Take a look around New York City and beyond, and you’ll see the far-reaching influences of hip-hop culture, manifested prominently on building walls and occasionally lingering on subway cars. Though graffiti tags are now swiftly removed compared to the past, graffiti art continues to epitomize a cultural phenomenon.
For decades, alongside rapping, DJing, and breakdancing, graffiti has stood as a defining element of hip-hop culture, and has served as a powerful form of self-expression. And what was once considered an underground and often illegal form of expression has evolved into a recognized and respected art form that influences various industries.
Maria Castillo, known as Toofly, is among the early female pioneers of graffiti culture. Coming up in the 1990s, Toofly carved a name for herself in New York City’s male-dominated graffiti scene, setting the stage for other women to express themselves with an aerosol can. She said her cousin coined the nickname Toofly for her, believing it represented her artistry and style – both fast and fly.
Toofly was born in Ecuador, but raised in Queens. She went to high school in Manhattan and recalls being enamored with the graffiti tags she saw on the walls in the locker rooms, as well as the ones she saw on buildings, trains and rooftops on her commute to the High School of Fashion Industries. She saw a space for herself in that world and quickly consumed it.
Today, Toofly is staying true to her roots, but transitioned from showcasing her work on public property to channeling her emotions and creativity professionally. She has flourished as a multidisciplinary artist, designer, curator and educator.
We talked with Toofly about her journey and success in graffiti culture.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and content.
What inspired you to get into graffiti art?
I grew up with graffiti culture. When I was 15, 16 years old, I’d see a lot of graffiti tags and I wanted to be the female version of what I was seeing on the street. So to be the female version in graffiti culture was interesting at the time because there weren’t that many women. So for me it was important because I didn’t see that and I was inspired by it, and it was something that was brewing on the streets and it was something new, and I wanted to be in the mix of it all.
What was the climate like at the time?
I noticed that I was kind of creating an area where more women could join and feel safe because it was hard and harsh for us to grow up around a male-dominated scene that felt very tough and rough. The environments we painted in weren’t safe at times, there were dark alleys or just like dark nights. The guys liked to climb fences and get chased by dogs. I remember being underneath a train station, like these were dangerous situations where a lot of people have died. And so that completely changed when we women started to paint because we were creating safe spaces where women could come and also young people and transgenerational communities and multicultural communities.
You were a teenager at the time, was your mother in the loop on what you were doing?
I had a very great mom who actually took me graffiti writing at nighttime. She was supportive. My mom is an artist herself and a rebel as well. She would take me out around 3 o’clock in the morning because she didn’t want me to be tagging along with a group of guys at that time. Obviously it wasn’t safe. It was the early ’90s and New York City was still very rough and tough in certain parts. And so she had a little car and she was learning how to drive, so she would drive me around and let me tag up in LeFrak City in Corona. Maybe she saw a future in that for me or she was just like, “let me keep my daughter safe?”
How has your work evolved over the years?
Now I’ve become a street artist versus an illegal person on a street defacing property. Now it’s permission-based, community-based and also commercial-based. And we are able to put our messages out on walls that are very large, that the general public could see. And also work with different companies to expose their brands to the public at large.
What message do you seek to convey in your work?
My messages are usually of women empowerment. I love hip-hop culture because that’s what I grew up with. We love color, and we love the urban aesthetic, which was kind of viewed negatively when we were growing up, but now we’ve transformed it. It’s part of fashion, music and art. It’s like the biggest phenomenon.
Is there anything less exciting about doing your work on the “up and up”?
A lot of graffiti writers talk about getting a rush when working underground because it’s risk-taking and edgy. But what I think I love most about doing professional or permission-based aerosol art is that I take my time and I have many hours, and the gratification that I get from doing something so beautiful and with different colors with spray paint, is way more gratifying than doing graffiti tagging. I knew that wasn’t the way I wanted to go.
What is your message as we mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop?
I think it’s important to highlight women in the culture because we were a minority. I do feel we’re no longer that because it has grown so much in these last few years in all genres of hip-hop culture. It’s important because we’ve seen the influence and the power that it has on young girls when they’re looking at us painting. They could see that they can legally use an aerosol can and they could now have dreams of being a fine artist or graphic designer. We created a world for them to now come into that space and become professionals and get paid for it and make a living because now many of us are full-time artists.