The Artist Behind the “Stop Telling Women to Smile” Street Art Has Big Plans

The artist in front of a giant poster that says "stop telling women to smile"

When you walk down your street, you may see women’s faces looking back at you from the walls—women whose gazes tell you that they are defiant, assertive, proud, and Strong. Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh drew these women for her art project Stop Telling Women to Smile.

Beneath their faces are words that countless women deeply feel and want to say when men they do not know sexually harass them in public spaces, but are not always safe to say aloud:  “Women are not outside for your entertainment.” “My outfit is not an invitation.” “I am not public space.”

This is International Anti-Street Harassment Week and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is organizing an artistic experiment she hopes will impact cities around the world. Anyone can request PDFs of her posters and instructions for how to wheat paste. Then, during the afternoon or evening of Friday, April 4, everyone can put up the posters in their community.

 “I imagine that on the morning of April 5, we will have this work plastered on walls in cities across the globe,” she says. “Instead of just having this work in Brooklyn and other domestic cities, women in other countries can also use this work for their experiences.”

Fazlalizadeh began her art project in 2012. “The project was inspired by my daily experiences with street harassment,” she told me at the time. “Being harassed on the street is exasperating.” She knew she wanted to use art in some way to artistically speak up for herself and other women who are harassed on the street. In the moment, you don’t always speak up for yourself. “You ignore them, walk faster,” she says. “So with this work, I wanted to say what I actually think when being hounded by men.”

Ultimately she chose street art, specifically posters that can be pasted to public walls, right where street harassment happens. These in-your-face messages are meant to voice women’s feelings and to raise men’s awareness about how women feel when they are harassed.

After putting up posters in places like Philadelphia and Brooklyn, in September 2013, she held an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to take her project on the road. She more than doubled her original goal of $15,000, and in late 2013, she began her country-wide tour.

So far, she’s traveled to Boston, Oakland, Chicago and Los Angeles and she’ll be in Atlanta later this week. She spends several days in each city, hosting a discussion group to meet local women and talk about what street harassment looks like in their community. Then she meets with women individually, shoots their photographs, and then draws their portrait for the poster designs. Together, they wheat paste the posters on public walls around town. She usually also has a few events in each town, from leading workshops and lectures to being part of art shows.

The posters are making an impact. Fazlalizadeh returned to Oakland a month after her initial visit to give an artist talk. A lot of the audience were people who had seen her posters around the city and came to hear more about it.

“I got a lot of comments that night from women saying ‘thank you,’” she says. “And there were also men there who had seen the posters, considered what they said, and appreciated them. These responses show what the work is trying to do: be an advocate and voice for women, and to push men to consider these voices.”

Fazlalizadeh travels alone and relies on local volunteers (“badass, big-hearted people”) to help her. And she loves them. “From the group of queer persons of color who invited me to their house for chili and conversation in Chicago, to the assistants in Los Angeles who drove me around the city - getting drinks and chicken in my down time,” she said, “meeting so many awesome people has been the highlight [of this project].”

Next, Fazlalizadeh wants to take her project global, to “put this work in the hands of women across the world.” A key part of that is promoting this week’s big wheat-paste of her posters. If you want to participate, request Stop Telling Women to Smile posters to put up in your community. Vent your feelings about street harassment. Show that street harassment happens in our communities but we’re taking a stand!

If you do participate—or if you spot a poster in your community—please take a photo and send it to Fazlalizadeh and Stop Street Harassment. You can also visit the Meet us on the Street website to find other ways to take action during International Anti-Street Harassment Week, from March 30 – April 5.

by Holly Kearl
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Holly Kearl is the founder of Stop Street Harassment and works for the Aspen Institute and the OpEd Project.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

This is so rad!

I'm super jazzed about this project! I just saw the article today and am organizing like mad to make this a successful endeavor. I'm bummed I didn't find out about this sooner - April 4th is only days away! There are so many young activists who read your mag - I think drawing more attention to articles where reader contribution is called for and even vital is really important. Thanks for sharing Tatyana's work and project - hope to take part in more similar projects soon. Let's go big, bitches

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