It was love at first sight for Dieynaba Sidibé when she found graffiti. She was 17 years old at the time and had already began to dabble with painting and sketching.

” I saw it on TV.” “I was sitting in my living room and saw people doing big walls and I thought, ‘This is what I need,'” the Senegalese artist adds, laughing as one of her hoop earrings shakes. “I’m not a big fan of minor details.” “A wall offers a wider platform for expression,” I told myself as I worked on large canvases.”

Sidibé, who went by the moniker Zeinixx, was encouraged by her parents to concentrate on her studies, but she sought out Senegal’s burgeoning graffiti scene, eventually locating the Africulturban cultural association in Dakar’s Pikine suburb, which promotes urban culture through festivals and skill training.

She convinced Oumar Diop, AKA Afia Grafixx, one of the country’s pioneering artists, to mentor her.

“I already had basic drawing skills because I used to draw Mickey Mouse, McDonald’s logos, and other things like that on the walls of my room,” Zeinixx, 31, explains. “Grafixx taught me how to do graffiti – how to write, how to do lettering – and I became interested in hip-hop culture as a result.” Now, 14 years later, here I am.”

Zeinixx is the first female professional graffiti artist in Senegal and a key figure in the country’s male-dominated hip-hop culture. She’s also a slam poet, a vocalist, and a businesswoman. She founded Zeinixx Entertainment in August, which organizes visual arts courses for young people.

“My refrain is to tell young people: ‘Don’t let others choose for you what you want to do tomorrow,'” she says from the Africulturban center, where she is in charge of communications and planning for her next project at a Dakar girls’ high school.

“It’s critical for me to be able to make my own decisions,” she adds.

Senegal is a conservative nation in many respects, but it also boasts a rich history of art, music, and poetry. Griots, an artistic caste in this area of west Africa, were traditionally responsible for storytelling via music, spoken word, and dance.

Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president, was a poet. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, a Senegalese writer, received the renowned Goncourt literary award last year.

“All of this is the common thread that binds us all together,” adds Zeinixx, dubbed the “first lady” of graffiti by her peers. “It’s this need to express ourselves, to share things, to do beautiful things, whether it’s audiovisual, physical, like dance, or something else.”

Hip-hop emerged in Senegal in the 1980s, influenced by American culture. It has, nonetheless, retained its own peculiar flavor.

“It’s a culture with many virtues and principles, such as peace, love, and harmony,” Zeinixx explains. “In Senegal, you’ll find tassou, kebetu, and pekan [traditional Wolof and Pulaar oral poetry] – these genres aren’t hip-hop, but they’re similar.”

Graffiti, one of the four primary aspects of hip-hop culture, is tolerated in Senegal to a greater extent than in other nations.

“In the United States, for example, a special brigade is tasked with apprehending graffiti artists. “We aren’t like that,” she clarifies. “In this nation, you can do graffiti and a cop will stop you and say, ‘Respect guy, that’s wonderful!’ […] So I believe we’ve figured out how to make it our thing, our microphone, for getting messages out.”

According to Zeinixx, Senegalese graffiti is often socially minded message.

“You speak directly to the people with messages like ‘Stop throwing garbage in the streets,’ or ‘thiono dou reer,’ [hard work always pays off],” she explains. “They’re actually messages of hope,” says the author.

In Dakar’s Colobane neighborhood, she and her fellow graffiti artists stumbled found a crumbling wall covered in trash and urine. “Be the protector of your environment,” they wrote on it after cleaning it up.

“The wall was clean for a long time,” she recalls.

Zeinixx’s words are often directed towards and for women. She took part in a campaign last month as part of the UN’s annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence effort. Six of the 14 participants in her inaugural workshop, Graff’All, in October and November were women.

“It was critical that they could see me in the room on a regular basis, and that they could hear from me,” she explains. “We’re still in a very masculine environment… and the few women we do come across in this environment don’t always assert themselves.”

Fatou Warkha Sambe, a notable Senegalese feminist and journalist, describes what she is doing as “colossal.” “Women are needed in every domain,” says the author. And she’s a trailblazer, so I respect her.”

Another recent workshop, Taaru Mbedd (beauty in the street), teamed 15 young painters with mentors for four days of conversations before painting the walls of the Institut Français du Sénégal à Dakar, a French cultural organization. Their art will be on display until April, and is inspired by the subject djoko, which means connection or communication in Wolof.

Zeinixx requested that the trainee painters bring their families to the inauguration of the show. “If what we are doing is a bad thing, my mother would not be here,” she stated in her address, pointing to her mother in the crowd.

She informed them that she had been to Australia, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the United States as Senegal’s first female graffiti artist. “I’ve traveled the world representing Senegal, and graffiti is what got me there,” she remarked.

She claims that other parents phoned her thereafter to thank her for soothing them.

Babacar Niang, AKA Matador, a graffiti artist, dancer, rapper, and early part of Senegal’s hip-hop culture, who formed Africulturban, says, “Lately, the activities she has been leading, the workshops – we see young girls interested in graffiti because she has started to really influence girls.”

“It’s fantastic because it’s not a man’s domain: anyone who has it in them should be able to do it.” “Her project must continue because the girls require these spaces in which to express themselves and blossom,” he explains.

Niang has known Zeinixx since she was a teenager and claims that she has always been gifted.

“At first, we had to insist that she concentrate on her studies,” he adds, “but once she graduated and we couldn’t ask her not to come, she began to integrate more with us.” “At the time, graffiti wasn’t very developed in Senegal, so having a girl who wanted to do it was huge.”

For young ladies, Zeinixx offers a plain message.

“It’s to encourage the girls to be focused on what they want to do, who they want to become, and to set goals that they can achieve,” she explains. “Don’t even think of asking, ‘Can I do it?’ When you declare in your thoughts, ‘I’m going to do it,’ you usually can.”

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.