Early in her life, Lisa Marie Thalhammer learned about gender stereotypes and the expectations Western society place upon women. In high school she waitressed at her family’s truck shop near St. Louis, Missouri, where she was often harassed by the men passing through. These ordeals led to one of her first art series in college: Welcome to Lizard County.
The series focused on “lot lizards,” a stand-in term for prostitutes who cater to male drivers at truck stops. These collages, some of which hang in her studio on O Street in Northwest Washington, D.C., feature figures of women pieced together from men’s magazines seated on top of drawn semi trucks. The art portrays how women are viewed as sexual objects and not as human beings.
“It was my own experiences at the truck stop, of feeling cut up, feeling harassed, and being degraded to being viewed as just a physical body,” she explains.
After graduating from college in 2003, Thalhammer moved to Washington, D.C. Five years later she traded in her canvases for the public art spaces of the city, focusing her new works on uplifting women. A decade later, her murals continue to take on important issues and engage the surrounding communities.
Thalhammer completed her first public art piece in 2009. She painted the thirty-two-foot-high Boxer Girl on 73 W St. NW in response to a criminal incident: she was sitting on the stoop of her art studio when a young girl ran out of a nearby alley, chased by three boys. When they caught up to the girl, they began to beat her. Thalhammer ran the boys off. She made sure the young girl was okay, and the two began talking. Boxer Girl features a young black woman in a fighting stance, colorful shooting stars behind her.
“I wanted to help bring empowerment and the feeling of safety to young women, but also something that would help those young boys and kids on the street to respect women.”
For Thalhammer, the piece was about speaking back, not only to those young boys, but also to the men who harassed her at the truck stop years before. Through Boxer Girl—a mural funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities—she tackled neighborhood violence and worked to remind everyone that women can be strong and inspirational. Four months after installation, police reported that crime in the area had fallen fifty-five percent.
Boxer Girl began Thalhammer’s love affair with color. The hues of her previous work, such as the lot lizard series, were usually dark, but that changed after some community members found the rainbow stars behind the female figure controversial. The reaction surprised Thalhammer, who had loved bright colors since she was a child.
“I realized the sociopolitical association to the gay rights movement. When that happened and I experienced that feedback from the public, from my very first public artwork, I said, ‘I’m painting rainbows for the rest of my life!’” she laughs.
As a member of the LGBTQ community, it’s important for her to showcase her pride.
“We need to look more at each other and see all the colors that we are.”
For Thalhammer, colors are interwoven with healing. In 2015, following a head injury that took almost three years to recover from, she began a series of meditational chakra paintings. From these she created her signature thirteen-color rainbow that was designed to “calm the nervous system, increase joy and healing.” Although the original is slightly faded, the colors remain bright.
Through another D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities grant, Thalhammer created her best-known mural, LOVE, in Blagden Alley.
“Let me take this love that I’ve created in my studio that’s been a big part of my journey, my personal healing, and put it on the street and try to extend that into the city, as sort of a healing gesture to the country.”
The project was designed to preserve the artistic community of Blagden Alley, a small hub of local businesses between M and N, Ninth and Tenth streets in Northwest D.C. Along with artist Bill Worrell and support from the city, Thalhammer curated the DC Alley Museum. It is now one of the most popular spots for mural tours in the city, often listed as a must-see destination for visitors to D.C.
Thalhammer herself goes to visit the LOVE mural when she feels sad or is having a bad day.
“I come away feeling better, and I think it’s because there’s that physicality of the colors, and being inspired by all that beautiful color that just lifts your energy and your vibrations.”
Conversely, she recognizes that the work of artists can sometimes have a negative effect on a neighborhood. Hotel and luxury condo developers sometimes enlist muralists to adorn their buildings, but Thalhammer believes it aids gentrification efforts: beautiful art attracts a wealthier, “better” class of people. Thalhammer is careful about who she works for, and the themes of her murals revolve around rejuvenation. She often works along with community members to create murals that best suit the neighborhood.
“I think when you put art and creative, positive intention into a location, it shifts that subtle energy,” she says. “It shifts the way that we see or value something. It shifts that location into a spotlight.”
In 2017, Thalhammer painted She Persists! in an alleyway across from her studio on O Street. The vibrant mural shows a striking black woman with her arm outstretched, surrounded by vivid colors. The mural enhances an otherwise plain building that is home to Open Arms Housing, a permanent residence for women who were formerly homeless.
Before She Persists!, the building was regularly tagged with graffiti. The alley was often the site for crime. In fact, one day, while working on the mural from a vulnerable position in a scissor lift, a man ran right up to her, pursued by the police. Though scared, the incident didn’t stop her from going back to work the next day.
Thalhammer’s goal for the mural was to empower the women who live there.
“That mural is me wanting to take some of the goodness and positive energy that’s inside this artist studio building and put it on the street.”
Seeking to provide friendly, affordable housing for artists, sculptor and real estate developer Eric Rudd converted the O Street warehouse into art studios in 1978. Now the 52 O Street Artist Studios are some of the oldest artists’ studios in Washington. The artists in residence often hold open houses so the community can see what they are creating. When unveiling the She Persists! mural, Thalhammer organized a street-wide beautification project. Artists and residents planted flowers and picked up trash in preparation.
“Getting neighbors out of their houses to come together to meet each other, to meet me as the artist and the other creative people in this building, as well to really build a community, that’s for me what public art is about.”
Living in Washington, D.C., allows Thalhammer to be close to the political action. It’s important for her to be part of the national conversation. She participates in rallies supporting LGBTQ rights as well as the Women’s March.
“It’s not an easy time to be an artist in Washington, but it’s an important time to be an artist in Washington,” she explains.
In the spring of 2019, Thalhammer partnered with Stoli Vodka to create a limited-edition bottle for Pride Month, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a violent confrontation between the gay community and police in Greenwich Village, New York.
The custom label features symbols of the riots as well as her thirteen-color rainbow. She painted the same image as a large mural in Key West. The work serves to bring awareness to future generations about the struggle that queer people have faced throughout history.
Thalhammer’s dream for the 2020 elections is to begin a “Campaign of Love”: to travel across the country and paint murals of her signature thirteen-color LOVE. She wants her work to spark change for the better.
“I think it’s visual reminders, like this love work, that is going to help push us forward.”
Malgorzata Mical was a summer intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a senior at the University of Florida, where she is studying English and Russian.