In the Field With Lady Pink
Lady Pink was born in Ecuador and grew up in New York City; she now resides in the beautiful Hudson Valley city. The “First Lady of Graffiti” began painting in 1979, quickly proving herself to her male peers. She painted subway cars between 1979 and 1985.
In 1982, Pink, real name Sandra Fabara, made her acting debut in the groundbreaking movie Wild Style. The film centers around the four pillars of hip hop: MCing, deejaying, breakdancing, and graffiti. Her role in the movie “and her other significant contributions to graffiti have made her a cult figure in the hip-hop subculture.”
Pink sold her first painting when she was 15-years-old and has been featured in galleries worldwide. Her artwork has been hung in the Whitney Museum, and the MET in New York City, the Brooklyn Museum, the Groningen Museum of Holland, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview aired in its entirety on June 29, 2020, on 91.3 FM WVKR. Tune in every Monday at 10 PM EST. Outside the area? Listen via the TuneIn or Simple Radio app by searching WVKR.
Erin Boogie: Take us back to those early days. How did you get into painting?
Lady Pink: I got into graffiti, like any teenager did, by searching for fun and excitement and adventures and friends to hang out with. So, I started writing graffiti at the age of 15. When my very first boyfriend was arrested for writing graffiti around the streets and his family shipped him to go live in Puerto Rico with friends or with family. And at that age, he couldn't come back, and you have no money. You can’t fly back. So he was lost to me. I cried for a month and then started writing his name around the middle school. And his friends took me under their wing and taught me style because graffiti isn't just random letters. It's very, very specific fonts and letters and style that you have to practice and practice and practice before you can bring it out to prime time.
And then I started in the High School of Art and Design, which is in Midtown Manhattan in the middle of New York City and talented kids from every corner of New York City come there, you have to show a portfolio. You have to be certified talented to get into school, and that's where I met hundreds of kids that wrote graffiti. And then I met some of the bad boys that actually knew how to get into the subway yards. And it took me months of proving myself and pestering them and carrying on and annoying them to take me to the train yards, and they didn't want to because it's dangerous. This isn't just about art. This is just about doing vandalism. It's about getting up. It's about doing a crime. It's about breaking and entering, trespassing, learning how to lift your paint, you know, five-finger discount, learning how to steal and lie and have a double life so that your family and your teachers, no one knows that you are a criminal at night, like Zorro or something like that. I mean, it's a lot different than the entertainment part of hip hop, and the breakdancers and the rappers. Sure, they started off on the street corners and maybe stealing a little electricity from the lampposts to do their deejaying thing and all of that.
But all in all, we train vandals when we're training graffiti writers how to break into the subway system. How to move around like a Ninja, like a shadow, how to run from the police and evade the cops. The dancers, the entertainers, they're not really teaching the kids how to do that so much.
Erin Boogie: I wanted to ask you how dangerous it was painting back then on subway cars in the eighties. And not just because they were trains, but because that was like the tough on crime, New York City had a bad rap at that point. There was a whole campaign to stop the graffiti on the train cars. I can imagine that painting in the train yards and on some of the train bridges and stuff you guys painted on back then was dangerous. But the culture at the time was dangerous, too.
Lady Pink: Dangerous since the 1970s. So kids have already died doing it in all kinds of mishaps and mayhem. So we already knew that it was dangerous. From being electrocuted, from mystery circumstances when the cops get you, and all sorts of incidents like that. But even getting to the train yards, a little tiny thing like me out at midnight by myself to even go to the worst neighborhoods of New York City, at the ends of New York City, to meet up with my friends, that was dangerous enough. I used to pull out a knife and clean my nails with it. And then that would make them disappear.
And then, the danger started, because if somebody caught you out there on the train yard, the police were not there to help you, your mama was not there to help you. Bigger groups preyed on smaller groups because the easiest way to get spray paint is to take it from a baby. So, if you were young and you have no backup or support or connections, if you were a nobody, they'd come, and they take your knapsack of spray paint and maybe your coat and your sneakers if they were pretty. The tunnels got even scarier because some homeless people were sleeping down there, and they don't like to be disturbed. So, you shake a can of spray paint and hope they don't kill you. So it's pretty scary down there.
