When she began painting graffiti on New York subway cars at the age of 15, Lady Pink stood out as one of very few women in that illegal and dangerous subculture.
That was in 1979. Now, in her mid-50s, this petite woman with long, dark hair and hailing from the Amazon jungle in Ecuador has been making an above-board living from her art for decades and proudly declares herself a businesswoman. She has been called the “First Lady” of graffiti.
“New York was ruined. There was a lot of crime and corruption, and everything looked terrible. We adolescents set out to beautify the city,” Lady Pink – real name Sandra Fabara – said in an interview in the Bronx, where she is painting a mural on the wall of Casita Maria, a community centre for young Hispanics.
Whereas the teen-aged Fabara had to dodge the authorities as she practiced her craft, she now is being guarded by a policeman while she paints, because an angry neighbor made a death threat against her.
Fabara was featured in a classic film about graffiti, Wild Style (1982), and is one of 21 street artists whose work adorned – before being whitewashed in 2013 – the outside of a factory-turned-canvas in the Queens borough that was called 5Pointz.
A court ruled last year that the artists should receive $6.75 million in damages for the loss of their work; New York law protects public art of “recognised stature”.
But the owner of the building, who eventually tore it down to build luxury condos, appealed and there is still no final verdict.
“The judicial system has never been very fair with graffiti or street artists. I do not expect it to be now,” said Fabara.
Adventure by Night
Lady Pink got into this kind of thing when her first boyfriend, a graffiti artist, was arrested.
He was then sent to live with relatives in Puerto Rico, which left Fabara heartbroken. She started painting his name on the walls of her school, and eventually his graffiti buddies took her in and started teaching her technique.
“I would crawl out the window with a bag of paint and go to the roughest neighborhoods of New York in the middle of the night, all alone, to meet up with my friends and go to an even worse neighborhood where they park the trains. We would go into the train tunnels and dark alleys where God knows what awaits you,” Fabara said of the period, from 1979 to 1985.
“It was the scariest and funnest thing I have ever done. But you should not glorify graffiti. It is extremely dangerous, and there are guys who have died,” she said.
She said it has become even riskier since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. “For painting a subway car you are more likely than anything to get shot in the back. People will think you are a terrorist.”
Of her success, Fabara says she met the right people at the right time. She began to exhibit her work in galleries at the age of 16.
She said she was invited to parties with artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and was included in books and movies.
“There was a lot of energy and chaos in the early 1980s and graffiti had just come to the surface. It was a whirlwind of activity. We were elevated to celebrity status overnight.”
“It was an adventure, a kind of adolescent wildness, and of course I still miss it,” said Fabara.
But with the passage of time and with art as a profession, her work now “is more a question of business and earning a living and inspiring young people. That, too, is exciting and fun for me.”
“I am an artist, but above all I am a businesswoman,” she said.
Fabara no longer lives in Queens, where she spent 36 years. She moved to a small, rural upstate community after anti-vandalism police in 2013 raided her home for the second time and seized paint, computers and books.
“They did not find any crime. Nothing,” she said. “New York has become a police state. It is hostile to artists.”