Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Uses Public Art To Fight Street Harassment

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

To women everywhere, and to herself, Brooklyn-based portrait artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh poses a very important question: What would you say directly to men who have harassed you on the street, if you had the chance? 

Fazlalizadeh's street art project Stop Telling Women To Smile addresses gender-based street harassment through public art. Chances are you've seen viral images of one of her powerful posters online: hand drawn portraits of women that pair their image with their words on street harassment and womanhood. "Stop telling women to smile." "My outfit is not an invitation." "Women are not outside for your entertainment." 

It's powerful stuff, their statements striking in their simplicity. Fazlalizadeh, 30, first launched the project in 2012 in an effort to help women to reclaim the spaces - the streets - in which they've been made to feel so very unwelcome. Since then, Fazlalizadeh has interviewed and drawn the portraits of women all over the country. She hopes to take her creative protest international next. Street harassment isn't just an American problem - though it may take different forms depending on the culture in which it occurs,  happens everywhere.

Her newest portrait series, Women Are Not Seeking Your Validation, is currently on display at the Corridor gallery in Brooklyn. Just as with STWTS, it was important for Fazlalizadeh to share the faces as well as the voices of women by incorporating their words into each portrait. Though some text speaks to the viewer and some to the individual woman's experience and who she is as a person, every piece is an effort to address how women are perceived in public privates spaces - art galleries, school settings, work environments. It's about reclaiming spaces and raising the voices of women, one portrait at a time.

Unfortunately for many women, street harassment has become a part of their everyday lives, as common and as unwelcome as bad traffic and long lines, yet infinitely more harmful. It's not okay, and it's not a compliment - the unwanted attention makes women feel uncomfortable and unsafe. With some street harassment cases escalating into full-blown violence and murder -- evidenced by the recent tragic case of Janese Tolton-Jackson in Philadelphia -- it is now important than ever to shed light on the conversation. 

Fazlalizadeh's question is not an easy one to answer. Due to the everpresent threat of further harassment and violence, women often feel compelled to withdraw when it happens to them. Women are blamed and silenced, but as Fazlalizadeh proves, there is power in reclaiming your voice.

"When I moved to Philadelphia, this kind of behavior was becoming a part of my everyday life," Fazlalizadeh explained. "[This is the kind of behavior] that I was coming to expect, that I was coming to brace myself for when I was leaving my apartment every morning to walk to school - that's when I really started to think about it and think about how I could connect it with my art."

Fazlalizadeh first began drawing and painting in high school, and after moving from her home town of Oklahoma to big cities like Philadelphia and NYC, began to experience a more blatant form of street harassment. When she began interviewing women for STWTSc, she found her experiences were all too common, if rarely spoken about.

"I'm telling the stories of the people who I know, who look like me, whose lives I think need to be told," Fazlalizadeh explained. "[Women] who aren't really represented in these traditional oil paitnings, who aren't represented in art, in mainstream media. So how do I tell those stories? How do I make it clear that these people and these stories are important?"

Art held the answer - and still does - for Fazlalizadeh. 

Video/Photos: Sekiya Dorsett        DP:  Martyna Starosta

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