What comes to mind when you think of street art: a tough guy skirting around town’s less desirable edges, tagging walls?

Or Banksy, skulking around incognito, ready to transform another pavement into an enviable piece of art? But what if Banksy is a woman… You probably don’t picture a woman wielding the spray can – and yet, an increasing number of women are expressing themselves through this traditionally male-dominated art form, and the stigma around street art is starting to fade. Street art is more than personal artwork – it contributes to urban regeneration and beautification.

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Painting a street mural isn’t as simple as rocking up with a few spray cans. It takes meticulous planning, designing, finding the right locations and getting permission from the wall owner or city council. Safety is an issue for street artists in South Africa, but more and more women are joining the graffiti gang, with some of our female street artists being recognised internationally.

‘Why should only the elite few have access to art? The streets are a public gallery..’

Anna Whysall, 22: Wheat pasting as Gypsy Rose for five years

‘I’ve always had a very rebellious streak. I started wheat pasting in Durban when I was 18 – I wanted to give people something interesting to look at in the dull concrete jungle, and I wanted to show other girls that street art didn’t have to be male dominated. (Wheat paste refers to the glue used by street artists to stick their illustrations and photographs on walls.) I make digital illustrations, which I can then blow up to any size to wheat paste on the streets.

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I come from a creative family and was always given a lot of freedom artistically. I couldn’t be bothered to exhibit in a gallery. Why should only the elite few have access to art? The streets are a public gallery that allow everyone to see your work. I love the rush I get from creating a piece. My hands shake from nerves but the butterflies in my stomach keep me going. In the dead of night, dressed in all black, I get my gear together – my illustration, spray paint, wheat paste, a large paintbrush or roller – and drive to my chosen venue that I’ve scoped out. When the coast is clear, I quickly mix the glue and water, apply thick layers to the wall and put up my illustration. I then apply another thick layer of glue to seal it and paint on my tag name.

The paste should stay up for  a while, depending on where it is. In busy areas it usually gets ripped down, or the rain eventually washes it away. The longest I’ve had a paste up for was two years. It’s hard getting into the street art scene as a woman. I want people to respect me and take me seriously, and sometimes I feel they don’t because I’m a woman. But in the end, all that matters is the work you produce and put up.’

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‘Graffiti is still very young in South Africa. I’m usually the only girl out painting.’

Natalie Rosner, 33: Runs Caps and Cans, importer of specialised paints for street artists, and paints as Star

‘I started painting about a year-and-a-half ago – before then, I always used to watch the guys. Things weren’t easy when I started out: I received threatening calls from the opposition, and because I wasn’t very good when I started painting, no one wanted me in their crew. I’ve always been a fine artist but painting with a spray can is different, because you’re not physically touching a surface. It’s very difficult; it’s all about hand control, but once you’ve learned that, the paint does the job by itself.

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I was lucky to have a mentor who helped me develop my own style. I love the freedom of expression that street art gives you. You meet so many different types of people, from executives to homeless people, and through them you learn more about your country and, ultimately, about yourself. I go into areas most women wouldn’t want to visit, let alone stand, ankle-deep in garbage, painting – but a spray can is a great weapon, and I don’t draw attention to myself by wearing jewellery. Also, because you go back to the same community so many times, they start to look out for you.

Graffiti is still very young in South Africa. I’m usually the only girl out painting. I’ve seen interest pick up though, and more women are starting to become part of it, even if it’s just by taking pictures of what they see. As more women get involved, the men will become more accepting. It also helps that street art is starting to be seen as something that can help people. I’ve been involved in events like the Back to the City hip-hop festival in Newtown, and the government is realising that communities take greater care of their spaces when they’ve been enhanced with graffiti.’

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‘It’s like you’re gifting [your art] to the public.’

Nardstar*, 30: Named by Huffington Post as one of 25 women pushing the limits of street art around the world. Full-time street artist

‘As a teenager, most of my friends were into hip-hop, and graffiti was part of that culture. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, so street art was a natural progression. The graffiti scene has always been dominated by guys – it’s ego-driven and there’s a lot of rivalry. I’ve stayed out of the competitive side because my focus has always been on art. I’m not looking to pick fights, and I’m not in this for any reason other than to make art.

Safety can be an issue – sometimes the areas I paint in are dodgy, but I seldom paint alone. I’m always on the lookout for walls that would make a great surface; it’s become part of how I experience my surroundings. I look for walls that would be smooth enough to paint on, have good visibility and, of course, are owned by someone willing to let me paint. I’m used to people asking me questions about being a street artist; most of the time, they want to know how I make a living. My answer is: The same as any other artist. I have a base rate, and I do this full-time.

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My work has evolved from the lettering I did when I started out; now I paint animals, hand gestures and portraits. I love the creative freedom of street art. Sometimes I work on canvas with acrylics, but a wall is so much bigger – when I work on a canvas, I get annoyed by how I have to keep everything small. I like the thought of my work being on a wall, and leaving it there for everyone to see. It’s like you’re gifting it to the public. I don’t have a family of my own yet, and I can’t imagine how my work would impact on them if I did. But I don’t plan on stopping – painting is such a big part of my identity that I feel strange when I don’t do it.’

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By Lisa Witepski

Photography: Valentina Nicol and Lauren Mulligan