Heterosexual cis men have long dominated the street art scene in the United States. A quick look around even the most liberal cities confirms that misogynistic and homophobic imagery remains prevalent: walls, sidewalks, signs, and other makeshift canvases within urban spaces often boast objectified depictions of women, hyper-masculine portrayals of men, and hateful anti-gay tags.
Yet, self-labeled “queer street artists” are increasingly talking back against homophobia and claiming a share of ownership in public space through subversive and explicitly queer imagery. As the number of artists in this scene grows, so does visibility and pride for those who identify as members of the LGBTQ community. And while the movement is still heavily concentrated in the progressive bubbles of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, it’s increasingly spreading across the country.
One of the most prominent artists within the movement, Jeremy Novy, recognizes how vital this representation is for the LGBTQ community. “Giving visibility to transness and queerness is a powerful and important thing that should absolutely be happening more,” Novy told Hyperallergic
Novy, a Wisconsin native who currently resides in Los Angeles, is widely known for his stenciled images of koi fish, which appear throughout numerous US cities. Yet, as far back as 2008, Novy started placing queer images throughout Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in response to the homophobic nature of graffiti culture. His past “queer” works include an array of rainbow-colored Care Bears, a stencil of the international drag icon, Divine, and stenciled and wheat-pasted posters of sexualized, intimate portrayals of men.
Novy describes the imagery he’s putting out there as, “talking about queer history but in a modern way, by using a can of spray paint and a stencil.”
In addition to being an artist, Novy has also become a historian of the movement. In 2011, he received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission for his self-curated exhibition, A History of Queer Street Art. Novy has spent an enormous amount of time documenting the unofficial founding members of today’s burgeoning movement, like Keith Haring, who passed away from AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31. Haring is often celebrated for his black-and-white chalk drawings and painted murals that notably appeared on New York City subway walls. But Novy and others are working to promote the queer themes of his work, which were often commissioned by private citizens or ignored by the mainstream art world.
While the queer street art movement has a good deal of allies and support in Europe and other parts of the world, to this day, American queer street artists rarely receive commissions for public murals. “Many artists still do a lot of queer imagery murals, but they’re all kind of private, like in somebody’s home,” Novy said. “It feels like we’re still in the closet.”
Novy believes that depictions of queer culture belong in the public realm where they’re accessible to all passersby, not just the already likely forward-thinking, educated museumgoer. “Gay imagery has a deeper conceptual meaning and when it’s created, it hopefully makes people ask themselves, ‘what is this?’ Hopefully it creates a discussion,” Novy said.
Another Los Angeles-based, queer street artist, Homo Riot, has noted that in the past this type of artwork was also a way to give the middle finger to a society that has long policed and punished gay culture. By putting a queer image — such as a sticker of two male wrestlers kissing — on some public object, Homo Riot confronted the people in power who, for many years, largely remained unsupportive of gay rights.
His thoughts on the purpose of the movement have since shifted — he now views his art foremost as a way to spread positive and proud messages about the LGBTQ community.
Referring to the time around the start of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” movement, which seeks to empower LGBTQ+ youth, Homo Riot said, “I wanted nothing more at that time than to create street work that would be seen by LGBTQ kids. I would plaster work near schools and slap stickers around where I knew kids congregated. I always hoped that at the very least the work conveyed to LGBTQ kids that they were not alone. That there was someone else out there just like them.”
The prolific New York City-based street artist, Jilly Ballistic, also recognizes the complex and diverse intentions of the movement. She represents a much smaller demographic within the street art world: women, both cis and trans.
“Absolutely the visibility matters,” she said. “It builds solidarity, community and strength, as well as creates a beacon for other queers. But it’s also a nice ‘fuck you’ to whoever has a problem with that.”
Jilly Ballistic is known for her printed images of nuclear war that are pasted throughout the New York City subway system. Her work generally contains less overt queer undertones, but this is a purposeful choice.
“I’d say my queer images are mostly subversive because for most of our history we had to have our own code words, language, way of dressing and locations. That’s the way we had to survive, and since I deal with historic images, I show this to the world — to those who may not know.”
Photos of both Jilly Ballistic’s and Homo Riot’s work have been posted on the Instagram account “Queer Street Art,” (run by the New York City-based photographer and filmmaker, The Dusty Rebel). The account highlights the diverse, incredible work of queer street artists all over the country — and world — and is often organized under the hashtag #queerstreetart. The hashtag has featured photographs of works by other rising US-based street artists, including You Go Girl from New Orleans, Indian Man Breath from Atlanta, Michael Mahaffey from Savannah, Pixelstud from San Francisco and Unity Queer from southern California.
Not only does this documentation of queer art allow for a wider audience, but it also preserves an image before it’s vandalized with anti-gay slurs, defaced or even erased. This is essential, given that some members of the public are still unaccepting of gay imagery to the point of violence. Many artists report that vandals often explicitly target their work. Their images are also written over by so-called “fag taggers.” These taggers spray-paint the slur “fag” over queer imagery as a tactic of discrimination, but it’s also often written over non-queer images in order to denigrate and emasculate heterosexual male’s artwork.
“You would get beat up by ‘fag taggers’ in Chicago or elsewhere. I’ve had things ripped off from the walls,” Novy said. “Other artists have had the images carved off their stickers.”
A recent example of this comes from Australia, where a mural of gay icon, George Michael, was vandalized with black paint. While at first the act symbolized the widespread intolerance of the LGBTQ community, the aftermath was perhaps more powerful: artists and passersby alike later wrote over the black paint with messages of love and acceptance.
This rewriting of an act of hate seems symbolic for the queer street art movement as a whole. The movement’s prominent artists feel confident that gay and trans imagery will continue to spill out from the coasts and into less progressive areas of the country, despite the adversity. Much of this queer street imagery may be small, hidden away, and threatened with a short existence on the street, but even a sticker adhered to a lamppost can provide a vital, perhaps life-changing message for members of a community. A marker drawing of a rainbow from artist Samuel Alexander is a perfect example of this perseverance. It reads, simply: “We’ve been here the whole time.”