Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Street artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh came to campus last Wednesday to discuss her popular street art project Stop Telling Women to Smile. Fazlalizadeh spoke about her background as a student at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, how she developed STWTS, and how the project has evolved.
Fazlalizadeh was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and moved to Philadelphia to study at University of the Arts. While in Philadelphia, she began “doing work around social and political issues.” A lot of her work is based around portraiture because she is interested in “[telling stories] I think need to be told, about people I think should be represented or reflected in work […] and that includes people I identify with.”
When Fazlalizadeh began working in Philadelphia, she mainly worked in public spaces, on murals, and as a teaching artist. Working in a public space, she said, was a different from working in a studio, where the artist is typically alone and “very isolated.” Public work, on the other hand, “becomes a part of the environment […] Anyone who is a part of this community will see this work, and it becomes a part of the community and their lives.”
Beginning in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Fazlalizadeh began STWTS with just four photos of herself and friends. As she expanded the project to more cities, she began to incorporate new voices, interviewing and photographing women across the country.
Fazlalizadeh explained that she has consciously tried to incorporate a wider variety of voices as the project has grown. For example, a Latina woman said she liked the “I’m not your baby” poster, but that it didn’t speak directly to her experience. Fazlalizadeh
eventually made a new poster, this time in Spanish including pet names like “mamacita.” Later, an Asian woman told Fazlalizadeh how her race is fetishized by men on the street, which Fazlalizadeh incorporated into a new poster.
After her talk, Fazlalizadeh opened up the floor to questions. Many students asked about the public’s response to her posters, wondering if she had received any negative pushback from men in person, or if the way she approached street harassment in her own life has changed.
One student asked Fazlalizadeh about her opinion on the viral anti-street harassment video “Ten Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.” “When I first saw it,” Fazlalizadeh said, “I was like, yeah, I get it, I go through this all the time. […] I’ve experienced that, it’s not strange to me, and it happens every day.” But Fazlalizadeh said there were also obvious racial dynamics at play, because the video featured a white woman being “harassed mostly by black and brown men.”
She explained that this was a problem because of how popular the video became: “A lot of people were talking about the video who maybe weren’t so familiar with street harassment, so this is the image they’re getting of what street harassment is: black and brown men in New York City harassing white women.” While Fazlalizadeh thought it was wrong to present that portrait of harassment, she said that it’s possible to speak both about harassment and race at the same time. “While I did think that it was bad that this was what was being depicted racially, I also understood the harassment part because I deal with that stuff all the time,” she said. “We need to have multiple conversations about it. That one video should not be the definition of what street harassment is.”
The final question was posed by a male student, who asked what he could do to prevent street harassment. After a pause, Fazlalizadeh said, “First of all, you sit back and you listen, until you understand what’s really happening. […] And then you talk to your friends, talk to your homies about what they’re doing. Don’t just sit back and be like, ‘Oh, that sucks that that happens to you.’ Actually stop people from doing that to women. […] I think that men have to take responsibility in teaching other men about this stuff. As a woman, I shouldn’t just have to preach to men all the time. Y’all need to preach to each other.”
Featured image by Vishnu Gupta ’18/The Daily Gazette.