Were Sleeping and was surprised to find staff handing out sexy gowns and Mardi Gras masks for the artists to wear. Gold was having none of it. “It was like Eyes Wide Shut before Eyes Wide Shut,” she joked, referencing Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 thriller about an underground sex group. Gold, who had been writing graffiti since the ’80s and is best known by her tag names CLAW or Claw Money, declined to participate.

A prolific young writer by the name of Miss 17, who was sporting a broken leg and a shaved head at the time, also decided to sit out of the shoot. The two began chatting and became fast friends. Eventually, Miss 17 persuaded Claw to make a comeback after a hiatus from graffiti. They became an iconic duo, “bombing” (slang for painting) together and leaving their signature tags—the numeral 17 and the three fingered claw, respectively—paired together on walls all over New York.

Lady K Fever illegal “bombing” for a photo shoot in Vancouver (with her first daughter), 2001. Courtesy of Bronx Graffiti Gallery.


In a world that asks that women be “small, quiet, obedient, and relegated to private spaces, graffiti allows us to be LARGE, LOUD, and FREE,” Dr. Jessica Pabón-Colón, a feminist scholar and author of the book Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora (2018), wrote via email. But it’s not without struggle. The While You Were Sleeping photoshoot reflects the narrow space for women in graffiti who, too often, are reduced to sexualized cliches or subject to rumors that men paint for them. Still, bold, boundary-breaking female graffiti writers continue to forge their own path. Whether proudly embellishing their tags with feminine motifs or flying under the radar with more neutral tags, women have broken into the boys club, and they’ve done so unapologetically, on their own terms.

Alongside the likes of the legendary Lady Pink, Claw is often lauded as one of the first female graffiti writers in the New York scene. However, she’s quick to note that there have always been women in the streets. Graffiti traveled to New York from Philadelphia in the late ’60s, and is closely related to the rise of hip-hop in the Bronx. It took root in the outer boroughs of Manhattan, and the subway became a line of communication between geographically disparate writers. As early as the 1970s, BARBARA 62, EVA 62, and MICHELLE 62 were making names for themselves on the streets of Manhattan.

Artwork by Claw, 1999. Courtesy of the artist.

In the early ’70s, Charmin 65 became the first woman to tag the subways, posting her name up and down the Bronx’s Third Avenue El train. After nights of painting, she would spend mornings with fellow writers, eating donuts at their go-to cafe and watching their names rattle by on the trains.

As the graffiti movement grew, certain social conditions worked against women entering the scene. In the ’80s, laws restricting paint sales in New York City made it more difficult to attain materials. The drug trade and wider access to firearms increased street violence and pushed graffiti closer to gangs. The Clean Train Movement, spearheaded by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in the mid-’80s, successfully scrubbed the subways clean of writing by 1989, and forced graffiti into the streets and onto bridges and freight trains. In this tense environment, it became more difficult for writers to “get up” onto surfaces and “get over” on cops, as writers have termed their processes.

Artwork by Claw, Bust Magazine x Super Chief Gallery, 2013. Photo by Claudia Gold. Courtesy of the artist.

Discouraged by the new restrictions, many writers turned to other art forms. But some saw crackdowns as a fresh challenge and continued their quest to prevail over the MTA and police. Lady Pink, who came onto the scene in 1979 as a teenager, was known to jump out of her bedroom window in the middle of the night to crawl through tunnels and paint. She could steal over a dozen paint cans at a time. Claw recalled once scaling the Manhattan Bridge on a four-inch plank. And Charmin 65 recalled climbing fences, running across train tracks and through tunnels, and getting into a couple of fights with men. “I stood my ground,” she reflected nearly a half a century later.

Unsurprisingly, women have largely been overlooked in documentation of the New York graffiti world’s history, which is sparse. Despite its 50-year history, graffiti has been excluded from the mainstream art world, and factors like the medium’s transience, anonymity, and the nontraditional backgrounds of writers makes record-keeping a challenge. When Pabón-Colónbegan her research in 2002, the only documentation focused on women in graffiti was @149st’s “Female Writers” webpage, which was copyrighted in 2001. Many major documentaries produced about graffiti exclude women entirely. “The onus for changing the culture transnationally is not just on the graffiti writers in the subculture, but on the people who shoot documentaries, write books, and publish essays with zero women included,” Pabón-Colón said.

A wall from the Bronx Graffiti Art Gallery’s first series of all female graffiti series, artwork by Charmin65 & Rocky 184, 2016. Courtesy of Bronx Graffiti Art Gallery.

In 2016, Lady K-Fever, a graffiti writer and museum educator, took it upon herself to begin writing a more inclusive graffiti history. She created the graffiti HERSTORY Instagram account to document women’s roles in the subculture. She also runs the Bronx Graffiti Art Gallery, where, by showing the work of women, she incorporates their stories into the larger narrative.

