Stop Telling Women to Smile: Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Takes on Street Harassment

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“My outfit is not an invitation.” “My name is not Baby.” “Harassing women is not amusing.” Posters with these statements – and others just as strong – are wheatpasted on the sides of buildings across the United States, thanks to Tatyana Falalizadeh. Tatyana is an artist and illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York. In 2012, she started Stop Telling Women To Smile, a street art project featuring posters of women talking back to their street harassers. A successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign helped Stop Telling Women to Smile spread to new cities and start discussions about street harassment around the country. Like A Boss Girls checked in with Tatyana to hear how the project is going, and to get her take on how we can all work to prevent street harassment.

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What inspired Stop Telling Women To Smile?
It was inspired by my own experiences with street harassment. It’s something that I’ve been experiencing for years. I wanted to do a project specifically outside in the street to talk about my own experiences, and put my own reactions to it and my feelings about it outside on the street.

How have women responded to the project?
Women are mostly supportive of the project. A lot of women relate to it, and want to be a part of it, and want to volunteer. A lot of women respond very positively to the project. There have been some women who criticize it and aren’t so supportive of it, and that’s fine—I understand that as well.

And how have men responded?
Most of the time, when men respond to the project, it’s in a negative way. It’s in a way that’s not very empathetic or trying to understand what the project is about. That’s not all men—a lot of men are very supportive of it, but for the most part, the reactions have been negative when it comes from the man’s side.

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How far has Stop Telling Women To Smile spread?
The Kickstarter funded me going around the country to different cities, and doing different iterations of the project in each city, including meeting women, and drawing the portraits, and creating pieces that are about them. It’s gotten pretty big. I’ve been doing the project for more than two years now, and in that time, I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve done a lot of media and gotten a lot of attention. I’ve had to open it up to people around the world to download the posters and wheatpaste them in their own towns and cities.

How did you get the word out about your Kickstarter project?
It was kind of easy for me. I think I was very lucky in that before I started the Kickstarter, there was already a lot of talk about the project happening, and there were already articles in the media about it. So once I launched the Kickstarter, it just sort of picked up on its own. I already had a good amount of people who were following the work, so when I put it out there, like “Hey, I’m doing this,” people just sort of picked up on it. I was lucky to have a bunch of large media folks promote it for me, like the Huffington Post and Fast Company, places like that. That’s not everyone’s case, so if you don’t already have people following your work, it helps just to promote it as much as you can on all of your social media outlets and in person, hold events – really just try to get the word out about the work.

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Do people in different cities respond differently to Stop Telling Women To Smile?
Most of the cities that I’ve gone to, it’s been very similar. I have conversations with women when I go to these cities, and I ask them about what they experience on a daily basis with street harassment, and sometimes I hear some differences. It depends on the region, the community that I’m talking to, and the woman I’m talking to. I’ve learned a lot about street harassment and sexism in general, and how it affects different women differently – whether you’re white or black or young or old, you’re going to have different experiences. It really depends on who you are. Overall, I feel like the reason why street harassment happens is the same everywhere, so when I create a piece about a woman who lives in Chicago, that piece can also relate to a woman who’s from San Francisco. It’s a very universal problem.

In your travels, have you come across good ways to combat street harassment? What can people do?
Well, I think the main thing people can do is intervene when they see it happening. This work, and all the other anti-street harassment work, is not really gonna do much unless people in their everyday lives stop this stuff. That happens when you interject when someone is being harassed, when you hear someone making a sexist joke, or you walk by a guy who’s being aggressive to a woman. You have to step in and say something, and I know that’s easier said than done a lot of the time. It really depends on the situation in the moment, whether or not you feel safe doing so, and whether or not you feel comfortable doing so. But I think if everyone paid attention to what women are going through, and recognized that it’s serious and that it’s valid, and that we all have to do things in our daily lives to stop this stuff, then that’s how it happens. It’s a shift in society, a shift in our culture, because it’s not just going to happen with laws and policing—it’s not gonna happen by criminalizing it. It’s going to happen when it’s a social change, and it’s only going to happen socially when everybody steps in and understands that this stuff is not okay. It’s really tough to be active about it, not just talking about it, not just putting up artwork. After the conversations happen, what are we doing every day to stop this stuff?

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What are you working on now?
There’s still a lot happening with Stop Telling Women To Smile. There’s a lot of traveling, there’s a lot of planning, there’s a lot of organizing with it. But also, I’m a painter, and that’s my primary medium, so I’m working on a new series of paintings. I’m working on a couple other freelance projects, and collaborating with people on some things.

You encourage people to print out Stop Telling Women to Smile posters and hang them up themselves.  If somebody has never wheatpasted a poster before, what tips would you give them?
It’s fun, and it’s a fun thing to do, it’s a great way to put up art in a public space, but you have to be committed to it. You have to go out and find a wall space that works for what you’re putting up. Just make the wheatpaste, which is really easy to do, and put it up on the wall.  It’s usually about finding the wall space, having the art that you want to put up, and then going out and doing it.

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