In a subculture dominated by men, a female street artist defies all convention by getting properly paid and getting good attention.
In a cobblestone street in Bethnal Green, a series of wooden doors painted in plain pistachio colour line the sidewalk, keeping the mirror-like aesthetic of terraced houses clean and intact. You get to the end of the row and suddenly a surprise: a pitch-black door emerges with white strips reminiscent of tall buildings glistening with city lights.
Clad in an all-black ensemble of round neck shirt, Bermuda shorts, and high-cut kicks, a hazel-eyed woman opens this unusually intricate door. Her long, brown hair is swept and smoothly draped on her right shoulder. The stairway going up is replete with black-framed artworks, both colourful and monochromatic.
“I started when I was 16 in France doing graffiti. I just always liked the fact that we could put our art anywhere,” says Delphine Ettinger, aka Ashes57, a French street artist who has been based in London’s East End for the last ten years.
“There were so many neglected buildings and area. I used to paint under the bridges, by the train tracks just because it looks like those places needed colours, or they needed something to bring them alive because they were just really bland buildings and boring areas,” she says as her eyes roam around the room.
In a subculture where painting on railway tracks, climbing through secluded properties, and running away from police batons is norm, being part of it as a girl seemed like an unnatural fit. When talking about graffiti or street art, it is likely that these are associated with adolescent boys running around town and going over fenced establishments, or imagining a masked man hurriedly putting up an artwork on an empty surface.
These assumptions are not at all flawed since in 2013, photographer Martha Cooper who documents graffiti for decades, estimated that female street artists only constitute 1 per cent of the whole street art population. If there is an increase of at least 1 per cent every year up to the present year, it is still not a significant percentage. A 2015 study conducted by Butler University in the US also revealed that female street artists go into graffiti because a male romantic partner or spouse is involved and not because of their own volition.
Despite these preconceived notions, Delphine never once felt she couldn’t do what her male friends were doing. Her graffiti tag name, Ashes57, began spreading like wildfire in her hometown in Nancy, France, after she created a massive piece of work in a public area. Of course, everyone assumed Ashes57 was just another boy. How could a girl finish this gigantic work over night? The spectators thought.
After almost a decade of illegally doing pieces of art on walls from Paris to the south of France, she moved to America. She was looking for a job and had sent numerous applications, and one of the most famous names in the street art subculture popped up her e-mail. It was Shepard Fairey, the founder of street-wear brand Obey and the man behind Obama’s iconic Hope poster during the 2008 elections.
“Nobody believed me,” she says, laughing. “I was in Paris and I saw an illegal poster made of him, and I said I want to work for him. And then my friends were like ‘sure, of course.’ Two days later, I got this e-mail.”
She fondly recalls her stint with the street-wear giant and talks about how Shepard instilled in her that success is about having a do-it-yourself attitude and that she shouldn’t wait for people to choose what she wanted. “Everyone thinks that there is a gallery owner that will magically discover them in coffee shops,” she says with a look of disbelief.
After a fruitful experience with Obey, she found a job as an art director of a music magazine in New York. While it was the perfect setting for her to continue performing artworks in the streets, she focused on cultivating her craft not just on brick walls and lampposts but also on T-shirts, canvasses, and album covers. This was when she started seriously considering making money out of merchandise. Not only did this allow a continuous inflow of cash, it also enabled her to continue stretching her creative muscles.
An expired US visa later, she moved to the UK when she noticed how the English music scene was interestingly evolving. Music, she claims, is the element that inspires her illustrations. She also had loads of British friends who were musicians, so she took it as a sign to start anew in England. While she has already established quite a name in the New York’s graffiti scene for her works in makeshift galleries and independent label covers promoting the art form, Delphine’s transition to the UK street art community was not as smooth as she had imagined it would be.
“In America, it was easier even though I’ve never seen people’s faces. You could still meet them eventually. Like, if you’re really into it, you could pay attention to the streets and you eventually meet people. In England, everyone is more reserved. It was difficult to meet anyone,” she says.
As she continued to do art in London — printing on shirts, drawing on eggshell papers, pouring varnish on painted canvasses — she swore not to do illegal graffiti in the city anymore. With a shrewd smile, she says: “There are video cameras everywhere. I don’t like my face to be covered forever.”
“I just stopped doing illegal things when I came here. And then I wanted to be more serious by becoming a real artist. I still like doing it when it makes sense and if people ask me,” she says with her eyes fixated on her apartment’s window. “I like it in the clubs, sometimes in smoking areas, in the outdoors, in the rooftop — it’s this kind of place I think is interesting because it lasts for a long time. Also, people like to look at it instead of pushing people to look at it.”
Ironically, the local council has approached her to do a mural while she was finishing a commissioned piece in a restaurant in Brick Lane. Indian owners of restaurants around the area had given her calling cards at first, wanting her to do some work on their establishments as well. But nothing could have surprised her more than two guys in highlighter vests and stark blue police uniforms approaching her for a project.
She declined the offer. “Because they’re the enemy!” she says, chuckling. In between giggles, she goes on to recall an incident of a friend of hers who was sent to jail for a year for doing graffiti, perfectly displaying the controversial nature of the authorities’ relationship with the art form. “In jail, to make inmates happy and for activities, they asked my friend to paint, which is very controversial. It makes no sense.”
Delphine shuffles through framed works kept safe in cardboard boxes and shows her signature illustration — thin, calligraphic marker lines of characters that look like extra-terrestrial beings bopping to Electronic Dance Music at a hyper-packed club. Piles of folded round-neck shirts of these illustrations also filled every nook and cranny of her flat.
“I do print for a living. Graffers don’t really like this kind of merchandise world but I’m living in London. I have to survive. I could have a job but I’m good at trying to do this. The prints, they sell. These [framed works] also but they sell so slowly — it’s a steady income but it’s so slow. And I do exhibitions, I make money through exhibitions but merchandise makes more money. It’s faster turnaround,” she says as she takes the plastic cover off a screen-printed shirt.
While Delphine still considers herself a graffiti artist, her being able to monetise on her art may look like a betrayal to the anti-brand subculture. But she’s quick to say that at least she’s just not pasting logos all over the city. When asked about how the commercialisation affects street art, she paused, trying to tie words together to carefully articulate a practice that, for her, shouldn’t be patronised, but at the same time shouldn’t be heavily celebrated either.
“They don’t want to pay for advertising anymore. So they think they can just give a hundred pounds to street artists to paint the logo everywhere in the city, which would be cheap advertisement. That’s really not cool, everyone knows that,” she says point blank.
Like most visual artists, it’s not the corporate brands or the print merchandise that raises the reputation of their works. Delphine supports that being showcased in the white walls of a gallery is a prestige that every individual in the contemporary art scene would fight tooth and nail for. Even when works hung on smooth glass frames become the goal of most artists as they further their career, if she had to choose, only if illegality wasn’t an issue, she would still opt to work on the streets in a heartbeat.
She piles the T-shirts together, wipes the dust off her framed illustration of London, and in what looks like a bout of melancholy, she says: ”I love walking in the streets and discovering pieces of art — that’s what I like. I like the treasure hunt, you know? The surprise.”
Words & Images: Portia Ladrido / Ashes57