Interview conducted by Lora Mathis, PD Senior Manager of Art
1. Your Facebook bio says that you’re a “street artist who spreads out radical cute culture.” Much of your work consists of paintings on the street with feminist slogans supporting survivors and healing and shutting down rape culture, cat-calling, and creeps. What is your intention in putting the work into such a public setting? Is there a reaction you would like people to have?
For the past few years, I have been doing this work for myself. This is what I’m into, what I do for fun, what makes my heart beat. This is what makes me happy, what makes my life fulfilling.
More often than not the messages in my work are about what I’m relating to that day. I use it to reflect on what I’m going through or discussions I’m having with friends. I used to not think about the reception of my work, but the work outgrew me. Now lots of people have an opinion on it-some relate, some can’t stand it, others bring up important criticism.
I think people tend to either depoliticize graff or overpraise political street art; I don’t fit neatly there. While anarchist ideas, anti-oppression politics, and encouraging subtexts for sexual violence and trauma survivors are important components of the work I produce, doing graffiti is more of a mindset and a lifestyle. I don’t think people who are not heavily submerged in it can really understand.
In terms of reactions; I like when people appreciate my work, but ultimately I do it for myself, my friends, my crews. However, it is really validating when I hear survivors connect to it or that it made them feel safer. But graffiti is not a political statement. For me it’s about fun, magic, spontaneity. It is a playground of ridiculous out-of-control moments. If it isn’t about passion, then all of the risks, emotional work, and vulnerability it puts you through is not really worth it.
2. How did you get into graffiti? And in a scene so heavily dominated by masculinity, did you receive negative feedback for trying to spread feminist messages in your work? Do you have any tips for young feminine artists who are making work in spheres dominated by masculinity?
I’ve realized that it is complicated for me to talk about graffiti and street art- because it is quite a vast genre in itself and I have a very personal take on it. Mostly because I was into it and part of it way before being involved with feminism and articulating my thoughts on rape culture. Like most people who paint a lot, it started with a friend or two who liked to paint. Trust me, if you are passionate it will unravel quickly.
I’m from a small town but visiting Montreal often really made me aware of my surroundings and graffiti. I liked everything about it. I remember when it felt fresh. The first time I ever used a can was in my early teenage years; I was a really bad teen. There was no good intention behind it. My interests at that time were destruction and partying, and it’s only later in my life that I became passionate about feminism. Some people in the scene hate the idea of me getting up and have strong misconceptions of feminism. Femme aesthetics, soft color palettes, and feminine figures are devalued, and I have been told many times that using them is cliché. But if doing what keeps me alive is cliché then I have no problem with that. Who cares about their fancy-ass boring tastes.
As for advice, I will only tell you this: do what drives you. Graffiti doesn’t need any feminist heroes, neither does any male-dominated scene for that matter. You have nothing to prove to anybody. The scenes are boring anyways; why change them when you can build your own?
I’m into people and sharing and having deep talks, I like the idea of gathering people I care about all together and creating an environment that makes our connections safer. In the past I met feminist artists who wanted very much to denounce sexism in street art or galleries but I was stunned about how little they knew about the environment they were referring to, although it’s no surprise since these spaces are not accessible to everybody.
It is true that art scenes are utterly privileged, with the underlying racism, sexism, transmisogyny present in various spaces and subcultures. I used to look down on myself or my work because I thought I did not fit anywhere, but I realized; hey I know lots of artists, let’s just organize our own dream shows, art fairs, clothing swaps and what not.
It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work and it doesn’t pay well, but if you don’t find alternatives, you can organize things. It doesn’t have to be big, it can be online instead of a gallery. I’m still learning myself, but I will say this: respect yourself and the people who you are getting involved with. Respect your elders, even if your visions clash. Listen to what younger folks have to say too, and remember all-ages spaces are cool. Listen carefully, take no shit, but acknowledge when you do something hurtful or act from a privileged standpoint. Accountability must be central to your work if you want to make it about more than your own self. Take notes. Learn about accessibility, local anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles, the lands you stand on, who was there before you. Ask yourself questions and be grateful. Be grateful for the people who do your dishes, pay them when you can, don’t take all the credits. I survived on my own, but my visibility, my events, and my current works are very much informed by the vast arrays of friends and fans.
3. A few months ago you helped organize Bow Town, a collaborative show that challenges the “Bro Town” of Montreal. This idea is so important to me because you did not see a space for yourself in the scene you were living in, so you made a temporary one that you could fit into. What is the importance of creating your own spaces, and what about art spaces do you think needs to be changed?
It’s fun to organize art shows although logistically it can be challenging without a budget or access to a gallery. But hey, that’s how DIY works, you find resources. Both Zuzu Knew (who co-curated Bow Town with me) and I have an interesting network of friends and artists, so we decided to invite lots of folks with different backgrounds to participate in the show. We were lucky to be able to do it in a cute curiosity store with a gallery space called Monastiraki, which was very eclectic and friendly.