Erin Boogie: Your first tag was your boyfriend's name?
Lady Pink: Yes, it was. It was a boy’s name. So then my friends in high school decided that it was a boy’s name. It was Coke. And since I was going to be the only girl in a graffiti group, in any group in New York City, because there weren't any more girls writing. There had been in the 70s, but they all stopped and had grown up and got lives.
And then, there was me. So they felt I should have a girl’s name, and the word pink was very, very feminine because boys wouldn't take it. And the “K” kicked out, and you could do designs with it. And the “P” begins flat, so you could do designs before that as well, without destroying the letter and the “I” you could always start with a heart or a flower or something cute. So they said Pink was going to be my name. And I had to accept it. Fine. It was not my favorite color. It has since grown on me; since everyone gives me pink everything. And then I titled myself, Lady because I was a huge fan of reading historical romances as a kid. Reading about the European nobility and aristocracy and duke and duchess and lady and all of that. And in high school, we were royalty. We had the best table in the lunchroom. I snap my fingers, and kids would get me lunch. I’d snap my fingers and get a chair. I had it going on. I was the queen. I was royal. So the kids that didn't have it, they didn't even get seats. They'd just stand around in the fringes like the court. So it was fun. High school was fun. I know many people have terrible memories of high school, but I actually didn't go to class very much.
Erin Boogie: And you earned the name of the First Lady of Graffiti. What was your experience being the first well-known female painter?
Lady Pink: I was a teenager, and you know how kids just adapt so well to changing circumstances. One weekend, I'm in a tunnel, like a rat painting. Another weekend I'm in some fancy home of some rich person dolled up and silk and high heels and being fed liquor and drugs and all kinds of fun stuff. And hanging out with Keith Haring and Basquiat, and at 17, I'm at a party with Andy Warhol. So the life experiences at that age were just absolutely amazing. I didn't have time for my senior year of high school, as I was booked up with exhibits and traveling and in documentaries and films and photo shoots and all kinds of amazing, amazing things that were happening. And I was just rolling with it, just going with it, you know. It's exciting; it’s fun.
I was a natural at stepping up to the mic on media, so being pushed to the forefront of live television and interviews and all kinds because I was the more approachable one and not as scary as my little riff-raff friends were. They were a little scarier, a little shady and all, but I was more approachable. I did not come from the ghetto. I come from a good family, and I was raised in Queens, New York. Middle-class family, but in Ecuador, I come from an upper-middle-class family. My real dad in Ecuador was a Senator. And one of my uncles was governor of the Galapagos Islands for a while. So I come from a pretty decent family. So there wasn't too much of a reach for me to get along with the above-ground folk.
Erin Boogie: You could exist in both worlds.
Lady D: I could easily exist in both worlds. So I had manners. I had poise. I was eloquent. I was older beyond my years. You couldn't believe that I was only 16, 17 years old. So I got along well. I sold my first painting at the age of 15, and I couldn't believe folks are willing to give me so much money for the same nonsense I was doing on a subway train for free. We figured we’d ride this boat until it fizzles out and so on. Well, we figured it’s just a fad, everyone's selling paintings, we've got big bank accounts. We're just squandering it like kids do. But no, it just kept going.
Erin Boogie: Who are some of your influences?
Lady Pink: Wow. So, initially, we teach each other master to apprentice. Some of my influences were literally some of my friends from school, some masters who taught me. Somebody taught me style, lettering, and how to use spray paint. Another one taught me how to get into the train yards. Everyone teaches a little something to someone. So, seeing TC Five was my first master and my first teacher, followed by Doze and then Ernie. Those were my biggest influences. Some of the heroes I got to hang out with later like Lee [Quinones] and DONDI and Zephyr and Daze and Crash. Some of these friends I still know today, 40 years later. And they inspire me still every day. I follow them on Instagram.
