Interview by Roger Gastman
The day I interviewed pioneering female writer and artist LADY PINK she had just had the cement poured for the foundation of her first freestanding art studio, located in the backyard of her new home in upstate New York. PINK and her husband SMITH fled the city after spending their entire lives there. She was overworked and had not taken time off in years. Being upstate, surrounded by trees and greenery, with a lifetime of inspiration from city life to draw on is just what PINK needed to start the next chapter of her life.
One of the most interesting things to me is you’ve had a studio practice since you were in high school.
I sold my first painting when I was 16 years old for $500, out of a show I was in at the New Museum. Then I got to go visit my painting in some rich lady’s house on the Upper West Side. She was a lovely woman, and what a gorgeous apartment she had. That was the first time I saw a rich person’s apartment, and I said, “I want this when I grow up.”
What was her attitude like toward you? You were a 16-year-old girl at this point. A rich lady to you could be 35 years old.
I don’t have too much memory of it. There was a lot of warmth and love. She believed in us collectively as a culture that was up and coming. She bought the painting out of the New Museum. When it’s in a space like that, it sanctifies it and says, “This is art. It’s in our museum.” People believe it. It was an orchid with spray paint with all purples and 6 feet tall. You didn’t have to love graffiti per se to just love the painting itself.
People told me the painting looked like a Georgia O’Keeffe. At 16 I had no idea who Georgia O’Keeffe was. Henry Chalfant showed me a book of her work. There were some flowers and orchids that looked a lot like mine. It was an uncanny coincidence.
The first painting you sold is of orchids, and through the years it seems like a theme has emerged, even in your commercial work, of flowers, plants, the jungle . . .
Yes. My mom comes from the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador and I lived there as a child. My grandpa owned a sugarcane plantation in the Amazon rain forest. As a kid I ran around climbing trees like a monkey in the rain forest. I killed my first snake at the age of 5 with my bare feet. I’ve always had lots of pets, lots of houseplants and a garden when I could. I’ve always grown my own tomatoes. I’ve got SMITHY planting and gardening now also.
Now that we’re in the country I have my own fenced-in little vegetable garden going, more houseplants and an aviary for my birds that are flying loose inside a room. They have little nest boxes and perches and they make babies and they’re happy. I’ve had birds for 35 years.
You surround yourself with a lot of the things that end up in your paintings.
Absolutely. I have so many houseplants. Now I’m down to two cats, but before, when SMITHY married me I had three dogs, a big iguana and birds flying all over the house. It was a house full of critters and he still married me.
The first thing everyone wants to say about you is “LADY PINK is a female graffiti artist and she painted subway trains” over and over. You’re so much more than that, though.
Those are my origins and part of my education. But I am so much more than that. After most people graduate from college they don’t continue calling you a college student — I have grown up from just being a subway painter. But they continue to call us graffiti writers, like that is the sum of all our parts. It’s taken me 37 years, and I still explain that I am much more than that.
I’m very versatile. I can do all kinds of different art and I have to survive. I don’t consider myself a graffiti writer. This is a label that’s imposed on me. I haven’t done illegal graffiti in decades. But fine, you want to call me a street artist? Graffiti artist? A hip-hop icon? A feminist? Whatever. These are titles other people give me. I don’t live by them. There’s no way.
What came first, making studio art or graffiti?
In middle school I was already a very creative kid. My middle school teacher, Mr. Robbins, convinced me to build a portfolio to get into art high school. I got accepted by two art high schools, but I went to the High School of Art and Design. I majored in architecture. When I started painting on trains, I could do outlines, I could do pieces. I was one of the first and few females that could do pieces. There were a lot of females that wrote through the 1970s, and I never claimed to be the first.
At 16, I started my career on subway trains and in gallery exhibits. CRASH was organizing an exhibit at Fashion MODA, in December of 1980, and all the best guys were in it. CRASH was scouting for a female to be in it also. He knew KEL and his little brother MARE, who went to school with me, so word got out that there was a female in the high school that did graffiti. CRASH came to meet me and invited me to be in the show. He’d never even seen my work. I was still a little toy. I was like, “Oh my god. How am I going to do this?”
LEE took me under his wing and helped me with my first painting for the Fashion MODA show. He outlined it for me. I was too scared to . . . especially when those guys are staring at you.
Trains were an important part of your life, and something you did. But by no means should they define you.
Trains should not define me. But they were an important part of my education that gave me a backbone. It taught me confidence. It taught me how to work under immense pressure, with your knees shaking and rats around your feet. Your heart’s in your throat and you’re freezing cold. At any moment you could get arrested. That kind of pressure you can’t teach. Trains were like a boot camp for artists that gave us confidence that has taken us throughout life. They don’t teach you that in college.
