Why Women Matter But It Shouldn’t Matter If You’re AWoman — ‘Spaz’ On What It’s Like To Be A Female Street Artist In Singapore
As names go for street artists, it’s hard to tell if they belong to a male or female. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that in this art form, gender is unimportant. Oh, how we wish that were true. After chatting to prominent Singapore-based Filipino urban-street artist Spaz, it’s clear that the same old patriarchy applies in the world of graffiti. The self-professed quietest rascal in the RSCLS collective sure has a lot to say about private parts being part of public discourse when it comes to the evaluation of female street artists.
It’s ironic that an art practice defined for its anti-authoritarianism can be so conservative when it comes to women in the field. “For all the years that street art has been around, I still feel it is very male dominated. It’s like a sausage party every time you go out there,” reveals Spaz, otherwise known as Laurie Maravilla. She doesn’t let it define her, much like one of her European sisters, Anthea Missy (L’art de la rue d’Anthea Missy — the street art of Anthea Missy), who refuses to go by a name other than her own, but she admits it’s irksome. “RSCLS is definitely more progressive than other collectives in Singapore. But there were three women involved in the collective, now it’s just me. And I want to find out why that is,” muses Spaz.
It’s not hard to poke a stick at reasons for women not experiencing the egalitarian benefits that their male brethren do. It’s not all bad either — having something to rail against obviously provides great creative fodder: “When I paint I often paint this angry girl. It’s one of my favourite subjects, and something I’m known for,” explains Spaz, whose tag-name denotes a visceral need to explode, which luckily for us, she projects through her work. It’s just that female graffiti artists don’t want their marginalisation to be the only topic in their work. And if they’re to be maligned, it should be because of their output, not their inputs. From Geography to Reproductivity, Physicality to History, there are examples of how female street artists are challenging industry apathy and fighting hard to change the narrative so they can simply get on with the business of being artists.
“I come from a matriarchal society,” explains Spaz, “and the ratio of male to female graffiti artists in the Philippines is very healthy. But it’s not like that here. Is it just Singapore?” Spaz muses, but wastes no time waiting to be answered. Instead she explores it in her work which includes creating opportunities for other women. Would she have been so lucky if she hadn’t got a break on her home turf in Manila? “It’s something I took for granted, because when I got to Singapore, I realised how different it is here,” laments Spaz.
With a shop located downstairs from a clothing company, owned by members of local graffiti crew, KST, Spaz got her break one day in Manila. “One of the graffiti artists, Darko, noticed I liked painting large canvasses. I like to feel my body move when I work. So he suggested I come paint with him. He brought me to the heart of Manila, grimy as f#@$, and we ended up on this empty lot full of rubbish, surrounded by derelict walls. I flipped when he told me we were painting there. I don’t mind the rubbish but there were shards of broken glass lying around. He told me to draw whatever came into my head. I wanted to paint this big mural with lots of detail and he looked at me like I was crazy. I tried it and my work was shit, but I had so much fun. I didn’t think I’d enjoy vandalising stuff so much!”
After being a part of a bustling creative community that was the equivalent of Haji Lane in the Philippines, Spaz decided she needed a change and arrived in Singapore. “I’d done a lot of partying in my college years and early twenties. I needed to get away and regroup,” she says. At first she was dejected by the lack of content and space for street art. “I was trying to look for tags and throw ups. I was walking blindly and I ended up at Scape. It seemed so sad. It was the only place I saw completed works and they were so small. Just a small wall. I thought, is this it? So I gave up on graffiti.”
Letting go of something for which you’ll descend into rubbish or scale buildings is hard. But it led to an important time in Spaz’s life. “I worked for Blackmarket and studied fine arts at LASALLE, and was surrounded by lots of creative people. Learning from all this restored me and my art. And then I met Zero.” As one of his hardest-working students, Spaz caught Zero’s eye. “I wanted to get better at painting and I wanted to make money so I begged to be an assistant to him and his RSCLS partner, ANTZ. We worked on props for clients like Mini Cooper and ran graffiti workshops. Then eventually, I became a member of RSCLS.”
Then the littlest rascal came along. Having a child can throw you out of any industry. We still don’t have a solution for how to make it fair for women and families to earn and rear; to protect the valuable skills they’ve acquired and map out how they can be applied again. So after Spaz gave birth to her son with Zero, she took a two year hiatus. “I had cabin fever for sure, not being able to work. But I feel the first two years of life for a kid are critical, and I wanted to be there,” explains Spaz.
