Akiko “Shiro One” Miyakami flashes a peace sign in front of her face as a photographer takes pictures beside Lin’s Laundromat in Brooklyn. Her mural is bursting off the wall of the 24-hour wash and fold. Meanwhile, the G train barrels from above toward the Flushing Avenue subway stop, rattling the concrete jungle like a stampede.
She’s draped in a camouflage jacket and sporting black, cat-eye frames.
Shiro is among the growing number of women in graffiti and street art staking a claim in a male-dominated society with their work. The nurse from Shizuoka, a harbor town in Japan, who morphed into a muralist, has seen a lot in her young life. And lately she is thinking about how to clear a path for other women out there.
Shiro is deaf in her right ear due to an early bout with mumps, but she says the disability taught her to embrace her uniqueness. She says she’s simultaneously a product of conservative Japanese culture and a rejection of it. She misses home, the delicious ramen and the soothing hot springs.
Still, she doesn’t quite follow her country’s idea of a proper lady, being that she’s so loudly independent. “Each moment of our life is precious,” she says. “We have to celebrate.” Attitudes toward women in America may be a little different, but they’re no less challenging.
This year, we’ve reached a tipping point of sexual misconduct and assault allegations, raising questions about the treatment of women in the United States. National outrage is building as headlines reveal high-profile women being treated more like objects than professionals in their field. If these issues exist among those women in our society, many ask, what’s happening to the everyday female accountant, journalist or street artist?
And what about that society’s subcultures? Graffiti isn’t known for being a model for women’s issues, despite the involvement of both sexes since the beginning. “It’s like corporate America,” says graffiti artist Claudia Gold, also known as “Claw Money,” when asked about women in graffiti.
Gold is one of the most famous vandals in the country and was known for her “bombing,” another word for blanketing an area with tags. She turned Claw Money’s name recognition into an expanding clothing line. She’s had landmark partnerships with brands like Nike, NASCAR and Mountain Dew, companies that Gold says are looking for a certain bad girl image. It’s a line of work she says her family doesn’t really understand.
“I remember my mom used to say, ’Go to the medical school and sit on the steps at Columbia [University],” Gold says. “I was like, ‘mom, I am not going to be some doctor’s wife.’”
None of that really matters though because Gold says the secret mission of her company is to empower women. Shiro, who is dabbling in fashion as well, is on a similar mission. She wants to focus her art into a viable business that speaks to girls like her, who’ve been dismissed in some way.
For Shiro, the slights are sometimes subtle, but often not. When she’s at paint jams, for example, “sometimes people say, ‘oh, whose girlfriend are you? I’m like, no, I’m graffiti artist,’” she says. Those moments motivate her. “I’m like, ‘f— — you. I’ll show you how strong I am.’”
She says other street artists have swiped her spots to paint. And when she first came to New York, a group of kids pulled a gun on her in Queens and tried to steal her spray paint, she says.
“It’s not a friendly culture. You’re dealing with criminals,” says Roger Gastman, director of the documentary film “Wall Writers,” which explores the beginnings of graffiti culture.
Gastman’s finger is on the pulse of the vandal community. Most of the filmmaker’s attention is focused on illegal graffiti and he estimates less than 5 percent of active graffiti writers are women. But he’s always on the lookout for women painting the streets, bringing more to the game.
Shiro’s never been known for bombing. She abandoned it for legal art and commercial projects, like the ones she’s done for major organizations like Gap and the NBA. But she doesn’t view the work as any less subversive to the world around her. This rebelliousness is especially true when it comes to the sexuality displayed in the murals and by her main character, Mimi.
Mimi’s a voluptuous babyface who takes many forms. Sometimes, she’s Afrocentric and sporting a kufi cap. Other times, she’s a blush devil with wings. Shiro’s greatest homage to New York covers the wall of that laundromat in Brooklyn. Mimi is a patina green Statue of Liberty, with big hoop earrings, splashing fish out of the East River.
Shiro admits sometimes Mimi’s sex appeal is amplified to catch eyes — even to offend. “If my character have big boobies,” she says, “people look, you know?” As with many aspects of hip-hop culture, sexual freedom can go hand in hand with the liberation of women.
Her work isn’t for everyone. Some say she just makes pretty pictures when compared to the edgy, often dangerous performance art that is graffiti writing. But others think her work effectively exhibits fundamental elements from hip-hop, rendered uniquely through an Asian filter.
“She’s very talented,” says Enrique “Part One” Torres, a legendary subway tagger from the 1970s. A proud “New York-Rican,” Torres lived in Spanish Harlem before anyone spoke Spanish and taught himself how to tag in the early days.
He took Shiro under his wing and heavily influenced her main tag, which is stamped on nearly every mural she paints, along with her other moniker, BJ46.
“I give her a lot of credit because when she first came [to the U.S.] it was all new to her,” he says.
It’s possible Shiro would never have left Japan to follow her dream. But she ultimately credits her mother for the inspiration to accept herself. When kids in grade school made her feel isolated, she got the same refrain from the woman raising her.