7th Pencil: “The more people share, the less taboo it feels.”

We met with graffiti artist Mel Saggs from 7th Pencil to talk about how her street art shines a light on women’s empowerment and mental health.

There’s a lot of stigma attached to graffiti as people often see it as vandalism. But Mel offers a different perspective.

“The nature of street art is to give the public and younger people more access to creativity and visual stimulation. Not everyone lives near a gallery. There was one in my town, but there was no Tate Modern. Why should the streets not be a gallery?” Mel questions.

At the age of 17, and encouraged by her college tutors, Mel started to create large scale art. She was hooked.

“Seeing artwork on the streets just made me happy and excited,” Mel tells me. “I wanted to share that with other people. I wanted to be the person who painted the grey buildings, who made people’s commute to work better, and just put a smile on their face.” You’ll find 7th Pencil’s surrealism-inspired graffiti in London, Manchester, Cheltenham, Bulgaria and Spain to name a few places.

Mel’s childhood and teenage years were a real struggle. Unaware of being dyslexic until her 20s, she grew up thinking she was stupid. She struggled to fit in and questioned her identity as a female.

“That experience through the whole of school gave me a massive issue with self-confidence and belief in myself. But art doesn’t discriminate. Art made me happy, so it seemed an obvious thing for me.” That’s when 7th Pencil began to evolve.

Having struggled with mental health issues and being labelled not feminine enough, Mel shines a light on these topics in her art.

How can art start conversations about mental health?

Talking about mental health with friends and family helps massively. You never know if the person you’re talking to is struggling. Talking helps makes those suffering feel that it’s acceptable to seek help and get on the road to recovery. But is there a place for art to help?

26% of young women aged between 16–24 years old report having a common mental health problem in any given week. This compares to 17% of adults. And this number has been going up.

Like many, Mel has been in difficult relationships, and struggled with depression. Graffiti is an outlet for Mel to express her emotions.

“Behind every artist, there’s a reason or purpose that has compelled them to make their work,” Mel says.

Her designs represent the masks people put on when dealing with mental health. The expressions and patterns show the emotions many feel. “I try to represent the feeling of being overwhelmed by adding layers of bright contrasting colours.”

Artwork by 7th Pencil

There used to be a stigma around discussing mental health, but Mel agrees that art can play a part in starting a conversation.

“I personally don’t want to impose a perspective on people. I have a history of mental health and that shows in my work. It’s good to share that with the world so people can relate. Sometimes that can lead to a message.”

Mel lost her dad almost a year ago, and her work became extremely dark after his passing. This was the first piece she did following his death.

Artwork by 7th Pencil
Artwork by 7th Pencil

Mel explains, “that’s what came out of me, but the intention wasn’t there. It’s just how I was feeling.”

The artwork did start a conversation as people have commented on how inspiring the piece is. People have said it creates a sense of someone rising from the darkness after such an emotional time.

Mel also represents mental health through recycling her spray cans to make AeroSouls.

“They’re disused items to be forgotten. The act of crushing the can reinforces the discarded nature of the object. Then I add brightly colour wings. I relate heavily to this analogy of being crushed and discarded but then being reinvigorated with life, colour and a sense of flight. I think it’s something everyone goes through in their life at some point.”

Hundreds of these AeroSouls have now been made and left for people to find in the street.

Artwork by 7th Pencil

Creativity has also helped Mel personally. She refers to it as “art therapy”. It has taken her a long time to feel like she has something to say and has now found a sense of herself and identity.

“The more people share, the less taboo it feels.”
Mel Saggs, 7th Pencil

Women’s empowerment  

Over 2.7 billion women are restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. Globally, women are paid less than men. And women are less likely to be entrepreneurs. But is women’s empowerment just about gender equality?

Kinship. Friendship. Not being judgemental or coming from a place of hatred. That’s how 7th Pencil describes women’s empowerment.

She explains women are different from men, so equality can only go a certain way. “Body building for example, women can’t compete with men, so that’s not equal anyways.”

While gender equality forms part of women’s empowerment, it’s also about support. To have other women who welcome you, ask how you are.

“Growing up as a female has been extremely difficult and I can imagine many women relate to this. It has been pointed out to me so many times that I’m not ‘lady-like’. I was also deeply affected by how I should look because of the media, family and friends.”

This piece represents how her younger self was frustrated with the world.

Artwork by 7th Pencil

Mel deliberately only uses portraits of women to shine a light on the struggle’s people face with self-esteem and identity.

“Photography portraits can sometimes feel contrived, but I look for reality and authenticity.”

A project often begins with an image of a friend, but women she doesn’t know have also been featured in her art.

“I’ll do open calls for art or ask people if they want to be in my art. People are often flattered, but you know, they’re amazing people. I love the expression they’ve got.”

As a female artist in a community that is often associated with men, she didn’t feel a very warm welcome, until she found the Wom Collective.

Mel joined the Wom Collective two years ago. Just as creating street art about mental health has helped her own mental health, finding this group has made her feel more empowered.

The Wom Collective are a group of accomplished graffiti artists who put jams and events on to empower others in the community. Rightly so, the group are gaining a lot of attention for what they do.

While graffiti is normally competitive, this group encourages and helps other women who also want to learn and be part of the community. When asked if it’s important that the Wom Collective exist, Mel simply said “yes”.

Because of their support, her style and confidence has grown massively. There’s no longer the ethos of “you’re on your own, you make it because you work hard,” Mel explains.

“While the women in the collective are higher up on their career ladder, they’re always happy to support and be kind, not tell you to go away because they’ve worked harder.”

Looking forward

The ultimate dream for 7th pencil is to paint a massive building in South America – known for some of the largest artworks in the world. The thought terrifies her but is a worthy challenge.

She also hopes for more future commissions that focus on the two very important topics, mental health and women’s empowerment.

When asking Mel if she thinks there will ever be a point where mental health and women’s empowerment won’t be an issue, she said: “There’s a lot of people in the world, and a lot of ignorance, so there’s never going to be a point where women’s empowerment and mental health aren’t an issue. There’s never going to be an end to discrimination either, and that goes for all minorities. We can only produce work that brings it to light.”

Would you love to collaborate with 7th Pencil? Check out her website.

Shannon Dudley

Shannon graduated with a photography degree in 2017 and has since surrounded herself with all things creative. With a penchant for strong visuals and a powerful story, she aims to discover and talk to creative people in the community.

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