A gust of wind almost blows away the yellow cuttings lying on the ground. But the graffiti stencil artist Steffi Bow is not worried. Someone will catch the pieces of paper before they fly too far away.
Her focus is elsewhere as she balances on a small two-step ladder in front of a two-metre-tall black wall. She shakes the spray can in her right hand.
“I picked up a spray can for the first time in my life five years ago,” she says. “It’s changed my life.”
Portrait of an artist
The 39-year-old Briton, who moved to Dubai five years ago, was working on a life-size stencil art piece of the Dubai-based Lebanese rapper Malikah, as part of adidas’ Unite All Originals campaign.
The initiative, which is running worldwide, will bring together its urban brand ambassadors this year to collaborate on various projects. The artwork, which was created next to the skateboard ramp at the Tashkeel art facility in Nad Al Sheeba, will be on public display at their gallery throughout the -summer.
According to an adidas spokeswoman, doing the event at Tashkeel was a “natural choice”, given its penchant for anything and everything arts-related. She said the Bow and Malikah collaboration was the first in the pipeline for the urban and sportswear brand, with more to come throughout the year.
Bow says her goal is to inspire women to express themselves through graffiti art and rapping. “I love to see women get up there, try new things, be creative, and Malikah is all of that and more.”
Bow, who works full time as an operational manager for a space insurance company, is relatively new to the art of graffiti. She began her craft in the UK by painting small pink bows around town, which became her graffiti tag, an icon that “stays with you forever”.
She chose the bow for many reasons, but mostly in honour of her grandmother, who was never seen without a bow in her hair.
“When she died, I started wearing bows all the time. And then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to make London prettier by painting bows?’ So I started putting little pink tags everywhere and, before I realised it, people started telling me that I had a graffiti habit.”
A habit, perhaps, but one that led her into the arms of the love of her life.
More than two years ago, Bow was painting her pink tags in a car park in Dubai Festival City, which was at the time a public place that allowed local artists to unleash their creative flair. She thought she was alone that day, but she was not. At the other end of the car park was a kindred spirit.
Sya, another British graffiti artist, but of the old-school sort – the correct terminology being “aerosol writer” – was also there that day to spray paint the wall.
“It was love at first sight,” says Bow. The two were engaged within a year, and in December 2012 they got married.
Now they work hand-in-hand, painting and writing their way through Dubai at events and various other commission work.
“Sya has helped take my skills to another level, from doing small things such as bows, and now look what I’m doing,” says Bow. Her husband, also 39, has been a graffiti writer for 20 years. He says it “blows my mind seeing her -progression”. “When we met, she was doing pretty basic things. Now she’s doing these mad, multilayered stencils,” he says.
Sya’s work is, according to Bow, “the holiest of holy of street art”.
“Sya doesn’t call himself an artist, but a writer. It’s all about stylised letters – about the letter form,” she says. Stencilling, on the other hand, is about layering paper in the shape of something and spray-painting each layer to create an image.
Stencilling as an art form
The couple say that, in general, old-school freehand artists turn their nose up at stencil artists, but Sya says the both art forms are equally challenging. “With stencilling you have a lot of work to do before you paint the actual piece, and with graffiti writing you put all the work into building the piece up.”
Malikah said she was shocked when she saw the final artwork.
“She was really able to capture me as an artist. It was amazing, especially the fact that it was made by a woman.”
Bow just hopes to empower women in creative areas that are normally dominated by men. “If I can get a girl to start painting or rapping, that’s what it’s all about,” she says. “This is my passion and hobby. We are painting non-stop. We’re -literally getting our paint on.”