People organize art and music shows in their houses. I haven’t worked enough with galleries to tell you what needs to change, but I think it’s obvious that everybody needs to take major steps towards creating accessible spaces and being accountable. I’m more interested in communal spaces than galleries. I’m not sure I have examples of what my ideal space would be; but I guess somewhere you can be fed, be comfortable, see art, read books; a place where it is not solely framed to see art and drink. I enjoy every step, all the processes involved in creating an event, it’s nice to start from not much and see a magical experience unravel.
4. You are one of the main artists often associated with the term “radical softness as a weapon.” What role does softness play in your work?
Softness is something I am proud to share because it’s something I cultivated for a long time without feeling weak or ashamed. As a traumatized kid and teen I learned to hide my emotions and build myself a shell. I don’t think I was really able to let people see my sincere soft side until my mid-20s. I acted like, and was, deep-down, a tough little shit. I was uncontrollably angry. During my teens I was in conflict with the law in many instances. Navigating the juvenile justice system is traumatizing in itself; no one believes you, nor in you. I had to undergo group and individual therapy for violent teens. All of these processes were highly gendered and my life was scrutinized in every detail. Ultimately, I tamed myself to avoid further consequences. None of the adults talking with me recognized the structural imbalance from my surroundings as a valid source of anger. Poverty, long-term sexual abuse, and childhood trauma were not things I realized were affecting me. Rather, it was clear that I was seen as the problem itself-a time bomb that needed to be stopped before it would be too late. My mental illness was seen as the reason I had problems with authority and men and it was thought that I needed to learn control at any cost, otherwise I would end up in jail or in mental health institutions as an adult. I learned to control some part of my behaviour by shoving it down and coping with other things. I really wanted to be seen as tough, and since then, I’ve unfolded a lot of internalised misogyny in me.
Soft for me is powerful because it lets me demonstrate my ability to adapt under different hardships and successes. It is tied in with sincerity and how I learned to reflect on my needs and desires, my failures, and the many aspects of my life that I am grateful for. Soft for me is not a gendered force. As a genderqueer artist it is my pleasure to develop soft and soothing aesthetics that speak to me. Healing varies from one person to another; for me it is rooted in soft tones, tightly selected soft details, and lots of room for fun, curiosity and laughter. Coming to terms with the fact that I am passionate about emotionality allowed me to learn more about my personal self; where my soft and angry thoughts come from.
5. Speaking up against sexual assault is often dangerous and exhausting. Your work focuses on supporting survivors and bringing to light the lack of safety there is for femmes. Does speaking up empower you and contribute to your healing, or do you do so to make other survivors feel less alone? Additionally, what do you think needs to be done for survivors of sexual assault and abuse?
I came out as a rape survivor to my friends and lovers. It made my relationships stronger, deeper, and more honest, and was the beginning of a new journey. I cherish the trusting relationships that it let me develop with my loved ones. Some people in my life faded away, others dismissed my work and efforts. But who cares-I came to terms with some of my truths. And I’m still working on it.
My art that is survivor specific is the work I have the most feedback for. It’s because survivors’ representation is important.
I think we have so much love and support to offer to survivors. It’s important to witness, listen to them, and believe them. That is the beginning: believing and advocating for survivors. There are so many people out there who dismiss survivor’s needs and concerns, especially when people with power or social capital get called out as abusers. Most of the time folks take the accused person’s side because they can’t believe it and the situation doesn’t make sense to them. Lots of survivors don’t call out or take actions against their abusers because it takes so much energy to do so and their perspectives are likely to not be well received. Don’t defend rapists because they are great artists. Believing survivors is the most important step towards change that can happen.
The justice system is inadequate, even maybe obsolete when it comes to sexual violence and abuse. Criminalisation is not an answer to make our communities stronger and accountable. Communities need healing; survivors’ healing and immediate needs must be at the center of our battles. We need to acknowledge the truth and that it gets messy. Abusers can be survivors, and abuse and survivorship are not linear or exclusive concepts. How can we acknowledge that the people we love and admire can be abusive?
There are situations where you can’t exclude your rapist from your surrounding; it gets complex quickly if it’s a member of your community, of your family, or someone who is quite famous, for example. I have no solution really, aside from that we absolutely need to stop shaming survivors and start taking their needs and suggestions into account and advocate for them. I’m reading and learning as much as I can from activists who are working out of the justice system. Calling the cops or bringing your abuser to court is not likely to be helpful and can be extremely difficult if you are not in a position of privilege. The justice system and the prison industrial complex are affecting deeply marginalized communities (esp. poc & trans women) and it is all our responsibility to create alternatives outside of these systems. We all need to ask ourselves hard questions and recognize in which ways we are complicit to oppression generally; and the silencing of survivors.
For my part, I’m aiming to unfold some part of my story and healing by the medium of a book. I am happy to listen to survivors stories and advocate for them when I have the spoons to do it. I am dreaming of holding more workshops oriented towards survivors. I think art, poetry and creative mediums generally are empowering tools to reclaim your experiences. There’s a lot of work to do, and I am humbled to be a part of it in my quest towards healing.
Starchild Stela is a multidisciplinary artist and writer who’s mostly known for their street artworks adorning feminist and pro-survivors messages. Building on their personal experience as a trauma and sexual violence survivor, their current work explore the merging of gender identity, queerness, emotionality, trauma, and softness.