PRAY – Beyond The Streets


Written by Jayson Edlin

The graffiti movement emerged as an illegal, property-devaluing act of rebellion, giving voice to a previously silent segment of urban youth as they staked their claim clandestinely with markers and stolen spray paint. In 1972, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, drugs, poverty and inner-city decay sowed the seeds for a civil war, one whose armies weren’t defined by borders but by generations. It was young vs. old on the city streets — trashing the values of our parents, replacing hate with love, war with peace and liquor with mind-expanding chemicals.

Against this backdrop in NYC, one writer — who would never refer to herself as such — appeared to break all the rules. She didn’t write her name or care about fame. She operated independently and was seldom encountered; sightings of her by conventional writers were reported with the same reverence as the spotting of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. She invented “scratchiti” long before it became a modern writer’s last resort. PRAY — a message, not a name — appeared everywhere during this time, along with similar devotional directives, such as GO TO CHURCH, READ BIBLE, WORSHIP GOD and JESUS SAVES. Subliminal yet impossible to miss, her handiwork appeared in signature spots throughout the city above and below ground: scratched into pay-phone coin boxes, red subway vending machines selling Bit-O-Honey bars and Turkish Taffy and almost
every station pillar.

At this late date, the early days of the movement have been well documented, and the Internet has converted graffiti into a single global yard, enabling forgotten subway painters of the past to reunite with their brethren at Old Timers events and gallery openings. The culture’s few remaining mysteries have been solved like an information-dripping faucet; mystiques exploded as each withered face replaces a version conjured from a painted name. Yet PRAY remains an enigma.

What we know is that the barrage of religious-themed graffiti covering New York City during the ’70s and ’80s can be attributed to an elderly Caucasian “shopping-bag lady” known as “PRAY,” based on anecdotal reports from graffiti writers of the time.

Tales of her are just that, tales. No writer who ever saw her did more than gawk and watch from afar. (Revered 1970s writer LSD OM spotted her in action twice, once in ’72 and again in ’77, but never thought to engage her.)Rather than view her as competition, her contemporaries saw her as a unique player on the scene and simply respected her accomplishments. The best part of her story remains the unknown.

Trying to track PRAY even by police records seems like an impossible feat, according to TRIKE, a 1970s-era Brooklyn writer who is now a high-ranking law-enforcement official. “Cops would have ignored her,” he says. “They didn’t bust vagrants in the ’70s. They’d look stupid bringing in an old lady for a crime like writing and wouldn’t want to face the embarrassment.”

More fascinating than what we know about this elusive outlier is what
we don’t:

• What year did she start and why?
• What was her legal name?
• Where did she live?
• Did she have children?
• Was she ever arrested?
• Did she write all of the sayings widely attributed to her on her own or did she have help? (A family member? An outlaw church group?)
• When did she stop?
• When did she die?

PRAY achieved the kind of recognition that every graffiti writer strives for without seeking it. Using a key, a drywall screw, a skinny-tipped black marker and in rare cases a can of spray paint, she spread the word of God more effectively than the Pope on the streets of New York. Roaming the city like a greasy nun, repping a deity instead of a crew, she chose anonymity over fame, faith over finance. Nobody knew her and everyone knew of her. In a sense, PRAY won the game without ever knowing she had played it. Commonly used platitudes such as legend and pioneer don’t begin to describe PRAY’s contribution to illegal writing. Today she occupies the hallowed ground of myth, as much a part of New York City’s vanishing underbelly as squeegee men or three-card-monte dealers.