Jessica Pabón is obsessed: She has spent the last 11 years studying and writing about female graffiti artists.
Her interest in the topic began with her thesis while she was studying at the University of Arizona, and has since morphed into her dissertation – “The Art of Getting Ovaries: Female Graffiti Artists and the Politics of Presence in Graffiti Subculture.”
As a 17-year-old freshman, Pabón was required to visit the women’s research center as part of a class assignment. There she learned about the contributions that women have made throughout history – and about how often those contributions went unacknowledged.
“It was like I had been blinded,” Pabón said in a recent interview. “I don’t remember ever learning much about what women did. Once I learned that they did stuff, and learned how institutionalized that lack of knowledge was, I said ‘enough.’ ”
From there, Pabón, now 33 and a PhD candidate in the Performance Studies Department at New York University, set a personal goal to enhance recognition of the accomplishments made by women in a subculture in which they largely have been marginalized. “Women have been erased, and I’ve made it my job to make sure those stories get told,” she said.
Using the example of an artist named Ren One, whose work some people claimed was done by her boyfriend, Pabón acknowledged how difficult it is for females to be taken seriously in the world of graffiti. “All of these women have to undergo the same kind of oppressive situation in order to excel as artists,” Pabón said.
Over the years, Pabón has interacted with some 85 female graffiti artists. While each has her own motivation for why she does what she does, it’s the rush that drives these women to risk life and limb for the pursuit of art.
“It’s adrenaline and the self-satisfaction, knowing that you’ve gotten away with it and transgressed all of these conventions,” Pabón said. “It takes a lot of mental and physical risk taking.”
Of course, the women who turn to graffiti writing are well aware that they are breaking the law, straddling a fine line between being a citizen and being a vandal. But many have been doing it for so long that the rush outweighs the risks.
“By the time you’ve been doing it for 15 years, you can’t stop. It becomes part of their everyday lives,” Pabón said. Not only that, but the women are often out late at night or in inclement weather.
“Most of the time, while the rest of the world is sleeping, these women are out painting. It’s less risky that way,” Pabón said. “Some of them were out during Hurricane Sandy because there were less people on the street. They even go out in snowstorms.”
Too, there is often a cultural difference between female graffiti artists in the United States and artists in other countries.
“When I went to Chile and Brazil, these girls paint during the day,” Pabón said. “Large colorful productions. When you live in Rio, there are bigger problems in that city. The administrators don’t spend millions of dollars trying to clean it up.” Pabón said that she once saw someone ask one of the women she was interviewing to do graffiti on the side of their house.
Some of the women Pabón has dealt with have turned their graffiti experience into other ventures. “Most have somehow flipped what they’ve learned through graffiti into a business,” she said. “These are women who were constantly drawing as kids, always creating something. Their parents put them in a painting class, and maybe they went to school for graphic design, or ended up doing advertising campaigns for major corporations.”
Pabón, who is not a graffiti artist herself, recently spoke at TedxWomen about her work. Tedx talks are independently organized events, but they also typically focus on a local community.
“When you’re an academic and you spend your life behind a computer or your nose in book, you don’t expect people to care about what you’re writing about and the people you’re writing about,” Pabón said. “I felt kind of special and it was kind of weird. I don’t consider myself a fancy person and I feel like people who do Ted talks are fancy people. But it was a really humbling experience, to say the least, and it was really fun.”
Pabón said that one of the benefits of the Ted talk was being able to share her work with the women she has interviewed over the years. “It was nice to be able to send the women in my research a link,” Pabón said. “Some of them are waiting and asking when the book is coming out. It was nice to give them something immediate that they could show their people and put on the web and livestream to 15,000 people.”
While Pabón will be defending her dissertation this spring – and is having “some kind of weird postpartum thing” now that the project is finally coming to an end -- she isn’t done writing about women and their roles in subcultures. Her next project will be about human beatboxing, which is decidedly different from graffiti because it moves from visual to audio aspects. Pabón said she also has another project about being light-skinned and Latino, which is partly inspired by her experience of being Puerto Rican and growing up in Dorchester, largely in the Lower Mills area.
Ultimately, however, she is hoping to become a university professor so that she can provide others with the opportunities she has been given.