Women are “allowed” to like art. We are allowed to like sculpture, landscapes, oil paintings, and architecture—the type of thing a character in a Jane Austen book enjoys. But not graffiti. An art form dominated by male artists, characterized by danger and illegality, is considered outside of our domain. Growing up, I was always told that graffiti was something rowdy boys did. The most famous and commercially successful street artists are all male. Artists like Lady Pink, Swoon and Panmela Castro have carved out territory for women in the graffiti world, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Brash transformation in the art world is credited to the Warhols, the Pollocks and the Rothkos of the world—not the Kahlos, O’Keefes and Krugers—and the graffiti scene has towed that line. Unfortunately for those who want to preserve the boys club mentality of graffiti, I was granted an Honors Fellowship in the summer of 2015.
I used my fellowship to study antifascist graffiti across Italy, zeroing in on three subgenres: suppression, which involves the whitewashing of fascist graffiti to establish a negated space that threatens the fascists not to come back; transformation, which involves the reformation of classic fascist/Nazi imagery such as the swastika into hearts and diamonds; creation, wherein an artist creates their own stencil, sticker or tag from scratch with an antifascist slogan. The “Zona Antifa” graffiti tag—prominent not only in Italy but across the European continent—is the mark of a generation that rejects idealization of repressive twentieth century dictatorships and actively seeks to tear down emergent neo-fascism. Xenophobia and racism are not vague ideals, they are accelerants that have coated Europe for decades, fermenting and creeping into the very governments that swore to never again embrace the type of prejudice that built the Holocaust. The refugee crisis, the largest human migration since World War II, is a lit match. In a world where visual communication via social media is the keystone of activism and organization, graffiti is an integral part of the European political scene. In the Renaissance, knights wore symbols of allegiance on their armor and their standards. Today, we have lost the knights but we have not lost our visceral connection to symbols. In train stations, schools and bar bathrooms, there is no need for a complete manifesto when a single image and a handful of words will do: swastikas and racist slogans for the neo-fascists, the double flag and “Zona Antifa” for the antifascists.
Women are not supposed to like graffiti but at William and Mary, not only do we like it—we know more about it than you. Thanks to my fellowship, input from the incredible faculty of the Italian Studies program and the ability to pursue a Self-Designed Major, I spent this year immersing myself in the world of graffiti as I completed my honors thesis. One thing I was constantly surprised and impressed by was how much my peers and faculty members wanted to contribute to the project. Whether they were encouraging me to write papers on graffiti for their courses, recommending books and websites or simply asking me questions about my research, I felt that my thesis was a collaborative effort from start to finish. Undergraduates rarely get so much creative control over their own projects nor do they receive such constant support from professors in multiple disciplines, but at William and Mary, my experience was standard. There is a desire to help here that makes learning and exploring the minutiae of a project exciting from start to finish. People want to go on the journey with you rather than just read the line item on your resume after the fact. I am not the only person, and definitely not the only woman, on this campus who spent the year learning about graffiti culture.
I can unequivocally link my success as an Honors Thesis candidate to my studies in the Italian Studies program. Without a grasp of the Italian language, I would never have been able to conduct in-depth research and understand the history of Italian graffiti. Without the support of my thesis advisor, I would not have been able to produce an academic paper of substance. Without the courses I took on Italian history, politics and film, I would have never looked past the Italy of pasta, red wine and Vespas and seen the second, true Italy—a nation with a complex graffiti scene that reveals conflict and anger but above all hope for a brighter future. I am so thankful that when I arrived in Italy I had a grasp of the language, the culture and above all the politics that was beyond the superficial. I spent my semester abroad teaching in multiple schools, babysitting for local families and traveling off the beaten path—things which I was only able to do because of my language proficiency. I only began studying Italian as a freshman, but when I got to Italy as a junior, I was frequently complimented on my language ability by native Italians from Viterbo to Palermo. All of William and Mary’s departments and programs are excellent in their own right but I consider the Italian program to provide the most valuable catalogue of courses on our campus.
For future Honors Fellowship candidates, I have just one piece of advice. If you care about something that fascinates you, confuses you and challenges you to step outside of what you traditionally thought you found interesting, don’t ignore your interest. If you have an itch to learn more, go to the library, get online, conduct an interview—find out what you want to know. This school offers us a host of incredible resources—research funding, dedicated faculty, a diverse range of courses and a host of impressive alumni willing to help with your project. They want to help you so let them. When you want to learn, you should. Especially if you want to learn about something you’re not “allowed” to like.