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Five Street Artists Shaping NYC’s Graffiti and Street Art Scene (and they all happen to be women)

March is Women’s History Month. We thought we’d close out the month by taking a look at female artists who are reinterpreting trends and transcending boundaries traditionally associated with graffiti and street art. Putting up some of the most imaginative and cutting-edge art out there, these artists are shaping the movement today. Their stories enlighten and inspire, introducing new perspectives and ideas to both street culture and contemporary art practice.

Born Claudia Gold in Flushing, Queens, Claw became a fixture on the streets in the late 1980s when her signature claw icon could be seen all over New York City. Quickly earning a reputation as fearless and original, she stood out in NYC’s male dominated graffiti scene. Claw is one of the 6 writers profiled in the telling film “Infamy.” After studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she started a second career as a fashion editor and designer. Her bold street aesthetic transitioned seamlessly to clothing. The Claw&CO Store & Collection was recently launched, which pays homage to graffiti and street culture. Claw is widely regarded as one of the movement’s most influential figures. No longer painting illegally, the artist often takes part in urban art projects around the city like Small Business Saturday, The Dodworth Street Mural Project, and Centre-fuge Public Art Project.

Born in Poland, Olek is known the world over for her crocheted psychedelic sweaters, which she places over bicycles, shopping carts, baby strollers, and cars. In doing so, she transforms these mundane urban objects into beautiful works of art. Olek’s most ambitious street project happened in 2010 when she blanketed the “Charging Bull” statue near Wall Street in a neon pink and purple cocoon. The illegal event was documented on video. The trend of using yarn as medium in street art is referred to as “yarn bombing.” Olek’s reply, “I don’t yarn bomb, I make art.” Indeed, Olek exhibits in galleries and museums. “Bomb” is not an appropriate descriptor here, and even her street pieces are thoughtful, site-specific, and transformative. We are left to wonder, “Is it sculpture, installation, fashion, street art?” One thing is certain though. Olek has contributed something really special to contemporary visual culture. She’s taken crochet, traditionally considered a women’s craft and domestic hobby, and re-introduced it as one of the most provocative art practices today.

Born Caledonia Dance Curry in New London, Connecticut, Swoon started her putting up life-size wheatpastes and cutouts when she was studying painting at Pratt Institute in the late 1990s. As a student, she became disillusioned with the rigidly linear trajectory of the artist’s career – make art to be exhibited in a gallery or museum where only a select audience will view and experience it. She saw the streets as a way to add context to and increase the accessibility of her art. Portraits form the foundation of her work, and she often creates expressive images of people she has met or knows in the community. Placing them on a building, fence, or stoop invites interaction with passersby. Stories are shared and new dialogues are opened. Now an artist/activist/humanitarian, Swoon addresses various issues including climate change, gentrification, and sustainability. Her recent installation titled “Submerged Motherlands” at the Brooklyn Art Museum expressively illustrated climate change’s role in Hurricane Sandy. She has spoken at numerous events including TEDxBrooklyn about her belief that small actions coupled with collectiveness have the potential to make positive change in the world.

Cake‘s portraits of women have been haunting the streets of NYC for nearly 8 years now. Receiving a BFA in painting from Pratt and MFA from Parsons School of Design, the artist first took to the streets with her wheatpastes after she finished graduate school. Subjects are women she knows well – her mother, sister, grandmother, and close friends. There is an intimate quality to her imagery, which makes this autobiographical nature all the more apparent. While Cake’s work is deeply personal, she is also addressing universal feelings of loss, disconnectedness, and pain and suffering. Women are often cropped severely at the neck, or painted with their internal organs and skeletal structure exposed. Poetic and understated, Cake’s work proves that street art doesn’t have to be loud and aggressive to make a point.

Based in Brooklyn, street artist Elle does not limit herself to any particular material. You’ll see her tag and vibrant imagery rendered in spray paint, roller paint, acrylic, markers, wheatpastes, sculptures, installations and AD posters. She isn’t afraid to go hard, and will appropriate a billboard on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway or a water tower as her canvas. Known for her wolf warrior, a nude women wearing a shaman-like wolf headdress, Elle champions this motif in order to pierce the male-centric guise of graffiti and street art. This fearless mentality combined with serious talent has allowed Elle to move easily between NYC’s illegal street scene and fine art world – she’s had numerous gallery exhibitions and made a video installation that was projected on the facade of the New Museum. Sensed in Elle’s work, whether illegal or sanctioned, is a deep connection with the urban landscape and a desire to reveal its raw and unfiltered beauty. Check out our studio visit with Elle here.

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