It made me who I am. Over the years we’ve hired different artists to work for us doing murals. Those artists that come out of college are just kind of different animals completely. The only other artists that work well with us is other street artists and graffiti artists. When we hire them they’re fast, they’re quick, they’re no-nonsense, they have no fear. Those little wimpy artists coming out of college, they’re as slow as molasses. Maybe their portfolios are extremely kick-ass but you put them in the field on a deadline — “Hurry up and paint!” — and they wimp out. Not like hardy graffiti artists. They just dive right in, no fear. Fucking reckless.
You’re all for the school of the streets?
I would say that it helps, but I’m not knocking college. There’s a lot of fields you should go to college for. But for fine arts, for street art, you need to be out in the field. You need to work under pressure and deadlines that come with big jobs. You’ve got to work fast. You’ve got to be no-nonsense and not get emotional about the work.
There’s been a lot of other artists that are hardy other than graffiti writers. Plein-air artists that paint standing in an icy stream doing oil paintings of a snow scene or something like that. These people are crazy hardy. Artists that went to battles and drew battle scenes. That’s crazy too. Anyway, we’re not the only tough ones. They’ve been out there.
You have a history, though, of working in communities, teaching mural workshops, mentoring and lecturing at schools. Is it a goal to pass on the lessons you’ve learned?
It all started when I married SMITHY and we considered having kids. I decided, “Let’s work with kids. That way we’ll get to know children and decide if we want to have some of our own.” New York teenagers are a handful and that scared us off from having kids altogether. I went to the nearest school, asked for a wall, asked for their kids and art teacher. That started my career of working with teenagers and handing down the craft, which I’ve always believed was important. Mentoring young people and nurturing talent when you see it.
I’ve worked for 12-plus years with the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, in my neighborhood in Queens. I painted big murals with the kids and worked up designs and got them to do their own designs on big walls, which is what kids love to do. They love to paint out in public. They don’t like getting arrested nearly as much. Providing them that kind of space, that kind of knowledge.
It’s fun nurturing kids. It’s the most rewarding work that I do. When you make a change in the kids’ lives and you give them that kind of life experience, where they believe that they can also be successful artists instead of doing something safe like becoming a lawyer or an accountant like their parents want them to be. They trek on and become artists. If they see that with my unconventional beginning I could be a successful artist, then they believe it too.
When I nurture these kids and help them build portfolios and get them full scholarships to universities — $50,000 for Parsons or NYU or any of those amazing schools — there is nothing more rewarding than that. Seeing them go on to be successful artists and proud artists even though they’re not my kids.
You’ve said you don’t like to be defined as a feminist artist, yet women appear in so much of your work. Is that one of the reasons that term is so attached to you?
The truth of the matter is girls are just easier to draw. They’re round. They’re curvaceous. Guys have got these muscles; they’re all over the place. I don’t know where they go. I can’t draw men very well. It’s just as simple as that.
The fact that I’ve been labeled as a feminist, it’s not my own doing. I’ve just gone about my business doing my thing, living equally, the same way that guys go about doing their business. I’ve always believed in that kind of equality and standing up for myself, not putting up with that nonsense. But so be it. I will be that. I’ll take it. I’m labeled a feminist? That’s fine. I’ve always admired other strong women.
I think I was influenced by the ’70s feminist movement without really knowing it. It was in Charlie’s Angels. They were my heroes. They were feminine and they kicked ass and they got their job done. Pop culture infiltrates a teenager easily.
You’re not sitting there trying to push a theme of feminism or anything like that?
Not at all. I’m not a militant feminist. I believe in equality and I have that with my marriage. I have two sisters; they married Latin guys and there is not so much equality there. Their husbands were king of the household. I just go about my business doing my thing. I do empower other women, but I don’t do man bashing like I did early on.
In my 20s I lived with a woman and I did a lot of man bashing. I was a little bit more militant about my feminist views then. There’s only so much you can take with men being overpowering. Or being surrounded by the boys’ club with so much testosterone. I think it was a backlash. But I totally love men now. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry I did man bashing once in a while. I think early in my marriage I’d catch myself saying something sexist about men, and he’d be like, “Hey-oh.” I think I’ve gotten out of that habit.
Maybe that was just part of growing up too, and something you went through?
Yeah. I totally never swung the other way completely. I always had boyfriends on the side. But I guess maybe the feminist in me, early on, that was a backlash.
You’ve been asked probably everything possible about Wild Style. You’re partially defined by that movie and became an actress.
Yes, and it was my only stint being an actress, where you have dialogue and scenes. It was the most dreadfully difficult work I’ve done. We didn’t take the movie seriously at the time. There was so much going on — documentaries, books, traveling and exhibits. Every other day there was something.
We would just roll out of bed and start filming. We chucked the dialogue out the window and we made up our own dialogue as we went. No one knew that it would go anywhere. No one imagined that it would still be here. I had the most terrible little Latin accent in Wild Style.
