CNN  — 

“I was a victim, but that was a very long time ago.” Panmela Castro casts her mind back to the day she was beaten. Like her mother, like her aunts, like many of her friends, the Rio de Janeiro native had become a statistic within an epidemic of violence against women.

Castro remembers going to the police, but there was no law to back her up – at the time, domestic abuse was not a crime in Brazil. The incident was a private matter Castro was told, and no charges were filed.

She says psychological attacks had started shortly after she moved in with her partner. At the time she did not identify it as a form of abuse, but Castro claims the single violent incident was the final straw. She walked away, an act of defiance against Brazil’s cultural landscape, where countless women suffer in silence.

She had become a victim, but would not continue as one.

A trained artist educated at the University of Rio de Janeiro, Castro had been tagging walls using the nom de guerre “Anarkia Boladona”, but now she found herself painting more and more.

Castro recalls how her ex-partner would harass her when she left the house, but creating graffiti with fellow artists, who were overwhelmingly male, offered her a level of protection.

Unlike the calligraphy or macho symbols daubed throughout Rio, Castro’s work was feminine. Something of substance. Something empowering.

A relationship had ended but she’d found her voice.

Now Castro is helping a nation of women find theirs.

A global problem

Globally, 35% of women have experience physical and/or sexual violence in their life, according to the World Health Organization – and for 30% it was at the hands of their partner. In Brazil the problem was particularly acute, allowed to metastasize for generations, with no legal recourse for victims.

It took the case of Maria da Penha to shock policymakers into action. Da Penha’s husband had tried to kill her twice. In May 1983, he shot her in her sleep, leaving her paraplegic and hospitalized. A fortnight after his wife’s return home, he tried to electrocute her in the shower.

Tried and found guilty, he twice successfully appealed. Eventually in 2002 de Penha’s husband was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison, but walked free after serving a fraction of his sentence.

A two decade-long legal suit filed by da Penha finally resulted in a landmark ruling, taking the Brazilian government to task for failing to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence to the necessary degree. In August 2006, Federal Brazilian Law 11.340./06, known as the “Maria da Penha Law,” was brought into effect by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government.

Mural commemorating the 8th anniversary of the Maria da Penha law, Rio de Janiero.

The law was not a panacea. It resulted in 331,000 prosecutions and 110,000 final judgments in its first five years, according to the National Council of Justice of Brazil, per UN Women. However, in a country where 41,532 women were murdered between 1997 and 2007, and 10 women were dying every day from domestic violence, systemic abuse was never going to stop overnight.

The new law needed help reaching the people most effected.

Panmela Castro was at hand.


The artist turned professional in 2005, and after the summer of 2006 began collaborating with organization Com Causa (“With Cause”), campaigning for women’s rights and publicizing the new law.

“It was easy for me because I knew these streets,” Castro tells CNN.

As a female urban artist Castro was an outlier.

“In order to be accepted you have to pay a high price, because it’s very difficult for women to get into those sorts of groups,” she reflects. “(Men) don’t like the idea of sharing power and being equals with women.”

Despite male graffiti artists offering her a form of protection when she was finding her feet, Castro maintains that even today she suffers psychological abuse and sexual harassment from her male counterparts at times.

“One of the reasons I was accepted was because I was good at what I did – internationally renowned … They were forced to accept me.”

There’s a reason Castro has been dubbed “Brazil’s graffiti queen.”

Her murals, low on words but heavy on message, are things of beauty. Often featuring portraits of women, they’re feminine without sexualizing the female body. Sisterhood is frequently suggested in her figures’ intertwined hair, while mythical characters like the goddess Liberty look out across Rio. The biblical Eve, “that unreliable and treacherous woman,” as Castro drolly refers to her, is a mainstay.

Through Castro’s work, women are occupying public spaces in Brazil, reclaiming the streets.

Look close enough and in the corner of one Castro mural you can find an allusion to “vagina dentata” – a folk tale in which a woman’s vagina contains teeth.

The message is clear: this woman bites back.

Spreading the word

There is a limit to what paint alone can do, says the artist.

