Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Making A Difference With Street Art


NO. 14

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Making A Difference With Street Art

Artists have long used their work to fight back against oppression, employing a variety of media to strengthen their message and have their voices heard. Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is no stranger to exploring controversial social and political topics with her art, everything from the uprisings in Libya and Egypt to abortion rights in America and the legalization of gay marriage. But it’s her ongoing project—Stop Telling Women to Smile—that has generated the most notice, perhaps because it’s public art, and therefore difficult to ignore, but also because the message behind the work speaks to all people because it comes from a personal place. Fazlalizadeh started the project in late 2012 as a response to the harassment she encountered frequently. After dealing with countless catcalls—“hey, baby” and “smile, sugar”—Fazlalizadeh started wheat-pasting posters on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Clinton Hill. While she didn’t traditionally work in this medium, she says, “It was my first time doing this underground, street art-style work. I felt like it needed to be done without going through the whole public art commission and approval process.” The posters say things like “women are not seeking your validation” and “I’m not your baby” and, of course, “stop telling women to smile.” Each one features a portrait of a solitary woman, who stares right back at anyone looking at her. It’s that unsmiling, unwavering gaze that makes these works so powerful. Too often, women are harassed by men on the street in ways that seem benign to the men (“what woman doesn’t like to be told she’s pretty?”) but that are a perfect example of the way men have traditionally dominated women in the public sphere, taking away a woman’s agency over her own body with a few brief words. Fazlalizadeh has papered the streets with the kind of women who will not ever give an easy smile or look down at their feet as they walk past a man. And, of course, street harassment is not limited to New York. “The idea is to recreate the project in every city I go to,” she says, “so I’ll be interviewing local women and drawing them and recording their experiences, so that the women in those communities can feel closer to the work and relate to it more.” As with any successful art project, reactions have been intense, and people either love it or hate it. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the love and hate pretty much break down along gender lines.) “People who don’t like the project are really hostile to it,” Fazlalizadeh says. “It’s surprising how unsympathetic people can be to a project that’s really about what women go through. I don’t understand why people think they can tell women that they’re right or wrong when all that women are doing are voicing their experiences.” But despite the sometimes negative reactions, Fazlalizadeh is helping to take back the streets by reminding men of the simple fact that women are strong, their bodies are their own, and they are nobody’s “baby.”


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