From Subway Cars to Galleries: In Conversation with Lady Pink
In an article I had written previously for the Street Art Now Series, I discussed the changes that the New York street art scene was enduring in the midst of the city’s rapid gentrification. From its humble origins in teenagers illegally tagging subway cars in the 1970’s, street art has emerged as a status symbol in New York: its presence has indicated an economic and cultural revival of certain neighborhoods, serving as both a tourist attraction and a benefactor for local businesses. Yet in this coveted market, the sense of insurgence and rebellion that once defined street art has been lost. Perhaps no one has had as much of a front-row seat to these changes as revered New York street artist Lady Pink.
Lady Pink is one of New York City’s most prolific street artists with a storied background behind her. Born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, she spent her early days as an artist tagging subway cars parked in parts of the Bronx in 1979. As an adult, she shifted her focus to painting murals across the city, when she became known for distinct art style. Her work is as scintillating as it is provocative; evoking symbols of inequality, justice, and social change amidst a throng of bright colors.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Pink on Valentine’s Day over a Skype call; thoroughly discussing many of the topics that I had previously written about. She called me from the comfort of her home in upstate New York, wearing her long black hair down and, naturally, a pink sweater. While I was initially unsure of how to address her, she laughed and said to me, “call me Pink.” She then explained to me the origins of her name, which was given to her by her brigade of fellow graffiti bombers. “Since I was the only female painting in that group, they decided that I should have a feminine sounding name,” she said. “‘Pink’ is as feminine as you can get. And then I added ‘Lady’ to it, because in high school we were royalty.”
Ms. Pink had always been aware of her raw talent as an artist, even at an early age. “My middle school teacher encouraged me to start a portfolio, and then I enrolled in the [High School of Arts & Design], where I had to pick a major,” she said. “I chose architecture because my dad was an architect in Ecuador, and so were my brothers, so I thought I would do that too.” However, adolescent restlessness got the best of her. “There’s a lot of math involved in architecture, and at 16, that was too boring and rigid for me,” she recalled. “I wanted to be wild, free, and running amok in train yards, instead of drafting and making mathematical equations.” While tagging, Ms. Pink and her comrades would paint their names across subway cars, earning them recognition across the five boroughs. “That was literally the name of the game, to get your name across the subway cars and be recognized,” she explained. “You could go to any borough and basically be a celebrity. What kid doesn’t want that?!”
A young Lady Pink drew her inspiration in both historical and modern figures, one of which is legendary Irish pirate Anne Bonny. “Back in the day, graffiti bombers used to think of ourselves as pirates, because we didn’t ask anyone permission to paint, we just did it,” she shared. “Anne Bonny was such an inspiration to me because she was a strong woman doing her thing among a bunch of guys.” Ms. Pink also found inspiration in the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, an American modernist painter known best for her depictions of flowers, New York skyscrapers, and landscapes. Her influence on Ms. Pink’s work is highly perceptible; the two artists share the same affinity for bright colors that ebb and flow into one another. Ms. Pink was especially awe-struck after her paintings hung in the same gallery as O’Keeffe’s in 1985. Although she did not ever get to meet her, Ms. Pink spoke highly of her artistic heroine: “she’s definitely one of the most unique figures in American art history.”
After the subway cars were scrubbed down, it became obvious to Ms. Pink that she had to graduate to a more mature and sustainable way to practice art. The street art scene began to shift into a “post-graffiti” mode wherein former graffiti bombers were able to make a living as a bona fide artist. Ms. Pink accredits her success to her fellow taggers, who helped her get off the ground. “What I really wanted was to be running around with my younger friends in subway trains in the middle of the night, but the guys I was running with as a teenager told me to do something more grown-up so I could make a living,” she reminiscences. “They knew how to handle galleries and exhibit above ground, so they trained me and having that knowledge helped me get my work out there.” From that point on, it became very easy for Ms. Pink to gain notoriety in the New York art scene. Her distinctly vivid and poignant art style, coupled with her savvy confidence in her works, took her out of the subway stations and into some of the finest museums in New York City.
At the time Ms. Pink began her career, New York City was still reeling from the economic collapse and rampant crime of the 1970’s. The art scene was dominated by countercultural icons, including graffiti bombers, punk rockers, and drag queens, who were all able to flourish in underground scenes. When I asked Ms. Pink about how different the street art scene today was, she simply said, “there’s none of that same kind of spontaneous energy coming out of the ashes anymore because the city is gentrified.” Her observation has also translated to the art scene: graffiti bombing and tagging has become less popular among growing neighborhoods and has largely been replaced with innocuous, aesthetically pleasing image-based murals painted by professional artists. However, instead of entirely denouncing the process of gentrification, she takes a more passive approach. She claims that “everything that is underground and grassroots does eventually go above ground; it gets watered down, diluted, and sold to the masses.” She supports artists that take commissioned jobs for city developers and real estate contractors, as they are able to earn a living doing what they love. “By producing these murals, these are some of the few times that the artist is able to maintain the integrity of their style,” she said. “I’ve been doing commissioned jobs for 30 years, and I always encourage other artists to come out and hustle to get these kinds of gigs.”
Despite the breadth of opportunities available for street artists to land commissioned work, there are few places left for them to legally and freely paint for their own enjoyment. For Ms. Pink, the wounds are still fresh from the shutdown of 5 Pointz in Long Island City in 2013, where she had a large piece on display. A former factory turned open-air mural space, 5 Pointz was owned by Jerry Wolkoff, who controversially decided to shut down the graffiti mecca in order to sell the property and build condominiums. Six days after he announced that 5 Pointz would be shutting down, Wolkoff secretly had all of the walls buffed and covered with white paint, violating the Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA) Law of 1990 Ms. Pink was one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit against him. “Mr. Wolkoff was under the direction of a judge to give the artists time to remove their work, but in the middle of the night, under police protection, he had all of our work whited out and destroyed,” she explained. “He said it was to ‘save us the pain of watching our work going under the wrecking ball,’ but you could still see the ghosts of the art under the white paint. It was absolutely destroyed.”
The court case took approximately five years to complete. In February 2018, the judge awarded approximately $7 million to the artists whose work had been destroyed, including Ms. Pink, who shared the process of the arduous and often hurtful court hearings with me. “Mr. Wolkoff was a jerk. Not only did he disrespect and devalue our work, in court, he talked about us like we were nobodies, that we were trash, and we were worthless,” she recalled. “It’s difficult to hear yourself being talked about in court like that, but it’s also hard to prove, because some of my paintings are sitting in the finest museums in New York.” She expresses gratitude for the VARA Laws for creating a case for the protection of her work: “Those laws state that the street artist owns the graffiti. Not even the landlord of a building can paint over your work without your permission,” she explained. “My piece on the 5 Pointz building was copyrighted. So just because your work is public, doesn’t mean that the public owns it.”
Ms. Pink is still quite an active artist; the day before our interview she had done a 20 x 20 installation at Ramapo College. “I’m always taking on new projects, new gigs, exhibits, and mentoring programs,” she said. “I’m always creating.” Whether it is for her own personal enjoyment or a commissioned job, she handles all of her works with great care and attention. Her personal favorite piece is titled “Queen Matilda,” which portrays an enormous woman made out of brick with a bustling city at her feet. Inspired by the Christiana commune of Denmark, Ms. Pink magnificently imagines a lawless society surrounded by mayhem. It is filled with open air markets, uniquely designed homes, and a robust transportation system. It is imaginative of what a society may look like without harsh bureaucratic oversight. “I must have spent six to eight months working on it, which is the longest I’ve ever spent working on any piece,” she stressed. “It broke my heart to sell it, but I was offered a ridiculous amount of money for it while I was exhibiting, so I did part with it.”
Ms. Pink spends much of her free time engaging in mentorship for young artists, especially for young women. “I’ve been able to be a role model for thousands of young women around the world who look up to me,” she explained. “I take that responsibility very seriously.” We concluded our interview with some parting advice for young artists: in her own words, “get out there and hustle, hustle, hustle.” She asserts that raw talent alone is not enough in order to be a successful artist; one must learn to market themselves in a highly competitive industry. “I’ve seen many of my very talented friends fall off the wayside because of business conflicts,” she recalled. “It’s important to learn how to do invoices, learn how to price yourself, learn your value.”
Lady Pink’s reputation precedes her. She has rightfully earned her position as one of the leading figures in street art history, but not without a significant history behind her. Through learning to hustle and navigate the art business, she created a name for herself beyond the train yards through her distinct, vivid art style and penchant for politics. While the name “Lady” may have been given to her by friends, she has certainly earned the royalty status over time.
Claire del Sorbo is a senior at Fordham University’s undergraduate college, studying digital technology and emerging media and women’s studies. She has studied the political messages of street graffiti in the Bronx in collaboration with the Bronx River Art Collective, and has also participated in a dialogue titled “The Graffiti of Gentrification” with BRAC. Her area of academic study focuses on social media as a tool of constructing dialogues among members of society who are frequently pushed to the margins.