ATLANTA — With a lick of wheat paste, a roller and a stepladder,Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a painter and illustrator from Brooklyn, introduced herself to the South, in an unusual way.
She plastered a poster with her own face floating above the words, “Stop Telling Women to Smile” on a vacant storefront here, across from a federal courthouse.
Then Ms. Fazlalizadeh and her helpers brushed on two dozen more posters she had created. Images of young faces stared back with wary, defiant and no-nonsense gazes above statements such as “My Outfit Is Not an Invitation,” or “Women Do Not Owe You Their Time or Conversation.”
The words came from Ms. Fazlalizadeh’s interviews with women about “catcalling,” a form of public harassment by men who feel free to comment on their bodies and demeanor. Women around the country have begun to speak out publicly, in blogs, public writing projects and on the websites of anti-harassment groups like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback!, which document and research the problem. Many women have said they feel objectified and demoralized by sexual comments made on the street, and Ms. Fazlalizadeh has transformed their feelings and images — she photographs the women and then creates pencil drawings — into a major public art project.
Local artists, as well as the students and professors from Georgia State University who had invited Ms. Fazlalizadeh here, passed paste, steadied the ladders and even tried their hand at plastering the row of storefronts on Forsyth Street.
Jessica Caldas, a visual artist, watched the posters take form. “Something a lot of people take for granted as normal and acceptable is being shown for the impact it has,” she said.
Street harassment, though, is hard to define precisely and then to challenge legally, experts say. A growing body of research shows that it is a problem affecting where women live, how they get to work, when they go out and how they dress, said Laura S. Logan, an assistant professor of sociology at Hastings College in Nebraska, who has studied catcalling for years.
“The challenge has been there are so many behaviors that can go into street harassment on a continuum, from ‘hey baby’ to contact,” she said. “It also presents a first amendment challenge: Offensive speech is not illegal.” Still, she said, “the negative consequences are pretty well documented: fear, anger, distrust, depression, stress, sleep disorders, shame and anxiety about being in public.” Beth Livingston, an assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University, said verbal harassment is “more pervasive than workplace harassment, but there are less policies and laws to deal with it.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, “very, very recently has started to ask questions about this, to see if this could be a pervasive public health issue or problem.”
Laurie A. Combo, a New York City councilwoman from Brooklyn who is the chairwoman of the Committee on Women’s Issues, said Tuesday that she is calling on the Council to revisit the issue. In 2010 the Council held a hearing on the matter.
“We have evolved as a society, and there is no place for catcalls, lewd gestures, inappropriate language and unwarranted comments about the physical characteristics of a woman’s body,” Ms. Combo said in a comment her office sent by email.
Ms. Fazlalizadeh did not wait for any official notice to start her art project, called “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” It took off about 18 months ago when she began making nighttime forays in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with a brush, roller and her own self-portraits. (Though wheat pasting is illegal in some places, she has never been cited, she said.) She has since moved to Bushwick and interviewed and created portraits of about 15 women. Spread largely by social media, her poster campaign has appeared in Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. A Kickstarter campaign last fall raised $34,000, allowing her to travel the country to meet women, and create and hang new work. In March, Betti Ono Gallery in Oakland, Calif., began an exhibition of her series, featuring the original graphite-on-paper drawings, oil paintings and photographs.
“This is all about how women’s bodies are consumed and are considered public property for display, comment and consumption,” said Ms. Fazlalizadeh, a soft-spoken, direct and contained 28-year-old from Oklahoma. “Women need to start talking about their daily moments because it’s the smaller stuff that affects the larger things, like rape, domestic violence, harassment in the workplace.”
She has heard all manner of stories, ranging from come-on call outs of “hey baby” to a woman in Los Angeles whose friend was shot for not giving a man her phone number. She has found some broad regional differences: Female drivers in car-centered cities like Los Angeles are often approached by men also in their cars. Women in New York tend to face street harassment.
“New York City is the most aggressive I’ve experienced in the country,” said Zahira Kelly, a 31-year-old visual artist and writer who lives in Savannah, Ga. “I cannot walk down the block without multiple men yelling at me or trying to grab me.” The caption on the poster with her picture reads, “I Am Not Here for You.”
“I cannot put on a pair of Bermuda shorts on the hottest days,” Ms. Kelly said. “It affects your self-esteem, because you get critiques you never asked for.”
While there have been many art projects on street harassment over the years, Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, said, “No one else has done anything like this,” adding, “Her images are very accessible.”
Ms. Fazlalizadeh, who is of black and Iranian descent, often focuses on minority women, but a previous series focused on gun violence against young black men, showing gun targets superimposed over their portraits.
As she worked Friday on Forsyth Street with students and members of Eyedrum, a local art and music organization, a man from a nearby apartment building shouted, “Stop telling women to smile?” He laughed. “You don’t know some of the women I know. They need to smile.”
Two people who said they were federal workers wondered what the fuss was about. “Is this some kind of feminist thing?” one, a woman, asked. The other, a man, said he wondered if women dressed to attract attention.
Ms. Fazlalizadeh hung her self-portrait Friday at the Krog Street Tunnel, a site for graffiti and street art. By Sunday night, the poster had been defaced with a spray-painted smile over Ms. Fazlalizadeh’s face and the words “Force It” underneath. Posters in other cities have been defaced, and some women who had posed for her said they had been the targets of nasty comments. But Ms. Fazlalizadeh said women have also stopped her on the street to say thanks.
While her message has political overtones, she is adamant that it is art, foremost.
“I don’t mind being thrust into an activist role,” she said. “Art is very important for that. It’s not someone preaching to you on TV. Visual art, especially, is right in your face.”
“I like that,” she said.
An article on Thursday about a public art project in Atlanta by the painter and illustrator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh intended to combat street harassment of women misspelled the surname of an artist who commented on the project. She is Jessica Caldas, not Caldes. The article also rendered incorrectly the name of an anti-harassment group. It is Hollaback! — not Holla Back.