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Girl Power Through Grafitti, from Prague to New York

The co-director of a documentary on female graffiti artists talks about the origins of the movement in Central Europe, the scene on the two sides of the Atlantic, and its future in the digital world. 

by Miyu Hayashi 7 March 2017

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On the way from Vaclavske Namesti, in the heart of the Czech capital, to Prague 7, one of its trendy neighborhoods, there is an eye-catching tram stop called Vltavska. Beyond its importance on the commuting map, what makes Vltavska so striking is the colorful graffiti spread all over the walls near the tram stop.


And this is far from the only place in the Czech capital where graffiti is so visible – Prague has a surprising amount for a city with such a well-preserved historical heritage. Some may say that graffiti art destroys the aesthetic of the city, but not all think that way.


Jan Zajicek is one of the legendary pioneers of graffiti in Czechoslovakia, who started to explore this form of street art after the Velvet revolution, under the street name Skarf/Scarf. Born on 4 March 1977 in Prague, he studied film and directing at the prestigious Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). As a filmmaker, he has directed music videos, animated feature films, and TV commercials.


TOL caught up with Zajicek last year when he was presenting Girl Power, a documentary that he co-directed, which presented females graffiti writers from 15 cities from all over the world, including Prague and Moscow. As the movie’s official website reads, “The graffiti community is predominantly a man's world, and men often share the view that graffiti – namely the illegal kind – is not for girls. And yet women have become increasingly more emancipated in recent years; there are female graffiti shows, magazines, and websites. Girl Power captures the stories of ladies who have succeeded in the male graffiti world.”


Street art at the Vltavska tram station


Zajicek’s co-director, Sany, is one of those, but from an unlikely background. She was an accomplished businesswoman who studied marketing and communication. In addition to being one of the few active female graffiti artists in the Czech Republic, she participates in organizing cultural events in Prague and abroad. Other than these facts, little is known about Sany, as she avoids exposing her real identity as her family does not know that she is a graffiti artist – despite her presence on the local scene for the past 14 years.


TOL: “What got you into filmmaking?”


Zajicek: “Well, I started to paint at an early age, and I went to a fine arts school when I was 10. I just remembered how, when I was a young boy, I told my father that it felt like I had a camera in my eye. And my father said, ‘Maybe you will become a filmmaker.’ ”


TOL: “It was a prophecy.”


Zajicek: “He was not exactly right, but I started young. During primary school, I went to an artistic school for little children to learn fine arts. Then I studied painting in high school, and later I had to choose between becoming a painter or a filmmaker, and I chose to do filmmaking. Then I went to FAMU when I was 17. I still don’t feel like a filmmaker. I still feel like I’m learning.


TOL: “I read that you also do graffiti? What got you into it?”


Zajicek:  “I was one of the first graffiti artists in Czechoslovakia. It was right after the Velvet Revolution, around 1992. I was one of the first ten writers in the country. For us, graffiti was something that came from the West. The whole city was sad and gray after communism, and graffiti was something fresh and colorful, something magical. After the revolution, a few writers from the West came to Prague, and they painted at some graffiti spots that I went to see. We didn’t know what it meant but there were big drawings full of freedom. Everyone and everything was open.


But it was very expensive for us to paint. One can of paint cost more than 100 Czech crowns.”


TOL: “So a can of paint was equivalent to an inexpensive meal?”


Zajicek: “It would be an inexpensive meal today, but to paint one piece at that time meant spending a third of our monthly rent. I was a teenager when I started, and the price was off limits, so we had to make money. I painted for clubs, did company logos. It worked because the graffiti scene started happening when I was in high school, so this was when I was studying fine arts and classical painting. All the money we had, we used it to buy paint.


Another grafitti near the Vltavska tram station


In the first few years, the graffiti scene just grew. There were more people. In the beginning we were like one big family. And later we painted more and more, and painters joined us more and more.”


TOL: “It’s fascinating to hear how the graffiti scene developed because in the U.S., it’s already an established art form, and we don’t see graffiti artists in action as much.”


