Before hip-hop became a global sensation, Lady Pink was tagging up the Bronx in a language the world had yet to discover. The Ecaudorian-born, New York-bred teen rode the first wave of renegade street art just as it was emerging as hip-hop’s visual vernacular. Back then it was just kids having fun. It still is, but now there’s virtually no corner of the planet where you won’t find spray-painted murals dotting cityscapes or iconic monikers emblazoned on train cars. Graffiti and its related art forms have taken on countless shades, styles and political permutations. And like hip-hop music, the graffiti scene has continued to help define and be defined by the commodified world of mass media.
Lady Pink, who now defines herself as a professional artist rather than a graffiti writer, has been one of the few women at the helm, exhibiting her work internationally and at museums like The Met and the Netherlands’ Groninger. Here, in a dialogue with CultureStrike, she reflects on the evolution and transnational migration of graffiti-based art with Sujatha Fernandes, an Australian-born cultural scholar who has researched hip-hop as a global youth movement.
Sujatha Fernandes: Maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you got involved with hip-hop.
Lady Pink: I don’t see myself involved in hip-hop. That is an outside label that has been imposed on us. So I don’t call myself hip-hop or associate myself with that movement. I got involved with graffiti at the age of fifteen. I lived in Brooklyn and ran with a rough crowd that was from the neighborhood south of me (that I wasn’t allowed to go hang out in). But the cute boys were there and I was attracted by that. I was just a fifteen-year-old kid hanging out, having fun and doing what all fifteen-year-old kids do. You find adventures, you find some kicks and giggles—and I was a feminist, I suppose, without even knowing I was a feminist. That was the kind of atmosphere we lived in in the seventies. Women were flexing their muscles, so I got involved in the graffiti world. Even though it was male dominated, I had something to prove: that females could do anything that men can do.
I read somewhere that you started writing graffiti after your boyfriend got deported, is that right?
Yeah, my first love from when I was about thirteen ‘til fifteen, my very first boyfriend, he was caught doing graffiti in the streets and sent to go live with family in Puerto Rico. He was one of six children, so they’re expendable. You send them to the old country and hope that living out in the sticks will reform them. So I was just mourning his loss that he moved away. I was writing his name around the school and hanging out with his friends, learning the basics of graffiti.
I’m interested [in what you said], that hip-hop was a label imposed on you and that you weren’t doing hip-hop culture, you were writing graffiti. A lot of people have said graffiti is one element of hip-hop culture, but you don’t see it that way. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Graffiti was already an established subculture when I came into the scene. I started in 1979—it had been around a decade; it had already established everything from a code of dress, to how you speak, how you behave and act, how you think. We had heroes, we had villains and stories. Everything was established when I came along, so I had a lot to learn. The hip-hop, the rap and the breakdancing, that didn’t happen until a little bit later. The kids who were doing graffiti for a decade before hip-hop came along were kids from all walks of life: white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids. They listened to the music that they listened to in their neighborhoods and behaved the way they did in their neighborhoods, and graffiti just kind of mixed them all together. And cultures and backgrounds and races mixed in an unnatural way. The police were taught to look out for these interracial, mixed groups—and they would usually be graffiti writers—and search them for spray paint and so on. So later on, when hip-hop came along, the breakdancing, the rapping, the DJ-ing, the emceeing—that stuff was all just neatly packaged together and graffiti became sort of the background artwork for all of this, and we were labeled hip-hop regardless of what race you were, regardless of what neighborhood you came from and what music you listened to.
Do you still write graffiti? How do you participate in the culture now, if you do?
I wrote graffiti from 1979 to 1985. That is the lifespan of most graffiti writers that do illegal work. After that, you have to move on into the grown-up world and start making a living. Since 1980, I’ve been exhibiting in galleries and selling my paintings commercially and doing commissions. There comes a time when you have to put that stuff away, the illegal work, because you now have a life, and there’s a lot more to lose. So no, for over twenty-five years or so, I have not done graffiti. I’ve been a professional artist since the age of sixteen. I do all kinds of projects: live painting, movies, videos, books and documentaries, fashion shoots—you name it.