Employing the same tenacity that saw her establish herself as a street artist in a place where there is a dearth of women in the industry, Spaz used the turn of events to her advantage. “I had time to think about my direction. My fine art practice was something I needed to consider in tandem with my street art, so it was restorative and an important time creatively.” Her new status as a mother seemed to give licence to outsiders calling in to question her subject matter though. “A lot of people commented that I should probably stop painting those angry women now. Well, it’s that kind of sentiment that makes me want to paint them even more!”
Changing mindsets has had to happen a bit closer to home too, with the examination of a beef she had with her own collective. No one is happier than Spaz that she’s a part of RSCLS but there are times when they have to open up the dialogue on gender inequality there too. “When RSCLS were invited to Narvaland in Paris by Kongo, initially ZERO was magnanimous and selected two guys and two girls to represent us. It was going to be him, ANTZ, me and Samantha Lo, who you might know as Sticker Lady. But then concerns about me scaling scaffolding while I was three months pregnant arose. Suddenly I was a thing to be protected. Anyone who knows me, knows that the physical nature of what I do is part of the appeal for me. The guys wanted to put their best foot forward and so it became Zero, ANTZ and DEM. It was a good delegation but a missed chance to promote female street artists from Asia,” explains Spaz. “Personally, it brought up a lot of questions for me. I was really unsure how to conduct myself. Should I be more selfless now that I’m pregnant? So I let it go, but I really regret it,” laments Spaz. “But it taught me the valuable skill of navigating around good intentions when they get in between you and your goal. At the end of the day, like Dr. Seuss says, those who mind don’t matter, those who matter don’t mind.”
She fared better than her colleague Sam did though. While Sam is no longer part of RSCLS, she is still very active in the arts community in Singapore and currently working on a project with Spaz. When a town meeting was called after she was arrested for vandalism, following her humorous sticker assault on the conservative city state, the turn out was dismal. “Here was one of our own, needing support, and the only people who turned up from the street art community to show solidarity were me and Zero,” says Spaz with obvious disappointment. Speaking of solidarity though, good things did come out of this period. You can’t keep good women down and Spaz decided it was time to give back and nurture a new generation of women, while she nurtured her son.
Through the Solidarity Movement, torchbearers for the urban art scene, Spaz spearheaded Rebel Daughters, to help girls that might be faced with challenges on their way to establishing themselves. Spaz reached out and joined forces with other female street artists across Asia and together they created a series of sessions at The Esplanade to expose girls to street art as a means of expression and foster a support network. “The audience that came were from a variety of different backgrounds and didn’t necessarily have any creative experience. We’ve been keeping tabs on all the girls, and while some have stopped painting, a few were inspired and are now soaring. It makes me really proud.”
Unfortunately, due to a lack of support in Singapore, the next Rebel Daughters event is slated to be held in the Philippines. It’s a sad indictment of the local scene but Spaz won’t let it blight her plans. “We held a panel discussion, as we do for all Solidarity events, and while there was a good public turn out, there was a not a lot of support from guys in the street art community. But now some interest has started to spark again and I’m looking to put together a League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen,” she says with intrigue….
With so much potential and the can-do attitude of women in abundance, it’s staggering why the blokes involved in street art in Singapore don’t leverage this to raise the bar for everyone. “Within RSCLS there is the propensity to try to create an equal structure and give women the limelight. We’ll be the pioneers if no one else will,” says Spaz hopefully. “We’re no different from the guys. Sure it’s physically taxing to paint, but women are good at pushing through and getting stuff done”. In fact, on her recent trip to India where she was invited to paint a bunch of containers in collaboration with start-up architectural firm, TOD, for the IHGF Delhi Fair 2017, she and fellow street artist, Soph Ong, outdid the boys. “We had a great time working with the guys from TOD. There were lots of healthy discussions about feminism that we had to agree to disagree on. The irony was that we had to dismiss both of our male assistants. They couldn’t keep up and there was just a bit too much ‘mansplaining’ going on about the pace. The best part is that we’ve been invited back next year. So, you know, we didn’t really have to argue our point — our work spoke for itself!”
When gender becomes a non-topic in the appraisal of women street artists, just imagine what they might do with that passion. Until then, expect to see Spaz and a host of other fine ladies spraying down their vitriol from on high, scaling that scaffolding higher than any man has to, in order to reach that glass ceiling. But maybe their male counterparts can help: either watch the women perform death defying acts in the name of progress and risk a spray of glass from the ceiling that’s going to get shattered or pave the way to a new level playing field. Whatever happens, you can bet that Spaz is not waiting around for men to make up their minds. “I just love what I do and I’ll keep doing it. I love getting around obstacles. I love climbing. I love reaching those heaven spots and making people think, how the hell did that get there? I’ve got stuff to say. And if I see a really nice wall, I fantasise about bombing it. It’s as simple as that.”