"Stop Telling Women to Smile" Invades L.A., Educates Cat Callers

Near the corner of Fifth and Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, a hip-hop videographer stands amid the Art Walk crowd Thursday and contemplates a dozen black-and-white sketches of women. Outraged women. 

The messages below their faces intrigue him.

"Women do not owe you their time or conversation."

"Critiques on my body are not welcome."

"Stop telling women to smile."

"Stop telling women to smile?" 33-year-old Toney Franco asks. "What does that mean?"

"I'm one of those guys who say, 'Hey, why don't you smile?' or 'Pick your head up' or 'Hey baby!' I'll admit that,'" the downtown resident continued. "I'm just trying to start a conversation. It's a natural compliment to me."

On the other side of the posters, behind the glass of El Nopal Press, Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh watches people react to her work: a country-roving campaign called "Stop Telling Women to Smile," which landed in L.A. last week and will be here through March 17. The street art aims to fight street harassment such as catcalls - or, at least, spark a conversation about it.

"As a woman, you're always aware of the male gaze," says Fazlalizadeh, a freelance illustrator from Oklahoma, who started the project about two years ago. "It can make you feel guarded. There isn't one stand-out experience for me but a vast collection out in public: men grasping me on the wrist, yelling at me across the street and cursing at me if I don't respond, making kissing noises, leering at me."

"Stop Telling Women to Smile" Invades L.A., Educates Cat Callers
Stop Telling Women to Smile

Artwork is based on her experiences as well as the experiences of women who share their stories. In Chicago, Fazlalizadeh drew Diana, a Latina who doesn't want to hear pet names from a stranger. Her message: "No me llama Mamacita." Do not call me your little girl. 

In New York, Nirali, who wants to feel like a human being - not a prop - when she's running errands: "Women are not outside for your entertainment."

Fazlalizadeh will sketch L.A. women, too. (Here's her local schedule; you may notice her street art freshly plastered to walls around town.) 

"It's about empowering women," she says. "I want them to see they have someone speaking up for them."

"Stop Telling Women to Smile" Invades L.A., Educates Cat Callers
Stop Telling Women to Smile

At the Art Walk exhibit, 18-year-old Victoria Guerra, a Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School senior, asks the artist for a photo. The teenager, who volunteers as a women's advocate in East LA, heard about Fazlalizadeh's work at a domestic-violence talk in Santa Monica earlier this year and wanted to personally thank her.

"I love your work!" she tells Fazlalizadeh, beaming. "It sends a message. It's impactful. Street harassment is abuse. Words can really affect us."

Michelle Levan, a 64-year-old homeopathic doctor in Sherman Oaks, stops by Fazlalizadeh's posters with a friend and her 13-year-old daughter.

"This is for you," Levan tells the girl. "It's a feminist message. It's beautiful."

And Franco, who says he shoots "sexy videos," elaborates on his experience as an occasional cat caller: "Some women accept it. Some women don't like it at all."

Will Fazlalizadeh's art make him think twice about future street conduct?

"Yes. Definitely, definitely."

Follow Danielle Paquette on Twitter.

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