There's a lot of women around the world. They say that I inspire them. I inspire them to start doing this, to begin with. But honestly, they inspire me more like MadC from Germany, like Fade 47 from South Africa, Shiro from Japan, Nikki from the Netherlands, and Nina from Brazil. And there's just so many. I could go on and on and on. I follow them on Instagram so I can see what they're doing, and it's like, “Oh, no, she did not paint a ten-story building!” I have to keep up with that. And they are just amazing. They're brilliant. They're fearless. They're reckless. They're my heroes. Shout out to a lot of the women around the world. Oh yes, Blue from Sweden. She was in New York for a little while, painting some giant penises. And then she's gone back to Sweden now, and she's painting giant vaginas again. I painted in Sweden last year, and I had to sign the contract that said I wasn't going to be painting vaginas, like Blue. She traumatized that entire country of Sweden. I swear to you,
Erin Boogie: Your graffiti has brought you all around the world. What's your favorite country to paint in?
Lady Pink: Oh, my goodness. That's a difficult one; I don't know. I don't know; there have been some good ones. Last year I went through Singapore and painted there, which was future world. And then I painted in Ecuador, which was amazing. Ukraine was also pretty awesome. I love painting in all of Europe because the audience, the people are so welcoming and so friendly. One of the funnest and best places I got to paint in was a little town within Denmark, within Copenhagen. It was called Christiania, and it was a self-contained community that the police did not go into. They had an open-air, hashish market. You can paint whatever walls you wanted. You can build your houses like a little teapot or a Viking house. There were no building codes. You can do whatever. And it was all very respectful, and the vibe was mellow and very cool. And we could just walk down the street, smoking a joint, painting a wall, and people having fun. And the police would not go in there and enforce any laws or anything like that. They'd let the people just handle it themselves. And they're so cool. So this was called Christiania and in the middle of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Erin Boogie: It sounds like a place I need to visit ASAP. Talk a little bit about your experience starring in Wild Style.
Lady Pink: That movie Wild Style was the very first movie that coined the phrase, I believe, “hip hop.” It was filmed in 1982. I was 16, 17 years old when the movie was made, and we didn't actually take it very seriously. The director, Charlie Ahearn, was just another friend hanging out in the scene. And then he's got a film crew following us around, and we're trying to make the silly movie, no one was taking it seriously. No one imagined that it would still be around 40 years later as a cult movie or something. But my goodness, if we'd have known that, we would've asked for acting coaches, wardrobe, makeup, you know, all kinds of other little frills that you take for granted in most movies. This was a real low budget film.
Everyone in there was a real graffiti writer, a real breakdancer, a real rapper, real muggers. There are two guys in there with the sawed-off shotgun. Those are real muggers from the Bronx. That's a real shotgun right there. Everything was completely real and raw and very, very pure. And folks love it for that because the next movie that came out was Beat Street by Harry Belafonte. And then Hollywood had been then diluted it and washed it down for the mainstream audiences. But no, Wild Style was very pure. I have just very few impressions of that. You know, it's hard to remember stuff as a teenager, but it was, it was just absolutely amazing to be in that film.
Erin Boogie: So you had no idea at the time that it was going to be what it was?
Lady Pink: Oh, no, absolutely not.
Erin Boogie: I think it's so funny when people always say that, because I guess at the time you're just in it. So you would have no idea what it would become 40 years later.
Lady Pink: No, I mean, we were doing documentaries and books and traveling and all kinds of big whirlwind of activity that no one knew where anything was going to go. Again, we were just riding this for as long as it lasted. We didn't think, you know, that, that it would be anything. And you never know that when you're starting a movement or a revolution or anything like that, you're just going about your business, doing your thing. You don't know that this is a music revolution, a dance revolution, an art revolution and that we've spawned street art, which is the world's biggest art movement now. We were just a bunch of kids having fun. We were just having kicks and giggles, and there's not much for adventure that you can do in a big city, you know, kids that have no money or anything. So sneaking around and doing art and expressing ourselves. And all of that was just about fun. And who knew that it would be a movement.
