Turning Graffiti Into A Positive Art
Pink organizes mural paintings to channel artists’ energy into positive art. Tribune Photos by Azi Paybarah
By Azi Paybarah
It’s noon, hot, and Astoria’s chic Cavo nightspot is dead quiet.
The only person around is a 35-year-old woman who is preparing to paint a mural on one of the café’s courtyard walls.
The mural is supposed to look like a vine and brick facade, and that’s exactly what she will paint. After all, when there’s money involved, the client gets what they want.
Years ago, there wasn’t any money involved for Lady Pink, the first lady of graffiti who now paints murals and has artwork in museums.
As a teenage vandal, she would have spray-painted her name in curvaceous letters on Cavo’s wall in a search for attention and a chance to show off her talents.
Nowadays, Lady Pink is a respected artist who is known throughout the country for bringing street art to the walls of museums and for using her talents to convert spray-painting vandals into positive artists.
When she covers a wall with color, her name still pops up, but in her 20-plus-year-career, it has gone from being “graffiti” to arguably the best deterrent against it.
For Lady Pink, an Astoria resident who’s been featured in museums world wide and in the cult classic film “Wild Style,” said she likes to be known as Lady Pink and not by her real name, Sandra. She said, “Nobody knows who Sandra is.”
She does go by Pink Smith, with “Smith” referring to her husband’s name.
As a student at Manhattan’s High School for Art and Design in the late 1970’s, Pink said she began hitting trains and subways with her art because people said she couldn’t.
“I could not go and play in those subway trains, cause I was a girl, the same way you could not breed a baby because you’re a boy. It’s just not done,” recalled Pink. “I was like “I’m a (sic) prove you wrong. I’ll prove you wrong.
I’m a (sic) prove you all wrong…by late 1979, by 1980 I painted my first train.”
Pink’s status as the only female graffiti writer won her instant celebrity status in the heavily male dominated scene.
Although coy about her exploits, Pink’s well-documented work speaks for itself. In the world where pieces go up literally overnight, graffiti writers and admirers today still revere Pink’s work, 20 years later.
Except now, they admire her work in museums like The Whitney, the Queens Museum of Art, P.S. 1, the Museum of the City of New York and a host of others. They buy her artwork, and admire it in murals that she paints to stop illegal graffiti.
Yes, Lady Pink may have come above ground and hit the mainstream artworld, but her roots and connections are still with the street.
Graffiti: Art & Crime
Queens Museum of Art Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl said public art “is the best ways for people to express themselves in this city.” Finkelpearl, whose museum often hosts socially conscious exhibits, added, “Art gets dialogue going. That’s very good.” But to him, graffiti isn’t art.
“I can’t condone vandalism,” he said. “It’s really upsetting to me that people would need to write their name over and over again in public space. It’s this culture of fame. I really think it’s regrettable that they think that’s the only way to become famous.”And Pink agrees.
The legal distinction between graffiti and art is permission. With permission, it’s considered art on a legal wall. Those who paint without permission commit vandalism, she said, whether it’s public or private property.
“You can’t give them a legal wall,” said Pink of vandals, or “bombers.” “They’re not interested. They’re more interested in the aspect of breaking the law, being vandals and being rebellious. They don’t have the skills for it or the desire to paint something in the daytime.”
So how can residents deter vandals, who Pink said often have medically recognized obsessive-compulsive disorder with writing their names?
With paint, she said. Lots of paint.
She suggested covering the graffiti immediately with a slab of fresh paint, and staying on top of it.
“I have two white garage doors. The first thing I had to do when I bought my house was clean off the graffiti. Anything that appears there is gone by morning. I maintain my property,” she said.
“I will not let it go to pieces.” The message that sends is “This is not a fame spot, this is not a permanent spot. Don’t waste your paint, just go somewhere else.”
But since surfacing from the subways and trains, Pink has devoted herself full-time to the art of graffiti.
She said another way to deter graffiti is to paint murals. She organizes mural paintings throughout the City, including one that might go up in the Steinway Street municipal Parking Lot on June 19 and 20 if the Department of Transportation approves it.
Similar to the one under the Hell Gate Bridge done earlier this year, Pink will be assisting students from the Frank Sinatra High School for the Arts.
“These walls have never been known to be tagged on,” said Pink under the Hell Gate Bridge when it was painted.
The walls are smooth, at street level, in the heart of Astoria’s bustling business district, and considered by vandals to be prime real estate.
Pink explained the walls aren’t “tagged on… “Because I’ve paid my dues, painted the trains in the ‘80’s.” Tony Meloni of the Anti-Crime Office, who helped bring murals to Hell Gate, said, “Kids do have respect for murals. They don’t hit a mural out of respect.”
As a world renowned artist who commands $8,000 a piece, she considers her free murals a way of “giving back” and not being “a culture vulture.”
Although her name still appears on walls as part of murals, Pink does her graffiti responsibly.
“No nipples. How often do I have to say that? No nipples. Look at the neighborhood we’re sitting in,” said Pink, recounting directions she’s given over the years.
For the artist whose canvas is left along the street, affixed to the street, the responsibility of public art is a matter of survival.
“We can’t do crazy political statements, or we can’t do social statements. We can’t do anything that’s crazy controversial because the opposing view will have our wall at their mercy.” Without a trace of regret, Pink added, “I end up having to censor our artists.”
Sitting in Cavo, before painting, she said, “You should maintain quality that is appropriate for the neighborhood.
And here in Queens, I can’t get away with the [art] that happens on the Lower East Side by Chico [another graffiti writer turned muralist]. I can’t get away with the crazy [art] that happens in the South Bronx. In Queens, it’s a mild mannered borough and people want quality work.”
That work includes an image of firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero, similar to the Marines at Iowa Jimo in World War II.
That is located on 36th Street by 47th Avenue in Long Island City, across the street from the High School for Aviation.
From Annoying To Famous
“By not just staying indoors and being aloof from the whole culture,” Pink said, “I can say ‘look baby, this is what you can do. Just save a few cans and practice a little, and then you can be really, really famous as opposed to just being annoying.’”
And giving back to the kids, and the community, is why she is still writing. In a sense, that’s why she’s always written.
“What we originally did on the subway trains was gave,” said Pink, “a bit of art and a bit of culture…to the public to our peers, our family to our friends, the common folk.”
In the end, Pink empowers.
“I empower community people because once we spiffy up a wall, they realize maybe we should clean up this wall, clean up over here.”