When Lady K-Fever was first earning a reputation in the streets, she found that if she used her full name, other writers would deface the “Lady K” portion but leave “Fever.” She decided to claim “Lady K” as her stage name (she is also trained in theater and has done drag), and “Fever”—an identity she describes as “aggressive” and “fierce”—as her tag name. Today, Lady K-Fever has stitched together the two sides of her identity and feels renewed pride in her background as a graffiti writer. She credits this to her role at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where she is responsible for graffiti-related programming and education, and feels respected as an artist.

Lady K Fever, King bee painted the bee. Courtesy of Bronx Graffiti Art Gallery.

While graffiti has long been unrecognized by institutions, for many writers it’s the art form they knew most intimately growing up. “Nobody ever went to Manhattan to go to museums,” said KayLove, a writer from the Bronx. “Graffiti was our museums.” The writer Sharon Lee De La Cruz, who goes by Uno Seis Tres—after 163rd Street, where she grew up in the Bronx—described a similar sentiment behind her work: “I’ve always wanted to make art for my friends and family who largely did not consume art via art institutions.”

De La Cruz got into graffiti while traveling on a Fulbright fellowship in Lima, Peru, in 2008. She painted with a hyper-femme, punk, all-female graffiti crew called Maripussy, who wrote “pussy” on walls and yelled “Huele a pussy!” (“Smells like pussy!”) in the streets. Echoing the feminist overtones of that crew, De La Cruz started off as MISS 163, but she soon noticed people paid closer attention to her name rather than her work. “I changed it to UNO SEIS TRES because I liked the neutral stance and thought it paid homage to my Latinidad and old-school graffiti heads,” she said.

Artwork by Kaylove, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Artwork by Mel1. Courtesy of the artist.

Claw, likewise, leaned away from direct female signifiers, preferring the slightly aggressive, anonymous claw icon. She chose to remain anonymous for years. “I wanted to just be a writer and not necessarily a female writer,” she said. “I wanted the perception to be big scary dude.” And even when she tried to tell people she was responsible for the claw icon popping up everywhere, they didn’t believe her.

But Claw did include what she describes as “little winks to the girls” in her work: slightly feminine slogans inside the claw, like “baby love” or “hot” or “PMS,” which is the name of the crew she started. She recalled writing “suck my dick” in a “cute, sassy” font. And when she fully revealed herself as Claw, after publishing a book in 2007 and partaking in a 2005 documentary, she remembers young girls telling her they knew she was a woman due to those gestures.

Artwork Mel1. Courtesy of the artist.

Other writers have chosen to harness feminine motifs more directly. Mel1, who is a linguist and works as an investment banker by day, begins her tags with a heart. As a studio artist, Mel1 overlays feminist theory–inspired graffiti lettering over NSFW images. And her graffiti work shares a similar feminist ethos. “I have a captive graffiti audience,” she explained. “They may know nothing about feminist rhetoric, but I’m going to put it in their faces whether they like it or not.”

ELLE, who chose her tagname because it means “she” in French, was of a similar mindset when defining herself as a writer: “It was super important that I was representative of the ladies. I went super pink and feminine and I wanted people to know that the women were up in the streets.”

ELLE x Vexta, Skylark, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

ELLE x PARADOX, BERLINA, 2018. Photo by Nika Kran. Courtesy of the artist.

This sense of camaraderie has extended to social media, where female writers have been given unprecedented opportunity to connect with one another. But social media also amplifies a lot of the ills of graffiti. Mel1 noted that with corporate interest in graffiti, the landscape has become oversaturated, crowding out women. It’s also created a culture that promotes the idea of if I didn’t photograph it, it didn’t happen. This shifts the graffiti away from its in-the-moment, performance-art element, to a more rigid kind of personal branding.

Having just entered the scene in the last few years, Ming, an active Queens-based writer, is acutely aware of the societal pressures to monetize art online and present herself a certain way on social media. A professor of ethnic studies by day, Ming is also engaged with the many identities at play in the subculture. She noted that the male gaze constructs a certain type of “sexy” graffiti girl, which she finds limiting.

Artwork by Kaylove, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Ming’s response has been to keep her face hidden, and to let her work stand on its own. “I’m not really sure how to present myself,” she explained. “I feel a lot of responsibility…There are younger Asian-Americans who are looking to get into graffiti. Of course it affects you to see another woman doing it…What is the type of person that I’m going to present to them?”

In mulling over this question of representation, Ming has reclaimed her active role in shaping her own identity. “I’ve always put aside individual creativity in service of representing whatever I consider my community to be, but I’ve realized there isn’t just one community,” she said. Through graffiti, Ming explores a unique, dynamic kind of identity—one that, despite external pressures, can’t be reduced to an Instagram post or a photoshoot.

Kelsey Ables

Correction: A previous version of this text stated that Lady-K Fever created the graffiti HERSTORY account last year. She started the account in 2016.

Correction: A previous version of this text stated that Ming is based in Brooklyn. She is based in Queens.