The Writing Is on the Wall

SYDNEY, Australia — For decades it was thought that the reason street art was almost exclusively male was because men were more comfortable with peril; many sought it. After all, street art is notoriously dangerous, exhilarating and risky.

It is, of course, usually illegal; many street artists work at night, in wigs or masks, wearing shoes made for running. One night, when the Australian artist Vexta, who is now based in Brooklyn, was painting neon-splattered, psychedelic images in an abandoned building with friends, the police arrived. She jumped through a hole in the wall, rolled under a shutter door and ran down the street to hail a cab. No one would pick her up, since she was smeared with dirt and paint.

Street art can also be smelly and confronting. When the South African artist Faith47 first started, she told me, she’d walk through downtown Johannesburg with heavy ladders and paints, before setting up at a prime wall above a taxi stand. Below, men were carving up cows and sheep to sell parts for food; heads were being cut, blowtorched and washed, then cooked. She stepped carefully up and down her ladders trying to dodge raw meat.

And it can also expose you to brutal weather: The right clothes are crucial.

The American artist Maya Hayuk bought a “sexy vintage snowsuit” when she painted an iconic wall in Manhattan at the corner of Bowery and Houston — only the third woman ever to have painted the mural space. Working during the coldest spell of winter earlier this year, she wore two layers of work gloves and went as fast as she could. She poured boiling water into her paint when it froze.

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Yet these women have created the most astonishingly powerful and delicate art: remarkable geometric grids spanning city blocks, feathered women flying on ivy-covered walls, swans arcing their wings on the sides of old buildings, bright crocheted wool blanketing statues and rocks.

It has become increasingly obvious that street art is no longer the sole preserve of men. The current eruption of female artists is global: in America, Europe, Brazil, Colombia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Australia, Asia and beyond.

The photographer Martha Cooper — who has been snapping graffiti culture for decades — estimates that while until relatively recently 0.1 percent of street artists were women, now 1 percent are. A small but significant leap.

When Jeffrey Deitch, an influential supporter of graffiti art, co-curated an exhibition of female street artists in Miami last year, it was widely interpreted as a watershed moment: The women had arrived. Not that they want to be seen as “female artists”; many shy away from the label, after long years of fighting to be recognized for their art alone.

What’s fascinating, though, is that some of these women have been inspired to claim space on the streets precisely because it is a place of intimidation or threat, not in spite of that. In Afghanistan, Malina Suliman paints on her own at night, equipped with a flashlight. When she first began to draw graffiti, crowds would gather and throw rocks at her. After she painted walls in her home city of Kandahar with images of a skeleton wearing a burqa, the Taliban issued threats; her father’s leg was broken in an attack. Ms. Suliman had wanted, she said, only “to send a message to the girls in my situation to have no fear and to express themselves in public.”

She’s not alone: One of the more astonishing outcomes of the Arab Spring has been a flowering of street art, a reclamation of dangerous, oppressive places. In Egypt, images of female martyrs of the revolution, protesting violent sexual assault, have crept onto crumbling walls. Mirah Shihadeh depicts women blasting harassers with spray paint. But most of the images are quickly painted over by the Interior Ministry.

It’s not just women in the Middle East who are using street art to challenge harassment. Last year, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh pasted posters around Brooklyn in a campaign designed to challenge men’s behavior in public spaces: “Stop telling women to smile!” and “My outfit is not an invitation.”

The prominent women of the international street art scene — like Fafi, Miss Van, Olek, Maya Hayuk, Faith47, Swoon, Bambi, Sheryo, Vexta and Elle — have shown that claiming a corner of public space is a subversive, rebellious act. Elle bucks against the inane, repetitive stereotyping she sees in advertising signboards, and instead depicts “strong, powerful, beautiful women.” “I got into graffiti because I saw so many men scrawling on the streets and putting up what they wanted to see,” she said. “I wanted to be protected by large warrior women as I walked down the street.”

It’s a recurrent theme. Indie, a mother of three, says she wants to paint women with “strength and courage,” like her mother, who brought her up on her own. Vexta, too, says she wants to create images that show the women she knows — “powerful, strong and free individuals,” not the lame, inert creatures on billboards. Curators and exhibition organizers can be tokenistic, she says, but “in street art we can just take the streets. And that is what we do.”

What is most striking about street art is not just its power and whimsy, but its capacity to make you pause, and give a singular kind of joy. This is what New Yorkers experienced last year during the British street artist Banksy’s mad, masterly “residency.” Goose bumps.

Recently, Faith47 painted the word “love” in large letters across the inside wall of an abandoned factory in the Free State province of South Africa, a “most surreal lost space” where kids from a nearby township played. While she was there, a child suddenly grabbed a long tree root hanging from the ceiling and swung to and fro in front of her wall, over a gaping hole in the floor. “It was as if time stood still,” she said. “The danger of his action and the magic of the light flooding into that time and space.”

More than transcendent, street art is beautifully democratic, free — and accessible. It drags art from vaults and galleries into the open. Its temporary nature and vulnerability to weather are part of its beauty.

It would be wrong to place these women — of all people — in a box, any box. There are clear messages contained in some of their work: Back off women’s bodies, recognize their strength, listen to them sing, or fight. But mostly, this art is spectacle and gift. In the words of Ms. Hayuk, “when people see it, they recognize immediately that it exists simply for the point of existing and that it brings joy.” How many things can we say exist just for joy?

Julia Baird is a journalist and a television presenter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and an author who is working on a biography of Queen Victoria.