Erin Boogie: Did you ever think graffiti would grow to be such an accepted and even revered art form?
Lady Pink: Yeah. We knew. We knew that. So now we were painting trains, trying to figure out what we are going to be when we grow up. No, there was not a plan that it would still be around, that it would go mainstream, that it would be accepted, that folks would buy it, and we would make a living out of it. And we would consider it our education because a lot of us have stayed being artists and have made a living out of being artists. And I don't do graffiti all the time, certainly not, but I do use my talent and everything that I learned from there. What it taught me was a lot of confidence and courage and no-nonsense and how to get stuff done quick and not get too attached to the work that I can't keep.
Erin Boogie: So now your pieces are being hung up in museums. How does it feel to go from painting on walls and subway cars to have your art hanging on the wall in museums?
Lady Pink: Well, this has been happening to me since I was the age of 16.
Erin Boogie: So right off the bat?
Lady Pink: Right off the bat. Hanging at PS 1, hanging up at The New Museum, and such. So since I was a very young kid, I've had my work hanging in fancy galleries, marble halls, and bigger shows and things that I didn't even know how important they were, but I had some grownups that would tell me that. So I had mentors all along. Martin Wong, Jenny Holzer, John Fechner, Richard Hamilton, all of these guys, Haring, these guys were the original street artists. They worked in different mediums. They worked in chalk and posters and stencils and such. And they were part of the East village group, so they would tell me how important it is. When you're still in high school, and you're a teenager, you're like, “I don't know.” You don't know anything. You don't know what's important. So there's some grownups that tell you, yes, this is important. Take it seriously. You have to show up on time. You have to be there. You have to do the artwork. You know, all of that. So it's great to have had the mentorship of grownups at that time.
Erin Boogie: What advice would you give to up and coming painters?
Lady Pink: To up and coming painters, that half of the work is business. It isn't all about painting pretty pictures or using a platform for a voice and making some imagery, photos, or paintings or whatever. Half of it is business. If you want to survive as an artist, you have to learn the business. So if art school neglected teaching you any business school, or if you just didn't pick it up, because you're a street artist, you're learning that the street art way, you still have to learn the business. So you have to learn how to do job quotes and invoices and learn how to price yourself. What is your value? What do you want to charge for your work? So, half of it is business.
And if you don't have a head for it, or if you don't want to do the business, then you have to hire someone. Or luckily, I was able to marry someone that was my executive assistant and handled all of that boring, boring stuff. Artists work with one half of our brain, and we don't really want to wander over on the other side that is orderly and analytical and will do all of that accounting and boring business work. But you have to learn how to make phone calls and answer letters and promote yourself and sell yourself like a good little wh*re. So being a salesperson is just as important as learning how to paint a pretty picture.
Erin Boogie: I think that's great advice. I think people sometimes forget the business part of things. That happens in the music industry too.
Lady Pink: And photographers too. They don't know how to price themselves. What their value is. And then you're open to being exploited because you don't know what your value is. And then artists are willing to do stuff for free just for the exposure. You'd be surprised. Even like Snapchat approaching me, asking me to do stuff for them for free because I'll get so much exposure. Oh yes. That's the audience that I want, teenagers. They're not the ones that buy my work.
Erin Boogie: That's a fact, that's a good point. Sometimes, people think that they need to do things for free when they’re starting out just for exposure.
Lady Pink: Yeah. That's not. So, artists need to learn how to hustle, and school doesn't really teach you how to hustle, how to get your stuff out there and knock on doors, sell your work. You know, when I've been in tough times, I've just gone up and down the street and knocked on doors and nightclubs and restaurants and convinced them that I'm amazing and I can make their place amazing and walk out of there with a $10,000 job—just walking up the street, easily like that. So then you start calling your friends to help you. And then you do this thing, and one job leads to another job leads to another. Once you have photos of a finished product, like a job or a mural, even if you did the first one for free, you have a finished photo. And with that, you hustle, and you get yourself other work, going in and out of doors, knocking on doors and asking for artwork and say, I can make your business memorable. I can increase your business by so much. And I'm amazing, but you have to have that confidence to sell yourself. Here's a photo here's proof of the amazing work that I did and so on and so on. And, kids can survive on that. Even the youngest teenagers are doing store gates and small walls for shops or something like that. If you've got talent, it's your duty to use it. So get out there and hustle.