Wild Style did put your face everywhere in the world and still does.
It launched everyone into the limelight around the world from corner to corner. It cemented me as a hip-hop icon. On the reverse, it stereotyped me as a hip-hop icon. There seems to be the myth that I’m into hip-hop. I beg to differ. I am not into hip-hop. I listen to different music. I don’t dress hip-hop. I don’t follow the attitude. I don’t know what exactly hip-hop is, but maybe I’m in denial. Maybe I am hip-hop.
Wild Style stereotypes me as hip-hop. I get invited to hip-hop events still to this day. When I explain my perspective, that I don’t feel that I am hip-hop, everyone is very welcoming for the opposing view. Graffiti was around a little longer than hip-hop. We shan’t be defined as being the background art to the music and the dancers and all the other entertainers. We’re not that. Graffiti and hip-hop made a crossover and was packaged neatly for the corporations and the marketing to sell it to the masses. This now became a solid subculture. There’s the dance. There’s the art. There’s the music. The fashion. The lingo. It’s all together. Now you can market it. Now you can sell it.
But I can’t fault it for that, because everything underground does go above ground eventually. I’m glad that we were part of it, and we do still get to control the integrity of our culture. It was a good thing and a bad thing. I’m stereotyped as a one-trick pony, that I’m just a little hip-hop groupie. But if they call you an icon for anything, I’ll take it!
What music did you listen to growing up, then?
I grew up with Latin and African-American people. We listened to funk and disco. I danced the Hustle. I was very good at it. Twirling and swinging — you’d throw me through the air like a little doll. That’s the music I listened to.
The other camp — the Caucasian people who dressed in flannel and rock ’n’ roll T-shirts — we didn’t hang out with. I didn’t listen to rock ’n’ roll. I didn’t know who Led Zeppelin was. I didn’t know who Pink Floyd was.
I didn’t get to know Caucasian people well until I was in my 20s. They loved rock ’n’ roll, and that is what I listen to now. The woman I was living with was very, very white. I got to know the white-people world. Now I married white, so it’s all good. I live upstate now and there’s no colored people at all. I’m surrounded by white folks everywhere. It’s OK.
Now you’re talking to one too.
It’s all right. I’ve assimilated. I don’t miss my culture much.
Jenny Holzer — how does that collaboration happen?
Jenny Holzer is one of the original street artists. She postered her “Truisms” around downtown. She dug me out of somewhere and phoned me up. I went down to meet her. She proposed that we do collaborative paintings and let me have the freedom of painting whatever I wanted. Then she would ponder on the paintings and apply one of her Truisms to them. It was never premeditated. We did well over a dozen pieces together.
Then of course there’s that famous photo of you wearing the Truism shirt in Times Square [touting the slogan “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”].
There was a free Diana Ross concert in Central Park and when it was over the crowd mobbed Times Square. Four people got stabbed and dozens of people got robbed. It was just a running mob. Myself and the photographer Lisa Kahane got surrounded by the mob while we were taking shots. They were eyeballing all the camera equipment. I knew they were going to rob her. Just then a hand reached out and snatched my chain off my neck. I grabbed the photographer, we pushed through the crowd and dove into the nearest taxi and got away before they could rob her.
That photo pops up over and over through the years. It always seems so timely, no matter when it is.
It keeps coming around. It’s very popular and never loses its power. It’s timeless.
You are a model in the photo. You’re not just a girl with your head down like, “Camera, get away from me.” You’ve had your photo taken a lot.
I was pushed into the limelight early on. Not because of my looks or talent, but because I was eloquent and I knew how to show up on time. I was easy to work with and agreeable and always there. I stepped up to every challenge. Everything. Documentary? Book? Fine. Film? OK.
Acting and speaking in front of a giant audience is the scariest thing in the world. We are visual artists. We’re quiet artists. You don’t even see us paint most of the time. But now I have had to do lectures at universities and schools with hundreds and hundreds of people sitting in the audience waiting for me to say intelligent things. I’ve had to step up. For the photography and all of that, I’ve been trained since I was a teenager, like a child model. This is what I do. I pose for photos. I do sound checks. I do all of this. You never imagine that this would come with visual arts. You’re just a painter. But you also have to learn how to speak and represent. That’s how you get ahead. It’s not just about the pretty pictures.
Available now on our store is the LADY PINK Limited Edition Montana Spray Paint Can
Images shown from top to bottomLady Pink with Fresh Tag Inside Car, 3 Yard, Harlem, 1982 Photo © Martha Cooper
The Death of Graffiti 3, 2018 Acrylic on CANVAS, 72ʺ × 72ʺ
Urban Decay, acrylic on canvas 2008, 72” × 48”