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Philly’s female street artists get political ahead of 2018 elections

Said one artist: "I wanted to grab the people who weren't comfortable voting."

Symone Salib's wheatpaste of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill in South Philly.
Symone Salib's wheatpaste of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill in South Philly.Read moreSymone Salib

Ahead of this year's election, the women active in Philly's street art scene have plastered walls with strikingly political pieces. They're hoping their artwork will spark conversations about challenging social and political issues, and, more important, voting.

The street artist Blur has created multiple images of colorful lips framing phrases like "Empower Women" and "Stay Outraged." 

Blur and Velazquez-Rivas participated in the Streets Dept art blog's "To the Polls" project in August, a warehouse show that featured art encouraging civic participation in the midterm elections. Velazquez-Rivas' Iwo Jima interpretation was her submission.

‘Voter turnout was horrible’

"Voter turnout was horrible in 2016," said Blur, who has been creating street art for three years. "I know a lot of people who didn't vote and still complained. I wanted to grab the people who weren't comfortable voting, or thought that their vote didn't matter, and ask them why they were being quiet and not giving their opinion."

Blur said that over the last few years, the number of women creating street art in the city has exploded. She credited this shift to the 2016 election and said it had made the street art scene more political on the whole.

"People feel a sense of urgency to try and make change that maybe wasn't there before," Blur said.

Salib considers herself a portrait artist because she wants to amplify other people's stories, especially those of people of color and women.

"A lot of the time, I'll hear something or see something or listen to a podcast," Salib said. "I'll find a story that resonates with me and I'm like, 'Wow, I want everyone to hear this.' Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford's stories aren't that far off from other people's stories of sexual assault. We need to be better."

Salib said she chose to portray the women looking directly at passersby because "when you have a conversation with someone on a topic like that, they have an expression on their face that you don't forget." The wheatpaste stayed up for four weeks, to Salib's surprise, and she received lots of photos of people interacting with it, as well as thank-you messages.

Velazquez-Rivas said she was shocked at how much power art has in the current sociopolitical climate. She had lost the sense of that impact early on in art school.

"Being an artist is really difficult, and sometimes it can feel like no one is paying attention," she said. "But right now, it seems to be the complete opposite. I'd encourage any artist who thinks they don't have the power to spark conversations to just jot something down and share it on their social media because they might be surprised at the kind of reaction they would get from the public."