Is contribution to your community and to social justice issues something you are interested in and that you do now? And how would you compare that to your contributions when you were writing graffiti?
When we were writing graffiti, we weren’t really contributing anything. [Laughs] We were just putting up our names, competing with each other for props, for glory basically. We weren’t doing it for money; we weren’t doing it to impress the locals. The lettering style that we used to do our names had moved on into such a sophisticated, wild style that common folks could not even read it. It was all amongst ourselves.
So what you were doing back then wasn’t political, you didn’t have a political goal.
We were just children having fun; we didn’t have any kind of activism or any political goals whatsoever. There were a handful of guys who did political messages on the subway trains. Ninety-five percent of us did not. We put our names up like a logo, like American-based commercial logos that had been around for over a century.
Part of my latest book (Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation) looks at hip-hop culture in different parts of the world, and I use the term hip-hop culture because that’s what the people I have worked with used to call it. The book talks about the mid-’90s in Australia [where Fernandes grew up], when young people were starting to come together and form their own groups. And they were really interested in this culture. Then I talk about Havana, where I went after Sydney, then Chicago, and then Caracas.
So the book talks about my experiences in these four different cities. Most of what I have written about is rap music because I think that was the most commodifiable and the one that sort of traveled most easily around the world, but at the same time I don’t think it was necessarily an element that translated very easily, because of accents [and] language differences. I am interested in how much easier it was for graffiti to catch on and spread to different parts of the world. What do you think about this globalization of graffiti? I wonder if you have any experience in other countries, if you’ve ever worked with young people in different places, or anything like that?
I pretty much traveled the world (to Korea, Japan, to most of Europe), painted all over the place, legal and illegally. I’ve worked with young people and all kinds of folks. It’s gone global. We were rather surprised but in the late ’80s, early ’90s, a few books and videos, documentaries and such had made it abroad and that piqued the Europeans’ interest and they jumped on it like you wouldn’t believe. In the early ’90s, they started coming over here in droves, those young people from Europe and all over the world, to paint New York City, to try to get on our subway trains. As it always has been, we were comrades in arms—we were immediately friends, although none of us had met before. We had something in common; therefore you had someplace to arrive, somebody’s couch to crash on, places to paint; the communication was there. Our network was just so deep and so wide, and it has become the biggest art movement the world has ever seen. Thousands and thousands of kids all over the world are doing this. This movement has become something that the common man could appreciate: you don’t need five or ten years of formal education in some institution in order to be a respected artist; you just need talent and heart. You all painted as children and as you grew up, you stopped. But we keep the fun in it and that is what appeals to everyone. [And particularly] since the Internet was born, the world just became so much smaller for us. I have home-girls and good friends in every corner of the world from Australia to Asia to Europe.
And the ladies’ network is even stronger than the guys’ because there’s so few of us. There are thousands of guys, but there are only hundreds of girls. So we’ve become very tight. Whatever country you go to, whatever city you go to, there [are] at least one or two girls that you can contact to make things happen. We’re all like sisters even though we’ve never met. The first time we set eyes on each other, it’s a huggy-huggy, kissy-kissy kind of thing. The guys don’t have that tight comradeship like the ladies have, and we have that because there’s just so few [of] us.
Graffiti writing wasn’t, in my experience, necessarily available to people in every country. For instance, in Cuba, so much of what you see on the walls is government revolutionary slogans and whatnot. People have no access to spray cans or any kind of materials—there was very little participation in graffiti writing in Cuba when I was there. And the interesting thing is, when I went to Venezuela, I didn’t see any graffiti writing in the barrios, I didn’t see any in the poorer areas. But when I went on a trip to one of the most elite neighborhoods in the whole city, I saw graffiti writing all over the walls of the Caracas golf club, which is one of the most elite clubs in the city. And I was really surprised. I was like, “Is this done illegally? Do they know about this? They have lots of money, they could paint it over.” But the golf club had actually commissioned graffiti to be put on its outside walls. I was there during a time when the middle-class opposition was trying to get Hugo Chavez out of office, and so they had actually commissioned a group of middle-class kids, paid them all their paints and everything, to do graffiti saying they want him thrown out of office. In fact, it was a pretty big movement among the middle-class and rich kids in Caracas. And yet, there were no poor kids who were doing it, because they didn’t have the money. There wasn’t even anywhere they could go and steal spray cans, because it wasn’t sold. They just didn’t have access to it at all.
