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Meet Shani Shih

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shani Shih.

Hi Shani, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today.
I work mostly in murals and illustration, and am based in DC. My journey with art started when I was old enough to hold a pen. My mother’s first line of work after coming to the States was fashion design, so I grew up thumbing through her old sketchbooks, wearing handmade garments, and listening to the hum of the sewing machine. She never sat me down to teach me “art,” but her creativity was my first catalyst. I created all kinds of art as a kid and went to an intensive arts program at a magnet high school. It was a very valuable experience, but I found myself in the crossfires of achievement culture, Asian American success narratives, and low-income immigrant family dysfunction – and, well, I got hit pretty badly.

When I came to DC for college in 2011, it was graffiti and street art that really changed things for me. I began following and photographing work around the city, looking up artists and studying their work. It took me some time to muster up the courage to try it myself. I bought my first paint marker and spray can a year later, came up with a name and began tagging the backs of street signs. I worked on illustrations and sticker slaps on my dorm room floor and got them up at night. I began looking into the history of graffiti culture, within the wider history of Hip-Hop, and it really lit a fire under me. I immersed myself in beat tapes and track after track of golden-era rap; I started connecting to different facets of the Hip-Hop community in the DMV and began approaching my work with a new energy. Hip-Hop brought me a sense of belonging I had never had before, and an entirely new approach to identity. It was the first time I remember feeling truly powerful.

Starting in 2015 I took every opportunity, mostly live painting gigs and graffiti jams, to be around the community, learn how to use the can, and develop my mural style. I connected with incredible graffiti writers and painters. Through those connections, I had the chance to co-organize shows and co-found a street art/graffiti collective called the 411 Collective. Some years later, I was able to paint some collaboration projects with friends (whom I am deeply grateful for), and slowly transition to getting walls of my own. I’ve been juggling my creative pursuits with full time work as a tenant advocate for almost 6 years, so my art journey has had a slow and steady pace. I’m excited for the day when I can pursue art full-time!

Can you talk to us about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
There have been many ups and downs with understanding and working with myself. I came into adulthood with a lot of anger and confusion. Much of it revolved around coping with the racialized immigrant experience, the crazy realities of the world, and the drama I experienced in an otherwise loving home. I had a stroke at 18, which dramatically impacted me as well. As a result of the stoke, my right side is numb with a burning sensation–this condition has really intensified my anxiety and mental health struggles over time. In my early 20s, my lack of self-esteem and self-realization led me to lose myself in a toxic/abusive relationship for a few years…another bump in the road.

Trauma can have a very isolating effect. There are many days when I still feel small, debilitated, overwhelmed, unable to get out of my head and the stress in my body. Finding a balanced way of living, thinking, and feeling in the aftermath continues to take a lot of work. But the bright side is that these struggles have created powerful opportunities for me to grow and evolve. They’ve pushed me to peel back the layers of who I am each day, to develop real consciousness around how I move through life and how life moves through me.

We’d love to learn more about your work. What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
I’m focused on making art that helps me process, accept, and express my experience. In the past few years, I’ve also been lucky to support incredible movements and communities through mural work with my collective. I started a summer youth arts empowerment space called Chinatown Art Studio in 2018 with the support of local non-profit 1882 Foundation. I want to keep developing a body of visceral expression around the mind-body connection and the human condition.

The world of murals is deeply intertwined with commercial industry and forces of development and displacement. It can be difficult for artists to live in this landscape while staying true to their values. As a start, I worked with a group of folks last year to start a dialogue about the connections between public art/murals, gentrification, and Business Improvement Districts in DC. Ultimately, I want to use my public art practice and background as an organizer to uplift marginalized communities and address harmful systems.

I’m Asian American; I’m a woman. I’m queer; I’m invisibly disabled, and the list goes on – these are all important and they come together to shape my experience. But I believe my spirit extends beyond this list beyond constructs of language, identity politics, survival-mode living, and thinking. I am not just these identities. I’m a part of the cosmos, in all my multiplicity and emptiness. I am proud to be alive and to have a heart, vision, curiosity, and courage.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with our readers who might just be starting?
I feel like I am just starting out, but I have learned so many lessons. Maybe this is best in bullet form.

• Seek and build community. Doing this with intention is essential if you’re a woman of color in the art world. Many spaces or circles within our art scenes won’t be for you – this isn’t a reflection of your value. It just means you need to find a range of relationships and networks that affirm the different parts of who you are and want to be. This will be very important to your growth. But you also have to put in the time first and foremost. Develop your voice, your ideas, your skill, and your craft. It’ll help you attract what makes sense for you.

• There will be commercial and social pressures to do so – but you don’t have to restrict yourself or pigeonhole your expression based on your identities if that is not what you want! Stay open but be firm in your visions.

• The whole “journey is the destination/process is the product” thing is real. You’ll spend your life chasing if you treat your ambitions as your absolute truth. I have put so much pressure, stress, and expectation on myself over the years to achieve, to get better, to do this and that. But there will always be more to want, something to be dissatisfied with. If being balanced, grounded, and well-rounded is my ambition, my art becomes play. It becomes healing.

• Define your intentions for social media and commit to them. Social media encourages quantity over quality, branding over expression, self-comparison, expectations of instant gratification and constant affirmation. I wish I knew how powerfully social media could consume your ego as an artist and warp your relationship to art and creation, and also to others, especially in the street art world. It’s easy to forget about the 10,000 hours when Instagram has us thinking in seconds.

• Respect history. Street art and murals come from graffiti – a bold countercultural movement that challenged the status quo and empowered Black and brown youth through a craft based on knowledge of self and community. Every city is organizing their own mural festival. As the booming industry becomes inseparable from the forces of capitalism, artists get further removed from this foundation. Writers risked their freedom to pioneer and maintained this art form, to bring art to the public, equally accessed by all. The fire at the core of graffiti is sacred. In a world where industry pretends to be culture, we should honor and protect it, and use it to give back. Use your art and/or your position as an artist to challenge systems, shift culture, and support community, as much as you can. This involves a critical view of the institutions we deal with as artists, and the way we connect with the places we paint in and the people we impact.


  • Prints – $20.00
  • Contact for mural inquiries (see here for more info)

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