Legendary Ladies

Patti Astor, who co-founded the FUN Gallery in NYC in 1981, interviews the first and most well-known female graffiti artist Lady Pink, her friend of 30 years.

Patti Astor: You have a very strong personality, one of those seemingly forged above and beyond any kind of 'feminist' dogma.

Lady Pink: I was born in Ecuador but I came to the US in 72. I was seven years old and my Mom came here to the US with just myself and my sister who was 8 years old. I have a few other women in my family who are extremely, extremely strong and brave and feminist in their own right without there having been a ‘movement’. My Grandma, my Aunt and all sorts of women here and there. They’re a rock.

Have you always been inspired to paint?

When I got to High School of Art and Design in '79, I was introduced to like 300 graffiti writers who came from every corner of New York City, some from neighborhoods I’d never even heard of. I got to do some interesting visiting, all kinds of ghettos and places I’d never imagined.

Lady Pink, Pink Foliage, 2011, acrylic on canvas, © Lady Pink, Woodward Gallery, NYC. 

And how did your terrific ‘tag’, i.e. ‘what you write’ come about?

Pink was given to me by my friends in high school because it was a feminine name and they wanted me to write that, you could do a lot with the letters and we were all about letters. The ‘K’ sticks out real nice and the ‘i’ - you can dot with a heart or a flower, it was very cute, and the word Lady because I was a big fan of reading those silly historical romances.

Tell me about your first visit to the yards. 

In 1980 some guys in the Bronx buckled and let me go to the Ghost Yard with them and I painted with a very famous guy named Kase2, which was an honor because he was a legend and a hero which was a good thing. You gotta have a friend and you know what I did, I made friends throughout my career as a young graffiti writer. I had backup and made friends in the correct places, and was safe. If you make enemies, you’re not so safe. That was my first time in the yards.

I first met you and also Rock Steady Crew when they were about fourteen years old at Lee Quinones’ famous birthday party, when he got that studio downtown with Fab and Futura at 5th & C.

Doze (Green) went to high school with me. Doze is a very famous artist now, but back then he was one of the founders of Rock Steady Crew and he brought along his little dancing friends to the party. Fab 5 Freddy forgot to bring the music! Rock Steady had to perform for Charlie A, this was the first time Charlie Ahearn had ever seen breakdancing ever, and there was no music! So we all did a beat by clapping our hands just to get the crew dancing. Finally someone showed up with a boombox and we had music for the rest of the party.

I met Lee at Fashion MODA. The first graffiti show at Fashion MODA, GAS – Graffiti Art Success for America was in December of 1980 and curated by Crash. Lee helped me with my very first painting, I was young and absolutely terrified to be exhibiting with these heavy hitters. I was only a teenager, 16 years old, and was exhibiting with Lee and Futura and Zephyr and those cats. They were amazing! They did brilliant, brilliant work and I was just a little toy from high school.

Lee helped me with my first piece and after that I had to get good fast. I practised in my Mom’s backyard.

Jenny Holzer with Lady Pink, Some men think women are expendable they fuck them kill them and throw them away like candy wrappers, spray paint on canvas, © Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS). Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014. 

You star as Lee’s (Zoro’s) girlfriend ‘Rose’ in Wild Style which introduced hip hop to the world...

Charlie Ahearn was like "Please be in my movie right now" and he wrote everyone into Wild Style as soon as he met them, he was formulating his movie like right there. He was meeting the rappers and the gangsters and the artists and the blonde bombshell and the fast-talking, good-looking black dude with the shades and that’s it, he had a movie, but nobody was taking it that seriously. This was just another rich white guy that had some kooky idea and a camera crew, it just seemed like a cool thing at the time. We didn’t think it was actually going to go anywhere and that we’d still be talking about it 30 years later.

I know every artist remembers their first sale.

I sold my first piece out of the New Museum downtown for $500. It was a big orchid, spray painted in lavenders and purples and pretty colours. People said that my work reminded them of Georgia O’Keefe’s work and I didn’t know who the lady was so I looked her up and read her life story. I adore her and I admire her strong-willed, feminist ways, way back in the day and all.

You would go on to collaborate with another well-known female artist…

Somehow Jenny Holzer got a hold of my number, called me up and invited me to come meet her and collaborate with her, and I agreed. Now I was able to do bigger canvasses than I could in just my Mom’s backyard, and she seemed very cool. The part I liked most about her was that she was the only other woman who would go out at night and put up work. She would go out and do postering at night and put her Truisms up wherever she pleased, and she was also a very tall woman so you can imagine she got away with a lot compared to me, I’m 5’2” and needed a crew of guys to protect me. But again, we never imagined it would go anywhere or that she would become so big or anything like that. We continue to exhibit our collaborative work and have a gallery in Berlin that handles our stuff, Sprüth Magers.

Jenny Holzer with Lady Pink, What urge will save us now that sex won't?, 2004, spray paint on canvas, © Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS). Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014. 

It seems that the last six months of your life has been taken up by legal woes, first the outrageous persecution of your husband, longtime Muralist, Smith, and also the fight to save the world famous Graffiti showcase, 5 POINTZ.

We had to move out of the city because we had a police action in our house, and they raided us and charged my husband with graffiti felonies. They took everything, the computer, the paint, photos…We had to get out of New York City, out of the jurisdiction of the graffiti police and vandal squad. New York has become a police state and people are leaving in droves because it doesn’t take very much to be accused of some fake crime, and then it takes months and months and months of going to court and paying an expensive lawyer. Just a few days ago we got back our computers but that’s all we got. My whole life was in my computer, so that was gone for months and they really fucked me over, my career and my life, you know and I never committed a crime, I was never charged with anything.

Smith’s charges are having painted an abandoned subway station in Brooklyn. Around 103 street artists, a lot of them are the brush artist type, went into an abandoned station that was built in the 1940s. There’s no train tracks and there’s no tunnels just a big, abandoned station under the ground and these artists found it and they did beautiful installations inside, better than most museums, gorgeous work. They spent a lot of time in there and they put out a book called We Own the Night: The Art of the Underbelly Project (Rizzoli, 2012) which got a review in The New York Times that said “what a terrific project”, whatever, it embarrassed the city and they said “we want some of those heads”. My husband was the first to fall, he was the one with the graffiti arrest record from his youth, petty stuff like trespassing, possession of graffiti material but petty stuff, never any felonies. So they see the charges stick for this one artist, and all those other artists are fucked. Some of them have their pictures in the book and full names. There’s a reason we have those funny little nicknames.

And of course the entire graffiti art world is mourning the loss of 5 POINTZ, whitewashed over in the middle of the night by a crew sent in by the developers.

We didn’t stand a chance. The man that owns that building, he’s a very rich man and this is how they get richer. He loves the artwork but he loves his money more. Historically, artists have always been plowed under. We beautify a community and then they move our ass out of it, that’s just how it works. I’m very sad that 5 POINTZ is gone. When the news spread around the world that this landmark outdoor showcase had been destroyed, so many people would walk up to the space, old ladies, children, big tough guys, everyone would walk up and just burst out crying.

Patti Astor co-founded the FUN Gallery in NYC in 1981, exhibiting the work of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy, DONDI, Lee and Kenny Scharf. Her memoir FUN Gallery…The True Story was published in 2013.