Zajicek: “There’s a scene in Girl Power, showing a lady from New York who started to do graffiti in the 1970s. She said something that reminded me of the start of graffiti in Prague: ‘The social situation in New York City [at that time] was bad, with lots of crimes. Graffiti was something fresh and colorful. It was as if colors were going out from the ghetto.’ For them, this meant that New York can’t be beaten, and we felt the same way about Prague.”


TOL: “How did you get involved in the Girl Power project? Did you already know Sany, the co-director?”

Zajicek: “I didn’t know Sany but she knew of me. She had the project, but she wasn’t a filmmaker. She started as a young teenager who felt a lack of respect from the graffiti scene. So she decided to take action and make a feminist movie. She found a cameraman among her friends, and started to shoot as an amateur with an unstructured concept of ‘making something for girls.’ She was about eight years into the project when she finished filming, and she started looking for producers.


I later heard that she had to look for two-three years to find a producer who would finish the film. I got the offer from a friend who’s a producer. He called me and told me about this project. He said ‘she knows you, and we need someone who is an insider to make a film out of it.’ ”


So I said ‘Ok, show me the rough footage.’ The footage put me on the verge of declining. It was a project that I’ve seen numerous times before, with a concept similar to the Blair Witch Project, where you can see the presence of the crew, and which I don’t like.


But there was an interesting part. When Sany was in Toulouse, France, she painted a train but didn’t finish on time. She wanted to take a snapshot of it, so she waited for the train at the station, but the train never came. She waited for, like, 12 hours, and, because of it, she was a day late to work, and the company fired her. And that’s what caught my attention. Sany studied economy at the university, and was earning a lot of money as a high-level manager. But she lost all these years of her career for this photo. That moment grabbed me, so I decided to say, ‘OK.’


Street art against a pink background


It’s uncomfortable for a filmmaker to use footage that you haven’t been involved with from the beginning. Sany flew all over the world to interview people, but she only asked ordinary questions. We had really a lot of footage, but there was nothing to connect it together. This was a big co-production with the Czech Television, and we felt like the film had great potential, but the potential [actually] was in Sany.


It’s unusual for a well-paid manager to lose it all because of one photo, so we decided to make the film about her personal story. She didn’t like it at first because she wanted to make a cool graffiti movie about girls, but that idea had no concept other than the feminist take. In the end, it turned out kind of like a road movie. When I started to ask Sany what happened, she started to tell me more about herself. One of the main hooks that we used in this film is how Sany never told her parents about her graffiti or about Girl Power. To this day, they don’t know that she spent all her time and money on graffiti and filmmaking. This seemed like a strong plot line. And later, it all somehow fell into place.


The only problem was that Sany had a lot of footage, but not about this specific story, and we didn’t have the time or money to shoot more footage. I only had planned three or four days for shooting, and I had to decide how to use it wisely. We obviously didn’t have time to fly and re-interview an interesting girl in another country when we had 15 cities to cover. We also didn’t have footage of what the foreign cities looked like, only footage of the interviews in each cities. Sany was lucky as it is to have footage, because a lot of the girls did not want to talk to her. They were afraid.”


TOL: “I was wondering about that because graffiti is considered vandalism, and is illegal in most countries. How did you get these girls to talk to you?”


Graffiti incorporating Chinese characters


Zajicek: “Sany spent a lot of time, sometime months or years just to get in touch with them. That’s something she’s good at. Let’s say she’s a really good manager. She just tried and tried. This was a very difficult part of the production. It was hard but Sany had the advantage of being a graffiti writer herself. But still, she only knew few of the girls personally. Every situation was different, but it really helped that she was an insider. For somebody who’s not an artist, it would have been impossible to make this film.”


TOL: “How did you even find these girls? Are they famous?”


Zajicek: “Graffiti is a subculture and there’s a net of friends in the scene. I had friends all over Europe. And maybe in this age of the internet it was easier for Sany. Her friend knew of a friend, or it would be a friend of a friend of a friend. So you see how it could have been difficult. It was a long process of eight years for her. Sany also organized some big graffiti jam in Prague for girls, and invited Martha Cooper, a legendary photographer who documented the famous New York subway graffiti. So when she said ‘I have Martha,’ that was that … So this project made Sany better known on the global graffiti scene. More girls wanted to be in this project, so it was a little bit easier for her to contact others later on.”


TOL: “Why do you think the graffiti scene is big in Prague? What attracts artists to graffiti?


Zajicek:  “I don’t know if it’s so big in Prague right now, but it’s big in other countries like Indonesia. [Graffiti] started growing in Moscow. Then it started in China and some eastern countries – also in Iran, which is one of the locations in the movie. One thing that was interesting for me, looking back and thinking about it, is that, if you compare those cities, graffiti is an indicator of freedom in the country.


Black and white street art near the Vlatvska tram station


It was the same for Czechoslovakia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first front line for graffiti was East Berlin. Berlin wasn’t far, so we traveled there in the early 1990s, when I was young and when the whole city was covered in graffiti. As the city was unchained and freed from control there was a burst of color. I think as control becomes weaker and with the spread of the internet, graffiti dies as a culture.


Graffiti can be a sign that there’s something wrong with the government.


TOL: “It took you seven years to film the documentary. Do you think the graffiti scene has changed?”


Zajicek: “Yes, definitely. It definitely changed in Prague. But it changed differently in each country. In America it’s a dying process. And as I said before, we can now see a huge pool in Asia. So of course we can talk about some changes.


As Martha Cooper said in the movie, graffiti started as a local New York City phenomenon and became global. Graffiti was originally only about names, about writing your name and nothing else – it’s just a work with letters. The content of pure graffiti is a name, which is usually an abstract work without other meanings. The major change, which was also my personal problem, was that I wanted to do something more than just names. But then, it stops being graffiti. For me, Keith Haring is the first graffiti writer, but, from today’s perspective, he is one of the first street artists, just like Banksy. Banksy is a street artist but he’s not a graffiti artist.


There was one mid-step in this transition called post-graffiti. Maybe you remember how, a few years ago, stickers became a phenomenon. The principle is the same as graffiti: it’s illegal, it’s vandalism, you don’t care who’s the owner of the property, and doesn’t matter if it’s on a bus stop or on walls. But it started when printers and computers became cheap and accessible. It became very easy to print cheap stickers. So what changed in the post-graffiti era was the context – from names to whatever you want, like politics or sometimes just a joke – but I like it.


And later, a lot of artists saw the street as the perfect medium to work with. When I was younger, fine arts and graffiti were different worlds, but later they mixed together, with everything else. A lot of graffiti is being exhibited in galleries, and artists working with spray cans use their technique in the public space.


TOL: “Do you think the movement will just keep on moving toward street art and graffiti will die off?”


Zajicek: “I think the principle will go on, like hacking for example. I once left my computer on for two days, and when I came back, there was a little cartoon cow just staying there and looking at me from the screen. I to move the cow with the mouse cursor, but it ran away and I never saw it again. I think this is the same concept as graffiti: someone was illegally doing something. So hacking is, from my perspective, related to grafitti.


And I don't want to say hacking is positive. Graffiti is a hybrid, which is why there is a lot of controversy around it. It can be beautiful and colorful, but it’s also vandalizing. In most cases it’s not Banksy, or Haring, or Basquiat, just some stupid guy doing it, but it’s all somehow related. Some part of graffiti is simply [a reaction] against private property, but in some romantic way, it’s different from that.


What I noticed after all these years is that there is some necessity to paint one’s trace, to write your name down. Someone wants to make a big company, or become a writer, or build a building, but the deepest motive is always to somehow leave a mark of one’s personality on the world. This need is also something fundamental to grafitti. This is something very old and very deep, and this necessity will always somehow be there. I don’t know if it’ll evolve into something virtual like cows on your screen. I don’t know if it’ll stay in the form of spray paint but the idea will always be there.” 

Miyu Hayashi, a former TOL intern, is a student at New York University.

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