DIRTY WORDS (t-shirts taking back language for the every-day social justice warrior)

in Kelowna, BC’s Rotary Centre for the Arts.

Dirty Words Shirts Circle.png

‘Dirty Words’ is a series that aims to reclaim language which has been unfairly stigmatized as a result of its association with the political left. Displaying large single word statements, from “feminist” to “socialist,” in gold letters across the chest, this series celebrates the values of equality, fairness, and respect; done in the performative act of being worn publicly. Participants are encouraged to share their social justice, community activist, shameless idealism and engage those around them in conversation with these “dirty words.”

In adhering to the values promoted by this project, all t-shirts will be sustainable sourced from local used clothing shops. Gold lettering across the chest of each shirt has been machine crafted by hand, locally in my Kelowna-based studio. All t-shirts used are a unisex one-size-fits-all. This combination of different words and t-shirts mean that each shirt is a unique one-of-a-kind piece. Twenty individual pieces have been produced for this series, each priced at $20, being sold exclusively at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art’s ArtMart vending machine. These shirts are displayed folded, covered with a large label and list of “dirty words” that could be on each shirt. The reason for not disclosing the specific word on each shirt is to ensure that the stigma associated with these words is not further reinforced; this has been done in the spirit of activist solidarity.

The core of Dirty Words’ goal is to celebrate social justice terms which I believe have been unfairly stigmatized. These are terms which champion values of equality, fairness, and respect within our local and global communities. Drawing on my formal training as a performer, I am positioning this t-shirt series as not just a statement fashion piece, but as social intervention in the form of a conversation starter. Each of these terms represents a real and pressing issue that affects our community here in Kelowna, as well as our global impact as citizens of the world. By presenting these stigmatized values publicly to those communities in the form of a self-self-prescribed label — using the prompts on the included one-page critical conversation performance guide — you, the wearer, invite a collaborative constructive dialogue around the topic. This kind of experimental interventionist performance work is inspired by the Applied Theatre social justice practices of Augusto Boal, using theatrical tactics to intervene critically, yet subtly, into the mundane world where these interventions are arguably needed most. In this way, these performances are inherently collaborative in nature between public and performer as sparked by a bold one word statement on a simple t-shirt.  


I’d like to invite you now, wearing your new activist t-shirt, to create a micro-performance of applied theatre in your own community. Wear your ‘dirty word’ proudly, open a respectful dialogue with a stranger. Even if they aren’t comfortable with the word on your chest, I encourage you to listen to them openly and share why you personally don’t want to see your ‘dirty word’ stigmatized anymore. Stick to the facts, stick to speaking from the perspective of your own lived experiences, and listen with an open mind. Following these guidelines, I believe we can all share in the respectful critical political conversations about these unfairly stigmatized words that so many of us have avoided for far too long. 

Below I’ve included a few definitions of the words your ‘Dirty Words’ shirt may have on them.


The idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole identity. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. These aspects of identity are not mutually exclusive.  Each element or trait of a person is inseparably linked with all of the other elements.


Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the genders. This includes fighting gender stereotypes and seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.


In the practice of social justice work, a nonconformist refers to a person who refuses to conform, as to established customs, attitudes, or ideas just because they are the dominant social or political norms. Typically those who identify as such do so to encourage critical thinking and to question established systems of power that disadvantage people in possessions of lower privilege.


Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.


Environmentalism or environmental rights is a broad philosophy, ideology, and social movement regarding concerns for environmental protection and improvement of the health of the environment, particularly as the measure for this health seeks to incorporate the impact of changes to the environment on humans, animals, plants and non-living matter. While environmentalism focuses more on the environmental and nature-related aspects of green ideology and politics, ecology combines the ideology of social ecology and environmentalism. Ecology is more commonly used in continental European languages while ‘environmentalism’ is more commonly used in English but the words have slightly different connotations.

*All definitions sourced from en.wikipedia.org on April 23rd, 2019 and are to the best of my knowledge true to their intended meaning for the purposes of this art piece.

Dirty Words modelled.jpeg

Special Thanks to Em MacMillen, this project wouldn’t have happened without them. Visit their website to see more interdisciplinary art.