At any given moment, they can be found scrawled on school desks and carved crudely into lockers and on bathroom stalls. In a way, penis drawings are the OG of graffiti, but that might be giving them too much credit. For some, the habit of drawing phalluses on everything didn't stay behind in adolescence. Looking around, it might seem at times that the world is populated largely by middle-school boys.
A feminist street artist in the U.K. who goes by the name Vaj Graff has a simple solution to this conundrum, which most recently involved spray-painting a full bush on a statue of Queen Victoria in Bristol's College Green. The 26-year-old said she isn't sure when she started noticing "cock graffiti" but ever since, she's been inspired to counter it with vagina graffiti.
"I did my first piece of graf when I was 5 years old," Graff told Mic via email. "It was in the playground after school and there was this one boy who was doing some shit in chalk on the floor — probs drawing a cock. I went over and took that chalk and did what I had to do."
Graff said that spray-painting penises is a way for men to "mark their territory" and show women that public space doesn't belong to them. "You spray something, you own something," she explained. "Put a vaj up there and it starts to look a bit different." However, Graff said her graffiti provokes distinctly different reactions than its phallic counterpart, especially from the media. She specifically took issue with the Daily Mail's coverage of her Queen Victoria modification, which they called "vulgar" in their headline (albeit, in quotation marks).
"They are saying my Vaj is offensive but when you look down the side of that site what do you see?" Graff asked. "Women with their tits out ... Double standards are everywhere."
Graff said she saw a double standard inherent in the Queen Victoria statue, one she could at least begin to address by humanizing her. "She's up there on a pedestal standing tall and strong in stone but at the same time it's quiet," said Graff. "If that was a statue of a king he'd be in some dominant pose, probably with one leg cocked up on a poof and holding a gun or some phallic bullshit in the air. The statue would be shouting. Giving Vic back her Vaj makes her speak."
Graff made it clear her graffiti isn't just art for art's sake, nor is it just about inciting controversy either. She told Mic she doesn't just tag something because she feels like it — every "thro up," as Graff writes on her blog, has a message.
While the majority of street and graffiti artists are still men, Graff is in good company when it comes to women who are trying to even the playing field. But even as more female artists reclaim the streets, Graff said there still remains a deep inequality in how not just the public, but the government and authorities receive their work. "It's difficult to explain to someone who ain't from Bristol but if you were you'd know that Banksy is a tourist attraction." she said. "Bristol City Council protects the same thing that they have criminalized."
Graff believes that if Banksy spray-painted the same art she did, he would be praised for it rather than maligned. While Banksy is often known for his anti-capitalist work, Graff said, at the end, it's all about the money. She stated, "Banksy sells his shit to Brad and Angelina then the council loves it. I ain't trying to make a penny cos this vaj ain't for sale, so what what value is that to the council?"
Graff said she's the only female street artist in Bristol and she won't let the sexist double standards get her down.
"Men set the agenda for what is deserving of attention," Graff wrote. "Do something different [and] they don't like it. Women who own their bodies and dare to do something different are provocative, they're troublemakers ... I'm VAJ and I gotta statement to make. I'm on a mission."