“My graffiti is talking about justice, violence, women’s advocacy,” Castro says, “but it’s not (going) to make a real change.” Her art has, however, given her a platform to launch what has become her main pursuit: Rede Nami.

Rede Nami was started by Castro in 2010 as a way to educate communities on domestic violence by running workshops for mixed groups of 14-19 year olds, and others for women of any age.

After spending an hour discussing women’s rights, and sometimes sharing experiences of abuse, the group uses the rest of the workshop to create a mural visualizing the issue – it is physical evidence that citizens are taking a stand.

Children painting a mural during one of Rede Nami’s workshops.

“You can’t really entice people to just talk about their cases,” Castro says. “The graffiti is what makes them want to share. If it was just conversation, people wouldn’t come.”

Over 5,000 people have participated in the workshops so far, some taking place outside Brazil, while the initiative has received support from Amnesty International, Vital Voices and the Brazil Foundation.

Rede Nami has also created a program called AfroGrafiteiras, currently educating 180 Afro-Brazilian women about black feminism, gender and their own rights – as well as training them as street artists.

“All these themes help to fight the macho movement,” she adds.

Celebrity Castro

The initiative has brought Castro celebrity in Brazil, and she’s received numerous global accolades. Listed as one of Newsweek’s 150 Women Who Shake the World and noted as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, Castro can be found hobnobbing with influencers including Diane Von Furstenberg, Oprah Winfrey and Jessica Alba, as well as Brazil’s most famous son, Pelé.

She’s been commissioned across the Americas and in Europe by the likes of Nike, Hublot and Avon.

Recently one of her murals in New York featured prominently in coverage of the Women’s March on January 21, she says. A classic Castro design, it depicted two women joined by braided hair, with the message “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.”

Castro’s mural outside Urban Nation, due to open September 2017. (Image: Courtesy Urban Nation)

She describes a vast façade she has made for the upcoming Urban Nation gallery in Berlin (opening September 2017) as “one of my most special works.”

Performance art

In recent years, Castro has diversified into the field of performance art.

Carrying the flame of the Yugoslavia-born so-called “grandmother of performance art” Marina Abramovic and others, the new medium has allowed her to venture into transgressive territory in a way that her workshops cannot.

For example, in a 2016 performance entitled “Por que?” (“Why?”), Castro – wearing an ostentatious Von Fustenberg dress – carved the title of the piece into her flesh. A similar bloody inscription materialized in “Gentileza Gera Gentileza” (“Kindness Generates Kindness”), when that maxim was etched into her back with a surgical scalpel.

Perhaps Castro’s most visceral act came in 2015. For the past four years she had been incorporating apples into her work, sometimes superimposing a vulva on the fruit, as an allusion to Eve.

Eve’s apple became a permanent fixture for Castro when she had one tattooed on her arm during a piece called “Ruptura,” performed as part of the “Eva” show at the Scenarium Gallery in Rio de Janeiro. The performance began with Castro applying lipstick, before being tattooed, having her head shaved by the audience, and changing into a sharp black suit. (Watch the whole performance here.)

Priscila Duarte, curator of “Eva” and consultant director of Rede Nami, described the performance’s intent: “Panmela breaks with the appearance of the princess girl, the good girl to marry and the exemplary daughter, to become another image that we can no longer define so much, but which I interpret as Renaissance.”

“When we talk about gender, we’re talking about freedom for people to deconstruct their status as women,” Castro explains. But gender, she argues, has become a forbidden word in Brazil’s classrooms. It means there has to be a clear distinction between her output as an artist, and her educational work for Rede Nami.

“Most of the dialogue against women happens because people think that women have to be lower (than men). We think that women can be anything they want.”

Fortunately, the teenagers Castro educates, she says, are from a generation “open to learning and respecting women.”

“Before you’d have to fight for your rights, fight to be protected,” she says. “Today you fight to maintain those laws.”

Armed with a spray can and an indomitable persona, it’s hard to imagine Castro anywhere but the frontlines.

Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report. Graphics by Sofia Ordonez.