Lady D: Did you ever get in trouble for doing graffiti?
Lady Pink: No. You have to go to the right places with the right people at the right time so that there are no incidents and no one gets arrested. So that's not to say I haven't been in some gnarly chases. And then I had to run from the cops a few times. The first time I went on a date with my husband, we went and painted a subway train together. I brought a Swiss kid. He had a French kid, and we stayed too long. He said an hour, and we were there an hour and a half. The cops came and chased us, and we ran and ran through tunnels and climbed up more tunnels, live tunnels, trains going all directions. We lost each other and then popped up in the middle of Central Park on a sunny afternoon and watching all the tourists scatter like frightened deer.
Erin Boogie: Do you have a favorite piece that you've done?
Lady Pink: It's like picking a favorite child, you know, that's cruel all the other children get jealous. It would have to be one piece that I call “Queen Matilda,” only because I spent almost six months working on that little by little; I put it away, do all the paying work, I'd bring it back out and paint. I put all my friends in it. I'd be laughing when I painted it, doing silly, ridiculous stuff. And I modeled it on that little town that I was telling you about Christiania, which is a self-contained little village inside Copenhagen in Denmark. So that was a brick woman sitting there and not her feet is a little walled city, and the entranceway is the Brooklyn Bridge. There's a subway spiraling all the way around her. There's a bunch of little buildings, and there's graffiti everywhere on the subways, on the rooftops, on the walls.
And, and there's all kinds of people all around. I have Little Bo Peep and her sheep. I have a midget with a lime green top hat and a Playboy Bunny going into a nightclub. I've got all kinds of little things. I have Madeline with a nun. You know that book Madeline, and she's in the back jumping around. I mean, it's just a silly, silly painting. And I did sell it because I was offered a ridiculous amount of money and I had to part with it. But before it went, I sent a photographer to document in a real high-resolution file for me. And I've made some prints of it. And I do have one hanging in my house because I really, really loved the painting. And I guess maybe she is my favorite in the whole entire world. Don't, don't tell the other paintings that.
Erin Boogie: What brought you to the Hudson Valley?
Lady Pink: It was the Vandal Squad. It was the police that drove us here. To make a long story short, I've had two raids in my house by the Vandal Squad in 10 years. First in 2003 and then in 2013. The last time they came into my house with a SWAT team, a SWAT team truck out front, and a bunch of cops in my hallway with shields and helmets and guns drawn. And they're all filing in; my hands were up. So they had arrested my husband and filed fake graffiti charges. They raided my house and took all my spray paint, computers, books, and photos. They took artwork off the walls. I had to sit on a sofa with a policewoman for about four hours while I watched the cops rob me again—the second time in 10 years.
We got our computers back, maybe like five months later, but everything they held onto for like over a year, and it took that long with an expensive attorney to have all the charges dropped because there was no crime committed. They just do this to our process because they feel that we are profiting from an alleged crime. You know, graffiti,
Erin Boogie: One more question: What can we expect next from lady pink?
Lady Pink: I don't know. I'm just, you know, continuously painting. I have a studio. I started bringing my assistants back.
And, the exterior murals are happening. Thank goodness we can paint outdoors and keep people at a distance and not have to come into contact with anyone, which is why we went to New York City. We put up yellow tape, we sectioned ourselves off, and folks couldn't come near us. And we did our thing in one day, that wall for Juneteenth. In one day, we knocked it out. It's pretty scary stuff. I don't know what's happening. You know, all these things that were scheduled. And I have an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and that's the fifth biggest museum in the nation.