Words: St. Paco
*Originally published in Kung Fu Grip! #2 (2005)It was just over a dozen years ago that graffiti artists Miss Van, Kat and Fafi first brought a woman's touch to the tagged up walls of Toulouse, France. And today, more than twelve years after these femmes first exploded onto walls throughout the city, their work continues to exert a definitive presence on the testosterone dominated world of graffiti.
Playin’ With Dolls
Miss Van, the first lady of graffiti in Toulouse, began painting in the summer of 1993. She developed her artistic forms on the decayed walls of the abandoned building known to by local graffiti writers as "Styl."
At the time a college visual arts major, Van says she began painting in the streets as a form of protest against limitations found in the conventional art world. Following her self described “rebel mind,” Miss Van would also buck the established conventions of graffiti art as well. Instead of utilizing spray paint, Van rocked paint brushes and acrylic paints, applying pretty pastels to rugged concrete with cosmetic brush strokes.
Also, instead of using the obligatory stylized letter forms of graf, she utilized sensualized “doll” characters which helped to distinguish her feminine identity from the Y chromosomed taggers of Toulouse. “In the beginning, my dolls were self-portraits,” she reveals during an interview with Paris art gallery Magda Danysz. “Instead of writing my name, I chose to represent myself through my dolls.”
And about those dolls. Those naughty, voluptuous-bodied vixens with sweet, suckerfish lips and almond eyes that smolder with sensuality. The bulbous bosoms and pulpy posteriors of Miss Van’s painted figures play on the senses and prey on the wafer-thin ideals of beauty symbolized by half-starved harlots pimped on Paris catwalks and in the pages of haute couture (high fashion) publications.
Though quite often erotic, Van’s pouty faced creations also convey a subtle range of other noticeable characteristics: independence, elegance, flirtatiousness, confidence. Much like their mother, Van’s dolls also exhibit a nearly singular streak of defiance. The artist herself readily admits to being drawn into the world of graffiti primarily because of its forbidden nature. Says this liberated daughter of Eve, “Painting on walls allows me to keep my freedom as it is illegal––there is no censorship.”
Among the creative influences that inspire Van’s deviant dolls, she cites 1950s pin-up models (Bettie Page in particular), Japanese graphic artist Junko Mizuno, and the late 1970s underground comix cartoonist Vaughn Bode.
Inspiration, being the cyclical phenomena that it is, has put MissVan in place to be a source of the stuff as well. Her decision to begin bombing city walls with baby dolls inspired fellow artists Madame Kat and Fafi to be the next in a handful of femmes who would make defining names for themselves on the tagged up walls of Toulouse.
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Gal pal Mademoiselle Kat was actually with Miss Van at Styl back in 1993 on the day that the latter began her foray into the culture of graffiti. Echoing the Cindy Lauper sentiment girls just wanna have fun, Kat say that she saw the rebellious art form as a fun way to add a splash of color to the town of Toulouse. She also saw the world of graffiti as a way to meet new people while at the same time hanging out with old friends.
Mademoiselle Kat’s imaginative paintings often bubble with a fun sense of surrealism, cartoon art and skillful graphic design. Many of her works are whimsical vignettes populated by a variety of cutesy characters ranging from little girls and boys and furry animals, to dragons and other mythical creatures––each of which “have their own story,” enthuses the artist.
It is clear from much of Mademoiselle Kat’s work that she appreciates the stylistic innovations of 20th-century artists like Pablo Picasso, whom she openly cites as an influence. Other influences cited by Kat include Japanese manga (comics), women’s fashion magazines, and children’s books.
Kat’s very own doll-like characters capture all the stumpy-legged cuteness of 1950s cartoon characters like Nancy, Little Lulu, and perhaps Little Audrey most of all. They are wide-eyed and rosy-cheeked with helium-filled heads held down into place by massive ringlets or pigtails. Their appearances on walls throughout the city are like snapshots of little-girls-gone-wild. Garbed in frilly dresses, bobby socks and patent leather steppers, they are dolled up for a tea party set somewhere north of nowhere, held by Alice for the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts in an endless field of butter cups and Monarch butterflies.
I Know What Boys Like
It was the fun-loving Mademoiselle Kat who welcomed then up-and-coming artist Fafi into the fold of Toulouse’s graffiti femmes. The proverbial new kid on the block solicited Kat’s assistance on her first few paintings, and her predecessor very kindly obliged. For several years after, Kat and Fafi continued to paint together, executing their technicolor treasures in the private sanctity of rooftops and Parisian palisades. Says Fafi, “We enjoyed painting our characters on roofs because nobody could notice us, whereas we could see everything.”
