Dismantling the Street Art Boys Club at an All-Girls Graffiti Camp
Oakland artist Girl Mobb got sick of graffiti being a boys club. So she decided to do something about it.
Graffiti Camp student Lucia Fressola in action. Photo by Sarah Burke
Amid Oakland, CA's crowded street art scene, Girl Mobb's work stands out. The artist — whose real name is Nina Wright — primarily paints badass women in a pink ski masks (a la Pussy Riot) with long eyelashes and pursed lips. As a professional muralist, her work expands on the theme of the urban girly grotesque. The figures she paints have their hairy legs displayed as they lounge, doing their nails near trash cans. Beyond owning a gritty-yet-femme aesthetic, Girl Mobb's work is meant to stick it to the graffiti and street art scenes — two intersecting subcultures that are still overwhelmingly male and dripping with masculine ego.
This year, Girl Mobb has taken her advocacy for women in street art to the next level by starting a graffiti camp for girls with a sliding-scale tuition. The idea is to teach young women (ages 12-17) how to use aerosol paints in order to level the playing field in the street art game and encourage female youth to cultivate a painting community among themselves. Over the course of a week, the students learn basic techniques, then collaboratively imagine and execute a public mural on the side of a local gallery or business.
Girl Mobb conjured the idea late last year, after being invited to participate in an all-female street art show in San Francisco "for the twentieth time," with a group of women who she says she's shown with countless times before. "I love these people, but it's always the same five or six artists," she tells Creators. "I realized that there's just not a lot of us out there."
Soon after, Girl Mobb was commissioned to put together a list of all the murals painted by female artists in downtown Oakland. "There's hundreds of murals in this area and I could only find twenty done by females, which is just ridiculous," she says. "I just wanted to figure out what I could do about it."
Since launching the workshops in April with the help of a small Southern Exposure grant, Girl Mobbs's solution has successfully taken off. She expected at least a little backlash about the content of the course; graffiti isn't exactly typical Girl Scouts curriculum. But so far she's only been met with support from grant committee members, parents, and even strangers on the street. "They didn't even bat an eye at it," she says. "It made me feel like I wasn't being controversial enough."
The first few sessions filled up almost immediately, and the fourth just finished. Although there are other aerosol mural classes in existence in the Bay Area and elsewhere, Girl Mobb says that hers is the only one specifically for girls, as far as she knows. Already, she's been asked to bring the camp to other cities around America, had students fly out just to attend, and been hit up by kids in other countries.
During a recent sunny afternoon in North Oakland, Girl Mobb's latest cohort of students don gas masks and begin rendering their vision of a BART train filled with zoo animals. Seventeen-year-old Lucia Fressola, the oldest of the bunch, looks like a miniature version of Girl Mobb, with identical pink hair and similarly grungy style. She found out about the course from being a fan of Girl Mobb on Instagram, she says. "I'm all about female artists in male dominated fields, so Nina's been a huge inspiration."
Fressola says she was eager to enroll in the course, and aspires to start an all-female graffiti crew with her friends. She's sick of older men in the scene asking her to pose in front of their paintings instead of taking her seriously; or assuming that girls just aren't into graffiti. "We totally are," she says. "It's just scary going out there knowing that there's a bunch of dudes who aren't going to be nice to you — who are gonna cover up your pieces and everything."
Girl Mobb says she started out doing graffiti on her own as a teenager, practicing on barns in her rural Ohio hometown. It wasn't until moving to Oakland that she finally found some community — and even then, she was the only female painter in her crew. By building a volunteer base of emerging and established female street artists and connected them with mentees, she's hoping to shift that gender imbalance.
"That's what this is all about for me," she says, "finally I'm hanging out with my female peers and getting to make some more little female destroyers."