That’s the nature of most of Latin America. All the graffiti is politically based and it’s done with brush. My father was running for mayor in Ecuador, in my hometown, and my brothers went out and put up my last name all over town with brushes, giant blockbuster roller things with brushes. I laughed my head off to see my last name up there on walls. “Why didn’t you call me, I could have done a better job!”
But that is where graffiti has gone: it started off in the ghettos by the poor kids, but that’s not where it has stayed. It’s been embraced by the middle-class kids that come from beautiful neighborhoods; it is entertainment for the middle-class kids. And, you don’t need money to do graffiti. The nature of our culture is that even if you have money, you’re supposed to steal the spray paint. Buying it is not right. Even if you have money, you don’t do that. It’s part of the culture to learn how to steal the spray paint, and if there is no spray paint, you can still do graffiti with brushes. [But] that’s not what interests the ghetto kids. But the middle-class kids, absolutely, they’re the ones that embrace it, they’re the ones that have computers, they’re the ones that can see it from around the world. The poor kids cannot. And it’s like that all over the world. These middle-class kids from Europe, they come from neighborhoods that look like little postcards, they’re so gorgeous. And they’re just bored. This is something that’s very cool, and it’s their very own. It isn’t something you can learn in school. They’re just making it up as they go along. There are very little rules.
I see a lot of schools and places where they’re using graffiti classes as a tool. But when they say “teaching graffiti,” they’re not really teaching graffiti. It’s not just teaching you how to handle colors and composition and things like that. It’s teaching you how to lie, steal, break the law, trespass; we have to teach you how to do all of that to do graffiti correctly. Otherwise you can be just labeled a “hip-hop artist”: You like the style, you can do it—paint on walls—but you never ever break the law. That’s fine, you can be one of the trendy people, but a real graffiti artist and teaching graffiti is teaching how to break the law. I get many offers like this from all kinds of corporate groups going off on a retreat and they would like me to teach them graffiti, [and] my question is, “Do you want me to teach you how to break the law and sneak around at night? Or do you want me to just teach you how to use spray paint and do some pretty pictures? Which is it that you need?”
How do you navigate the difference between the kind of work you were doing before, which was about putting your work out there in the public space, and now, [when] in some ways the art world has commodified graffiti and rap and turned it into a product that has to sell, and it’s no longer valued in the same way as, say, a tag on a pylon or on the subway?
Everything that was underground eventually goes above ground, is tamed, watered down, and then fed to the masses and marketed. That’s a given, that’s been going on forever. But there’s still a place for illegal graffiti: the movement is alive and well in the American freight trains. The purists, they stick to their illegal stuff. They won’t sell their artwork. They just want to do it at night; they want to do it for thrills and kicks. It’s in many cities—trains and trolleys and buses, whatever’s got wheels and [is] rolling. And then there are those who walk both lines, which is very tricky. They still do illegal work at night and they run the risk of being caught and arrested when they’re standing in broad daylight doing it and admitting that this is their name and this is what they do. But the purists are still underground; they’re still doing their thing.
Have you been involved with any kind of social justice organization associated with immigrant rights, or that kind of thing?
I do community murals in the neighborhood and I’ve been sponsored by immigration advocacy groups for more than a decade, but I don’t really do anything about immigrants’ rights myself. I have family in Ecuador, but I’m not that in touch with them. I’ve pretty much lost touch with my culture. I still speak Spanish, and I can cook maybe two or three dishes from my native country, but that’s about it. I have, I think, assimilated to the American life, and I don’t really do anything about immigrants or anything like that. We have family with papers, without papers here. I see the struggle of these poor immigrants without papers, but there [are] still a lot of opportunities here for them, even without papers. [They can] still work really well and earn a nice living and send money back home and the American life is still within reach of many immigrants.