Fafi’s early paintings usually featured an imaginative assortment of voluptuous alien chicks from outer space. “I wanted to show that I was able to make sexy characters, even with an ugly face and a martian color,” she explains. But her interest in the concept of what constitutes sexy would quickly flower into an exploration of more humanistic, while still cartoony, representations of femininity and female sexuality, the style for which she is now best known.
“Kat and I painted some porno walls,” Fafi confesses in reference to a scandalous series of works created by the duet which featured their dolls exploiting a range of sexual themes. Offering up her motivation, the artist admits to making the paintings in order to capture the attention of a group of guys she knew, and to show her male counterparts that she could be a “bad girl.”
And what a bad girl she can be. Fafi easily titillates with a myriad of provocative images. Many of her pouty mouthed ‘girls’ appear posed on walls like big-little-bad-girls who're begging to be spanked, while others assume the role of the spanker; the almost cliche leather-clad dominatrix role of a woman in complete control. Fafi’s girls have appeared throughout Toulouse as French maids, naughty nurses, strippers, pin-up girls, police officers, and porn stars playing with pussycats—literally.
Posed on a soft pink background, a steely-eyed redhead painted by the artist seductively brushes her cheek with a fluffy pink powder puff. She is knock-kneed and pigeon-toed, precariously balanced on a pair of purple high heel stilettos. Her bodacious bod, barely bound in a shimmering purple mini-dress, is a jiggling mass of bulbous flesh. Fafi knows what boys like.
As with her predecessors Miss Van and Kat, the influence of meaty 1950s pin-up models, and the cartoon “broads” of Vaughn Bode’s underground comix are more than apparent in Fafi’s work. Still, by strokes of her own creative genius, she masterfully manipulates the senses, molding the minds viewers as if Silly Putty. During an interview with Elle Girl magazine, the painter claimed that not even those charged with enforcing the laws against graffiti have withstood the charms of her sexy, infectious characters. “The last time I got arrested, they asked me to paint Fafi Girls on the walls of the police station!” she boasted.
Four years after the dynamic duet of Fafi and Kat was forged, the ladies began working together on a large scale graffiti mural with then upcoming artist Plume. The latter was a female graffer who specialized in the use of aerosol paints (as opposed to brushes) and the traditional letter forms of graf. It didn’t take long for the ladies to recognize that “three is a magic number / yes it is,” and they promptly joined forces. The trio, calling themselves the Hanky Panky Girls, would become France’s first female graffiti crew, and one of the few such all girl crews in the world.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
Despite the illegal nature of much of their art, the femmes from France have often found that the most outspoken critics of their work have not been the police or the citizens of Toulouse, but other graffiti artists. Throughout the years, artists in the underground’s male majority have expressed the view that works created by brush don’t qualify as authentic graf. In the view of that camp, only those works ejaculated from the long, rounded familiarity of the aluminum penis (i.e., the spray can) can be considered “real” graffiti.
Running contrary to would-be critics, the underground also maintains a number of progressive artists who consider works produced by skilled brush strokes just as legitimate as old fashioned spraycan art; perhaps a thoughtful consideration to reinforce the age old understanding that men and women are essentially different. And––metaphorically speaking––as the opposite sexes don’t exactly piss the same, why should we expect that they’d paint the same?
And however they chose to execute their art, the efforts of the femmes from France continues the small, but respectable tradition of women graffiti artists started in the 1970s by prolific New York bombshells like Barbara 62, Eva 62, Mimi, Gidget, Saku, Stoney, Lady Pink, Era, and a bulging handbag of others.
To their credit, Miss Van, Kat and Fafi have also elevated the legacy of women in graf to next level status. While Kat has kept much of her fun-filled art to a worldwide street level, Miss Van’s dolls, once also posed primarily on walls throughout Toulouse, are featured on t-shirts, purses by Fornarina (Italy) and canvases sold through the Magda Danysz gallery of Paris. Fafi’s paintings have garnered praise in art shows hosted in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin and Tokyo. Her ‘girls’ have been featured on shirts produced by Japan-based streetwear clothiers, and on garments produced by her own France-based clothing line. They have also graced the pages of numerous magazines, including The Face, Vogue Nippon (Japan) and Italian Vogue.
In December of 2003, Sony Capsule Toys produced a collectible figure series of six "Fafi Girls" that very quickly sold out. Since 2004, Fafi fanatics have had to sate their lust for her works with the publication of two books featuring her art: Girls Rock and Love and Fafiness. "Irina," her new vinyl figure is slated for a 2006 release.
The femmes from France have certainly “come a long way, baby,” and for more than a dozen years, the beautiful works birthed from their delicate brush strokes have captured the imagination of millions. With paint cans and brushes in hand, the efforts of these bombshells from Toulouse continue to show (and prove) that it takes neither spray cans or even balls to play and win in graffiti’s virtually all-boy field. Today, as much as yesterday, what it really takes is heart.