Since 2017, Graffiti Camp for Girls has been challenging gender norms by exploring what is possible when you put a spray paint can in the hands of a girl.
From Oakland to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, each five-day camp teaches 12-18-year-old girls and nonbinary kids to express themselves through graffiti.
“Every day (of class) is a full painting day,” said director and founder Nina Wright in an interview with The Daily Californian. “We teach them how to use the respirators and what cap does what, but within the first 20 minutes of class, they are jumping at the wall and painting.”
Assistant teacher, social media manager and former student Nyia Luna works alongside Wright, helping students build confidence and trust through partnered exercises that culminate into a collaborative mural.
“I always encourage them to work one-on-one or together as a group because that’s the whole point of Graffiti Camp for Girls — to create a unit instead of prioritizing just one of the students,” Luna explained. “It’s a lot more fun to work in a group, and you have a lot more support.”
Despite the liberation of being able to paint absolutely anything, getting the girls to vocalize their ideas is one of the biggest challenges to arise at camp. Putting their ideas to paint is a whole other hurdle to overcome, revealing the intense consequences of gender constructs.
Referring to the contrasting ways in which boys and girls approach spray-painting, Wright said, “There’s such a social dynamic difference. I’ve taught mural classes in schools before, and the boys just run over to the suitcase where I store my cans, grab the cans and start spraying. They’re not asking for permission; they’re just stoked to paint and jump right into it.”
For many girls, this release from authority is new, the unfamiliar freedom giving rise to gnawing insecurities. Their first moment of painting often begins with a heavy undertone of doubt as they hesitantly edge toward the spray cans, waiting for directions to be followed.
“You bring a young boy to a graffiti class, and they feel so comfortable, so secure, because they can go out and find a bunch of guys to do graffiti with,” Luna said. “But girls don’t have that opportunity because of the society we live in. We’re trying to break that down. That’s why street art and girls go hand in hand — it’s like fighting the patriarchy.”
With many classes taking place in public spaces such as San Francisco’s Clarion Alley, Graffiti Camp for Girls is much more than an instructional course on how to spray-paint. The feedback of the outside world is yet another challenge the girls must face head-on — from words of praise to being questioned about their legitimacy — as they learn to confront their own self-judgment while simultaneously honing their artistic skills.
“If you’re in a studio, you’re not going to get that aspect of the real world that you would get painting on the street,” Luna said. “It’s really important to introduce young girls specifically to graffiti and street art because there’s not a lot of spaces where they’re going to feel comfortable and safe doing that.”
Finding the ability to tune into their own artistic flow while painting amid the chaos of street art is a transformative artistry that each girl can bring to their art practice even once camp ends.
“You have to paint while you’re basically on a public stage,” Wright said. “Once (the girls) get over that anxiety, they realize that the more they paint, the more they focus on the painting and not on all the noise around them. That’s when confidence boosting and empowerment begins, when you’re painting for yourself and you don’t care that everyone’s watching you.”
Lingering girlhood anxieties often trickle into adult life, prompting Graffiti Camp for Girls to consider camps geared toward adults. For now, the organization sees a need for youth classes and recently decided to launch a camp for 7- to 10-year-olds.
“If there was an outpour of confidence from the students and they just ran over to grab the cans, and just went at it, I don’t think I would need to keep doing Graffiti Camp for Girls,” Wright said. “That’s what we’re working towards.”
To extend its reach, Graffiti Camp for Girls is fundraising for a box truck mobile classroom, and it is always looking for walls across the globe to empower its students. This venture will enable the organization to bring blank walls to eager young girls who live in places without artistic resources.
“A lot of young girls struggle with their own identities and just being a girl in this hard world,” Luna said. “When they have the opportunities to shine through their art, we really have to foster that and help them grow.”
Amanda Ayano Hayami covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].