It takes less than a minute for two women in hoods and scarves to stencil a message outside a Fishtown strip club: the phrase “Nice ass,” nested inside a circle with a slash through it. Then, they’re on the move, stopping every block or so to wheat-paste a poster or lay down another stenciled phrase they’d advise men to leave unsaid: “Hey sexy,” or “Can I call u.”
"I was getting pretty fed up with the idea that we’re all walking around and getting hollered at, and there’s lots of talk about it but not much action," said Sarah, one of the politically minded vandals, and a member of a collective of anonymous activists called Pussy Division. "It feels good to do something proactive."
The group of women, mostly aged 25 to 35 and from South Philadelphia, were teens or younger during the early-1990s height of Riot Grrrl, the punk feminist movement that promulgated ideas of female empowerment, creative resistance, and do-it-yourself action. Now, like other artists, musicians, activists, and gallerists who’ve since come of age in Philadelphia and across the country, they view their work as part of Riot Grrrl’s enduring legacy.
"What we’re doing is not Riot Grrrl, but it’s influenced by Riot Grrrl," said another member, who goes by Gia. "I’m influenced by the music, by the idea that we can do things ourselves and create things ourselves."
The scope of that influence - or, at least, a sampling of it - is on display this month at Vox Populi, in a traveling exhibition called “Alien She” that’s billed as the first to focus on Riot Grrrl’s enduring impact on artists working today.
Works on view include pieces from Joanie 4 Jackie; Miranda July’s video “chain letter,” a pre-YouTube effort to build a community of female filmmakers through the mail; and San Francisco-based artist Stephanie Syjuco’s Free Text, a wall of fliers with tear-off tabs bearing the URLs for downloading various copyrighted critical works.
Also included are hundreds of handmade zines and concert posters reflecting the movement’s broad-based, grassroots membership.
The exhibition’s curators, Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss, were involved with Riot Grrrl as teenagers in California in the 1990s, writing zines, playing in bands, and organizing meetings and conventions.
"One of the most interesting things is that we’ve seen how Riot Grrrl has influenced our friends, peers, artists, and colleagues today," Moss said. "Riot Grrrl has had an impact not just in the communities we’re involved in, but also internationally."
Not only does the Russian feminist/punk/protest group Pussy Riot trace a direct line back to Riot Grrrl and bands such as Bikini Kill (whose 1993 song “Alien She” lends its title to the exhibition), but Riot Grrrl chapters are still springing up from Brazil to Malaysia.
In Philadelphia, where Pussy Division is now making its stencil designs available online for anyone to download and use, the impact is evident on sidewalks and on stop signs, which the activists have, with stickers, turned into “stop rape” signs.
The collective also has partnered with Vox Populi to organize an event series around “Alien She,” from grrrl-powered rock shows (at least one member, Sarah, is in a feminist-punk band herself) to karaoke to panel discussions to self-defense classes. There’s also a zine-making workshop, led by Vox Populi artist and zinester Beth Heinly.
Zines, which helped disseminate those punk-feminist ideas via snail mail in the movement’s heyday, remain central to post-Riot Grrrl practice, said Kelly Phillips a zine writer and comics producer from West Philadelphia.
"That was the music I grew up around," she said. "And then, as an adult, realizing what was behind it - the message sort of hits you at that point."
So, when she and fellow artist Claire Folkman noticed that the comic anthologies being published mostly featured men, they decided to do something about it. “If we put out our own anthologies, then we would be able to highlight our work and other girls’ work - not just a handful of them in a sea of men,” she said.
They’re now working on the largest-ever edition of their anthology, called Dirty Diamonds, running a Kickstarter campaign to drum up interest in advance of a planned May publication date.
"When I think about Riot Grrrl, the idea of it is to strengthen women’s presence in the creative arts, so I see a really strong connection between the Riot Grrrl movement and the presence of women artists in Philadelphia," Phillips said. "We like to think we’re a part of that. We’re trying to promote women, and tell women’s stories."
To the same end, Vox Populi is inviting Philadelphia zine creators to submit works to a local-zine rack included in the exhibition. And, throughout the duration of “Alien She” - which came here from Pittsburgh and goes on to San Francisco, Orange County, Calif., and Portland, Ore., next year - Suparak and Moss are inviting local viewers to contribute to an online map of Riot Grrrl chapters past and present, and to a “census” (online at riotgrrrlcensus.tumblr.com) where they can describe how it shaped their lives.
Moss said the impact surprised even her.
"Through the census, you see how incredibly important Riot Grrl was for so many people. For a lot of people, it was their first introduction to politics and their first introduction to activism."