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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Philly street harassment

Meet the woman behind the lipstick stickers around Philly’s Fabric Row

Alex Sayer has fallen in love with the city’s public art scene.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

They’re tubes of lipstick on stickers and wheatpastes (posters and cut-outs that artists stick with flour-based glue). Each shade has a name, but rather than the cutesy standard fare, the shades’ names are labels typically assigned to women. “Nasty” is a deep pink; “high maintenance” is mulberry; “bossy” is brick red.

The “Lipstick Series,” which has gathered buzz in street art circles after the works were spotted on and around Philly’s Fabric Row Sunday, is the product of 27-year-old Alex Sayer. Billy Penn caught up with Sayer Wednesday while browsing Sephora lipsticks, two lip stains already in hand.

“I was trying to come up with a way to get my feminist views out there artistically… I thought, well, they always have fun labels and women are always labeled,” she said. “Another reason I thought of lipsticks is you can wear any color you want. A lipstick doesn’t really say that much about you, but a label does. Using the labels and the lipsticks together, it was like: You can choose what you want to be, and you can choose the label you want to have. If someone labels you something, you don’t necessarily have to wear that.”

Sayer is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Thorndale. Once upon a time she used to work at Hooters, and she used to have to wear a lot of makeup.

“You couldn’t have bold anything. You couldn’t have hair all crazy colors. You had to be—I think they called it something like cheerleader, which is so ridiculous looking back,” she explained.

She worked there while studying to be a medical assistant, but art was her passion. The medical work was the safer route her family had steered her toward, and she doubled down on it when she found out she was pregnant five years ago. While she was holding down a medical assistant gig, she got married and had another baby. The family moved from Harrisburg to the Delaware Valley around two and a half years ago. When she and her husband did the math, they saw that the cost of the childcare they were seeking would match her then-salary, so she left her job. At home with the kids, she explored her art like she always wanted. “The weekend of the Women’s March was when I did my first wheat paste,” she said.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Even though she didn’t like the Hooters look, she still loved makeup, and kept wearing full looks until breakouts made her scale it all back. She only does her lips, eyelashes and brows these days.

“I’m learning to accept the red blotches and some of the marks and just go with it,” she said, “because it’s my face.”

Sayer printed the “Lipstick Series,” after drawing the pieces on her iPad Pro. It’s been almost a week, so see them while you can; some of the stickers are already peeling, and the colors are starting to get weathered. Wednesday, the faded colors looked pretty cool, because they’ve dripped in a way that makes the pieces look like watercolors.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Sayer was mostly done browsing when she explained that her favorite lipstick ever is a matte lavender from NYX called Zen Orchid, which she’s wearing down to a nub. She had already heard that someone crossed out one the bad names on one of her stickers, and replaced it with something else.

“Somebody tagged me in comment [on Instagram] of the one that said ‘nasty bitch,’” Sayer recalled. Nasty and bitch were two different tubes.

“Hey Alex!” the commenter wrote. “I love your work. Just wanted you to know that I took at sharpie and blacked out the word ‘bitch’ because that space adjacent to the pole sees about 100 kids per day (Philly PACK). I meant no offense. I replaced the word with ‘she persists.’ That was the best I could come up with in the moment. Huge love. Keep making art. Hope you’re not mad.”

Sayer wasn’t. “She was very sweet,” she said. “That’s what happens when you put your art in public places.”

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Many of the lipstick’s names are insults, and many of the insults are ones that Sayer has personally heard.

“I can see some of the faces of the people who’ve called me these names,” she said. “I took these things to heart, but I wasn’t any of them except for maybe sassy and loud.

“As women, it’s going to be a long time before we aren’t called names. I got catcalled twice walking here, and I didn’t park that far away.”