Throwback: Art Activist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
Interview by Sam Paul
Photographed by Amanda Stosz
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is a fiercely talented artist and activist. Her artwork — beautifully rendered oil paintings, large murals, and black and white wheatpastes — is unmistakably her own. With a degree from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, she is a classically trained artist with a background in illustration. Fazlalizadeh is also a woman with a lot to say. In 2012, she took her art and her activism to the street with her project, Stop Telling Women to Smile, a series of wheatpastes portraying women, along with captions that describe their experiences with street harassment. In the years since the project began, Fazlalizadeh has traveled far and wide, putting up her work and collecting women’s stories. Her poignant words and images have spread to walls across the world.
You come from a background in illustration and have focused a lot on oil painting. What influenced you to use wheatpaste as your medium for Stop Telling Women to Smile?
I wanted to talk about street harassment, so it made the most sense for me to do the work in the street. I try not to limit myself by what I usually do, by what I’ve done in the past, but instead try to think about what space, what medium, what area will make the most impact and be most appropriate for whatever topic that I’m working on.
Being born in Oklahoma City and then moving to Philadelphia and, now, New York, you are coming from three very different environments. How did your experience of street harassment differ from city to city?
When I moved to Philly, it really started to become this sort of huge problem that was a daily part of my experience. When I was in Oklahoma, I think sexual harassment was something I was experiencing, but I wasn’t experiencing it outside in a public space. It was coming from my peers, or from adult men, or was happening in these other environments.
In Philly, it became this more aggressive thing that was happening to me, coming from strangers multiple times a day because I moved throughout the city in public spaces. I became really conscious of it, and aware that this was something that was not okay and shouldn’t be a part of my everyday life.
What led you to start the project in 2012?
I’d been wanting to do this work around street harassment for a while because I’d been experiencing it for a long time, since I moved to Philly in 2003. I didn’t really know how to create art, or in what medium to create art around it. Oil painting didn’t seem like the way to do it. I finally decided on street art and wheatpaste after working on a mural. Working out in public changed the way I thought about art outside on the street, and the way people interact with work in public versus in a gallery or in a studio, and just thinking about using the street as a medium led me to decide on wheatpaste.
You’ve traveled widely for the project. Did you notice differences in your experience in different cities or were you more struck by the similarities between them?
I do remember experiencing more street harassment in Los Angeles, which I wasn’t really expecting. From talking to other women and hearing their experiences, it seems like it’s very similar in all places. It’s just the way that it’s acted out that is different. In places where you drive a lot, or where women are walking in the street a lot, there’s a difference in how women are harassed in public spaces. It could be coming from a car, or it might be happening more in buildings, rather than the direct face-to-face contact that you have in New York.
I notice small, regional differences like that. Other than that, it seems that women in most places are experiencing the same stuff. That’s because street harassment and sexual harassment happen for the same reason everywhere. It’s all about power and control. That’s never going to change based on the city you live in.
How do you select your subjects?
I select them based on what they tell me, on what their stories are. I’m always looking for a new perspective, a new story, a new narrative to reflect in this work. If someone tells me something or has a specific experience I haven’t heard before or that I think needs to be told through this project, then I choose them based on that. Sometimes the caption on the pieces is a direct quote, or sometimes it’s something that we come up with together. It’s always trying to take this idea, or take this experience that they had, and boil it down to one statement that they want to put out there in the public. It’s not really based on what they look like aesthetically. It’s based on their experience, and that experience is influenced by their race, their gender, their sexuality, and things like that. It’s based on their story and what they have to say.
The project has become participatory and collaborative. People put these up in their own cities all over the world. How have you facilitated that?
Last year, I put together an international wheatpasting night, where I released PDFs people could download, print, and put up. The idea was for individuals and groups of folks from all over to have access to this work and wheatpaste them all on the same night.
It gave people the opportunity to put the work up in their own cities and towns, wherever they wanted to, and to be in solidarity with women from all over. It was important to me that everyone did it on the same night, so it felt like you were a part of something larger than yourself.
I went back to the some of the cities with some of the folks that wheatpasted and tried to put together teams of people who participated and want to continue to put up the work routinely. That’s happening in a few cities and, other than that, the folks that still have those PDFs are free to go out and wheatpaste whenever they want. I’m opening it up again this year in a few weeks, and I think that more people will participate.
I’m working on trying to figure out how to make it a little more structured and a little more routine, but it’s good for me to open up the project. I realized a little while ago that the project is bigger than myself now, and I can’t do it all by myself. And I don’t need to, because a lot of people want to be involved and help with this.
Do you have other general goals for expanding or moving forward with STWTS?
I really want it to be this stable project that is ongoing. I’m working mostly on sustainability right now. How do I keep this project going, while also doing other things, without having this be 100% of my day? I want it to live on as long as it can. If it eventually dies out, that’s fine. I think it’s made a huge impact already. I’m working to put it into other people’s hands and let the project live on as long as it can.
I’m taking it to different cities, planning the next international trip. Stuff like that is going to continue to happen. The most important part for me is that the project is visible outside on the street, to have the wheatpastes on walls in cities across the world. It’s great that it’s getting all this attention online and I’m doing all of these interviews. That’s fantastic, but what is really important is that there is a sheet of paper outside on the wall on a corner somewhere.
What are some of your other projects?
I’m doing a few things. I’m working on a series of paintings. I’m working on a new project that’s also about street harassment that I don’t want to talk too much about because I want to just put it out and have people see it. That’s the main thing that I’m doing, and I’m hoping to release it in a few weeks.
There’s that and I’m traveling a lot, and I’m collaborating with a few other artists. We’re doing a project around the visibility of women of color who have been killed, either by the state or through sexual violence.
I’m juggling a few things at the same time, but I’m mostly just trying to create and make stuff. That is what my career and what my life is like—trying to make cool stuff that people relate to.
What are some of your long-term goals for yourself? Where would you like to be in five years?
I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunities recently, and for me it’s about creating more opportunities. It’s about deciding what I want to produce, how I want it to be presented, and who I want it to be in front of. It’s about making that happen—whether it’s a street art project, or a series of paintings that I want to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, or publishing a book. These are all things I am thinking of and I want to have happen in the next few years.
This project has been received very well, and I would love for the next work I do to be even more well received. I want to create work that represents folks that I think are underrepresented and present that to a larger public. I think that’s what Stop Telling Women to Smile is doing, but I think I could do it even better. Those are my goals: to continue along the same path, and to do it even better.
Because this is a zine about the women we look up to, who are some of the women who inspire you, or you would call a “girl crush”?
There are the legendary people I always look up to, like Frida Kahlo, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde, whose work I read and who inspires me as a woman and a feminist. There are some more contemporary people who are doing work and are brilliant like Janet Mock and Melissa Harris-Perry.
I am really surrounded by amazing women who are doing amazing things. My peers, my friends, Molly Crabapple, people I could name but I don’t think you would know them.
I am constantly inspired by women who are known and women who are not known. I’ve met a ton of women over the last year and a half through this project. And some of them are just badass and are doing amazing things in their everyday lives. I’m inspired by them, which is why I do this work, why I do this project, why I do my art practice in general. I’ve met so many wonderful women, and all of them inspire me.
You can find more of Tatyana's work on her website, tlynnfaz.com, and on Twitter and Instagram at @tlynnfaz. This interview was originally published in Issue 04 of our print magazine. Read our sold-out issues online through Issuu!