Michelle Chen: The immigrant rights groups that have sponsored your work, can you talk a little bit about the projects that you’ve done with them, or are there more broad community-based organizations you work with?
They’re just broad community-based organizations. I end up having to do patriotic walls. I have an American heritage series mural that I do for them. I celebrate all kinds of ethnic groups here in my murals—America linked with something of other countries, so, like, little flags floating from every country imaginable. Queens is the biggest melting pot of the world. We have all kinds of groups, so in murals that I do, it has to be linked a little bit with that. A recent mural I did with high school students in June, we did four gigantic statues holding up a bridge. They’re eighteen feet tall, really big statues: an Egyptian statue, a Greek statue, a Mexican-flavored dragon statue and a European dragon. In between each column there was ethnic stuff going on of all the different countries that immediately live right around here; India and so on and so on. [The mural funder is] the community Anti-Crime [Agency], the same group [that does] immigration advocacy. But [with] the immigration advocacy, they have a big office, lots of staff and they help all kinds of immigrants with all kinds of immigrant problems. So if anything, I refer people there. “Go there, they have lawyers, they’ll help you out with your immigrant status, whatever it might be.” I know these folks and they’re good friends of mine. They fund my community murals. They put in funding and I am funded through them yearly to paint stuff, and that’s really cool.
Chen: New York has definitely changed over the past generation in huge ways, whether it’s the actual landscape of the city or how communities work together, how housing is laid out, how different cultural elements come together. As an artist working in the city, what are some of the big changes that you feel like you’ve really picked up on, or that have found their way into your artwork?
In the last couple of decades, it’s become easier to paint in the street because there’s a lot more murals. It wasn’t the case twenty years ago. But little by little, more artists come out and are painting murals, which makes it a little bit easier. Once you see a beautiful building, the landlord’s more likely to give you permission and the police [are] less likely to stop you. You still have to provide permission papers to the police that you have permission to paint said building, so that has not changed. But the welcoming atmosphere to artwork on walls has changed. There’s a lot more beautiful stuff happening in neighborhoods that are gentrifying and they welcome mural artwork to their neighborhoods, which, they realize, combats graffiti in a big way because younger graffiti writers will respect older graffiti writers when they have a big mural on a building.
But the graffiti vandal squad (we’ve had them around since the ’70s, these are special cops), they absolutely hate the murals. They’ve told me personally that they don’t like it when I paint in the street and do big murals because that inspires young people to do vandalism, to pick up spray paint and destroy something. I beg to differ. The murals I paint inspire everyone to beautify their community and to appreciate where they live.
The police would like us to just keep to the galleries, stay indoors, keep to the little tame civilized world of fine art and quit coming out to the streets and doing that because it inspires young kids and this is what they hate. So they go over and above their call of duty: they invade working artists’ homes, they’ll get warrants, they’ll invade their homes, they’ll take everything that they have, and they’ll try to make some sort of a case that you’re breaking the law. They make you spend a ton of money on a lawyer to get your stuff back, and no charge is being filed. They got into my house about eight years ago, you know, six cops, they pulled up a van, they took all my stuff, and it took me over a year to get it all back, and no, I didn’t get it all back. And I’m not the only working artist that has happened to.
So we’re not living in a free society. We live in fear that the police can kick down my door, my husband’s door—he’s also a painter—and take all our stuff again. This is the problem for a working artist. Now, maybe I should stick to my galleries and my indoor safe spots and quit inspiring people, but when you see those young faces with those little starry eyes, and they come up and they’re tongue-tied and star-struck and they’re just blown away by what you’re painting on their street, there’s no way you can stop. There’s no way you can stop evoking that kind of inspiration and fire in other people, so I will continue painting in the street.
To learn more about Lady Pink and Sujatha Fernandes’s work, go here: