By Claire Del Sorbo
So, first I’m interested in hearing how you came up with your name.
My friends, who I started to write on subway trains with, decided that because I was the only female in the city to be painting with their group, thought that I should have a female name, so that they would also be noticed for having the only female in their group. So [Pink] is as feminine as you can get, and then I titled myself “Lady,” because in high school we were royalty.
Yes, I bet your reputation preceded you. Now, I’m wondering how working in such a male-dominated environment shaped your work and how you learned to deal with such a masculine energy as
I was actually not one of the first woman to be bombing subway cars! There were dozens of females who started tagging about a decade before me. That’s how it works, they spend a couple of years bombing subway cars, and then they move on with life. They hadn’t graduated to doing much more than tagging or simple things like that. At the time that I came around in the early 80’s, the scene was blowing up above ground, with films, books, documentaries, exhibits, and galleries. I was around at the right time, and I was in the limelight a lot because my work was more presentable. The guys I was taking up with were the elite of the graffiti movement. They had already achieved great status by the mid-70’s and were now in their early 20’s, and felt that they needed a token female, and I was the only one they could get. The group of guys that I was rolling with treated me like their little sister; they treated me with a lot of support and acceptance; not as much hostility as you would expect. I got to exhibit with them and travel with them, I did a lot of things that a kid my age would never expect. There was a lot of sexism in that time, but I got to know the right people. It wasn’t just the girls in the 70’s who were screaming “girl power,” the boys I was with were feeling that as well.
There has certainly been a lot that has changed since then. How do you think the street art scene and the city in general has changed since you first started out?
When I first started out, the city was still reeling from being a wreck in the 70’s. It was out of money, it was full of crime and chaos. You can’t get that same kind of spontaneous energy coming out of the ashes anymore because the city is gentrified. It was up to the teenagers to create artwork, music, and dance, and visuals, all from unschooled people from grassroots movements. People from all over the world come to New York City expecting to see that energy and chaos, although it’s nothing like it was back then in the 70’s and early 80’s.
And you got your start by tagging in the Bronx?
Yes, I would go and paint there because that’s where they parked the trains, but I’m actually from Queens!
“ Mr. Wolkoff disrespected and devalued our work, he was trying to prove that we were nobodies and that we were worthless. It’s difficult to hear yourself being talked about like that in court, that you’re nobody, you’re trash, but that is also difficult to prove, because many of my paintings are sitting in some of the finest museums in New York.”
Speaking of Queens, that’s where I wanted to go next. What are your thoughts on the shutdown of Long Island City’s 5 Pointz in 2013? For some people, the wound from that is still fresh.
I was one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Mr. [Jerry] Wolkoff that awarded us $7 million dollars. I had a piece up there when the building was taken down. Mr. Wolkoff was under the direction from a judge not to white out any of the artist’s work; because of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) Law of 1990, the artists had to be given the opportunity to remove their work. Six days later, in the middle of the night, under police protection, the walls were all buffed, even when the judge told him not to do that. He said that it was to “save us the pain of watching our work go under the wrecking ball.” You could still see the ghosts of artwork under the white paint; it was absolutely destroyed. The court case took about five years, and just a few months ago, the judge gave us the win. Mr. Wolkoff disrespected and devalued our work, he was trying to prove that we were nobodies and that we were worthless. It’s difficult to hear yourself being talked about like that in court, that you’re nobody, you’re trash, but that is also difficult to prove, because many of my paintings are sitting in some of the finest museums in New York.
That experience sounds horrible, but more importantly, it raises the question of “who owns street art?” Is it the artist’s property, or is it the city’s property? Who can lay claim to it at the end of the day?
That’s exactly what the VARA Law states, that the street artist owns the graffiti. Not even the landlord of a building can paint over your work without your permission. My piece on the 5 Pointz building was copyrighted. Just because that your work in is the public doesn’t mean that the public owns it. People walk by and take photos and then they think they can claim it, that they can put it on a t-shirt or a book, or print it and put it up in a gallery. They can’t do that. If you take a picture of a street artist’s work, that makes you in collaboration with them. If both people are not sharing the profits, that’s infringement. This has happened to us a few times; rich people take photos of our work and they put it in books, even pieces that have a clear copyright on them. If any corporations, advertising agencies, and film companies that have street art in their shots, ads, or films, they need to get the artist’s permission to have it in there. I sign off on all kinds of projects left and right asking to use my murals in films, television, and advertising. I thank them for the respect of seeking out the artist because many of them don’t know that they have to do that. Nowadays especially, it’s not that hard to get the artists to sign off on it. Recently, I saw one of my murals in Orange is the New Black, and they didn’t get me to sign off on it. I was very upset about it, but because I like the show, I let it slide.
That’s a very necessary protection that artists need to have. In a similar token, I’d like to know what your opinion is on real estate companies who commission street artists to paint murals on the sides of their buildings, almost to create a pseudo-bohemian atmosphere in a neighborhood. That’s very common in gentrified areas such as the East Village and Williamsburg. Do you have any thoughts on it?
I say, all the more power to the artist. I’m happy that they’re earning a living and being paid what they’re worth. Everything that is underground and grassroots does eventually go above ground; it gets watered down, diluted, and sold to the masses. But by producing these murals, these are some of the few times that the artist gets to maintain the integrity of their style, and they’re able to earn a living for it. They don’t have to have a day job to support their artistic talents, so yes, commissioned jobs are all the rage. I’ve been doing them for 30 years, and I always encourage other artists to come out and hustle so they can land mural jobs. I will take whatever commission meets my budget.
Very true, it’s important for artists to get out there and make a living for themselves. And since you’ve been out there for so long, have you observed the way graffiti bombers and muralists interact with each other? Is it more competitive or amicable?
Yeah, I have. There’s not a lot of peace between the graffiti bombers and the street artists. Muralists come out and paint and they have street credibility, but it’s all about the name. You can come out of college and paint all you want, but if nobody knows you, you’re not going to get any respect. Your work is going to be covered up by taggers. But you know, if you keep painting and getting your name out there, you can almost be assured that the graffiti bombers aren’t going to tag your art, because then you’ve earned respect, you’ve got street cred.
Yes, I’m sure you’ve earned a lot of street cred over your career. Can you take me back to your earlier days and tell me what Lady Pink was like starting out?
I just fell into this. I’ve always had talent as a kid; my middle school teacher encouraged me to start a portfolio, and then I enrolled it art high school. In art high school, you had to pick a major, and mine was in architecture. My dad was an architect in Ecuador and so were my brothers, so I thought I would do that too. There’s a lot of math involved in architecture, and at 16, that was too boring and rigid for me. I wanted to be wild, free, colorful, and running amok in train yards, instead of drafting and making mathematical equations. I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist. Even when we were painting trains, we were wondering what we wanted to be when we grew up. Art school wasn’t working out as well as I thought, and college was probably not in the cards either. But when you see the ridiculous amounts of money people are willing to pay you for the same stuff you were just doing for fun, it’s a no-brainer. The older guys I was working with as a teenager trained me handle galleries and exhibit above ground. What I really wanted was to be running around with my younger friends in subway trains in the middle of the night, but those guys told me to do something more grown-up so I could make a living. So, I learned the trade of how to exhibit and get my work out there.
That’s important as an artist, learning how to hustle and get yourself out there so you can make a name for yourself. Now, I’d like to ask you how you think your art has changed from your days painting subway cars to presenting in galleries across the city.
When I first started out doing subway graffiti, we were all just painting our names, so we would get name recognition. That was the name of the game, to get recognition city-wide by painting your names on the subways. You could go to any borough and basically be a celebrity. What kid doesn’t want that? So, after the subway cars would get scrubbed down, a lot of us started to branch off in different directions, exploring our own styles. Some people are more abstract like Picasso, or more vivid like Lichtenstein. I already had some drawing talent, so I could do a lot more than just my name. Through my early 20’s, a lot of my paintings were coming-of-age. I was becoming more aware of the world and its impact on me. I got more illustrative; I did paintings that told little stories about the injustices of the world. I was exploring a little bit more than just myself. At first, I was like, “look at me!” and everyone was looking at me, but then I had to find more to say. My work just got wildly outrageous and political.
“ You need to learn your own value as an artist to make any kind of money. So, in summary, know your value, know the business, because it’s more than just having talent. You have to believe in yourself too. Get out there and hustle, hustle, hustle. “
You mentioned that some of the artists you worked with were influenced by Picasso and Lichtenstein. Were there any artists that were particularly influential to you and your work? If so, who are they?
I’ve been inspired by so many different artists, but when I was painting at 16, someone told me that my work looked like Georgia O’Keeffe’s. I didn’t know who she was at that age, but someone put a book in front of me about her work and I was in love. I love Georgia O’Keeffe, I love her personality and her lifestyle. That woman was amazing, she’s definitely one of our most unique figures in American art history. I got to exhibit with her around 1985. My paintings hung in the same gallery as Georgia O’Keeffe’s! I didn’t get to meet her because she was in her 90’s at the time, but she was one of my earliest inspirations, among others like Rembrandt and Picasso. But another one of my inspirations was Anne Bonney, a real female pirate who lived in the 18th century. Back in the day, graffiti bombers used to think of themselves as pirates, because we didn’t ask anyone for permission, we just painted. We didn’t kill anyone, of course, but we just took what we wanted. So Anne Bonney was a pirate; she was the daughter of a governor in the South, eventually just took off to go pirating. Around 1721 when all the pirates were captured, she managed to escape prison and disappear to the West. That itself was an inspiration to me, a strong woman doing her thing like that. Luckily for me, I’ve been able to be a role model for thousands of young women around the world who look up to me in that way. I take that responsibility very seriously, so I always try to encourage and mentor young women around the world.
That’s wonderful to hear! Young artists definitely need a role model to steer them in a good path. But in terms of your path, what’s next for you?
I’m always creating art, I’m always taking on new projects, gigs, jobs, exhibits, and mentoring. I live in upstate New York now, I’ve got a house and a studio here, and I’ve got a young man who comes in a few days out of the week to help me catch up on my emails. I just can’t type it all out myself. I’m also painting, though. Just yesterday I was doing an installation at Ramapo College; a 20 by 20 wall. Thank goodness I have an assistant, so I don’t have to deal with computer stuff. I hate that. But yes, I’m always busy, always working.
Yes, the artist’s work is never truly done. Now, I’d like to ask you: what’s your favorite piece that you’ve ever painted?
That’s a lot like asking me to pick a favorite child! [laughs] But I think I do have a favorite, and it’s my “Queen Matilda.” It’s a brick woman with a city around her feet, there’s subway trains and graffiti everywhere. There’s bits and pieces of New York City everywhere, and a little piece from Copenhagen, Denmark, called Christiana. It’s a lawless little bit of town; the police don’t even go there and you can build your house however you want, like a teapot or a Viking house. There’s an open air market and everyone is painting on the streets. Everything is going on peacefully, there’s no crime or anything like that, because there’s no police. I painted it like that; a city around her feet with all kinds of mayhem going on. I must have spent six to eight months working on it, which is the longest I’ve ever spent working on any piece. I was painting it for my own enjoyment and never though I would sell it, but I was exhibiting and was offered a ridiculous amount of money for it, so I did part with it. It broke my heart to sell it, but it was a labor of love. I poured my heart into it, so I think that might officially be my favorite piece.
That’s so lovely, thank you for sharing your personal experience with that piece. We’re almost at the end of the interview, so to conclude, what advice would you give for upcoming artists?
Here’s what I suggest: it’s about more than just having talent. It’s also about business. Over the decades, I’ve seen many of my very talented friends fall off the wayside and not prosper because of business conflicts. You have to learn how to handle that. If you’re going to school for art, you should still take business classes. Learn how to do invoices, learn how to price yourself, learn your value. That goes for artists, photographers, and any creative type. You need to learn your own value as an artist to make any kind of money. So, in summary, know your value, know the business, because it’s more than just having talent. You have to believe in yourself too. Get out there and hustle, hustle, hustle.
Thumbnail image by Lady Pink