Just published over on Futures Exchange is my article ‘Graffiti: 40 Years of Hacking New York City’, a look at the history of street art where I compare graf’s ethos and its role in urban protest to that of the computer hacker. It was mainly inspired by a visit to the press preview of The Museum of New York City’s City as Canvas exhibit, where I was lucky enough to get to talk to a few bona fide legends of the NYC graffiti movement, and in particular Lady Pink (known to many as Rose from the 1983 movie Wild Style), who told me about her recent experiences being raided by NYPD – more than two decades after committing any acts that could be legally described as vandalism.
There was far too much from that interview to include it all in the article, so what follows is a full transcript of the chat. It starts just as I’m asking her if she’s okay with me recording her, and the third person in the conversation is my partner-in -crime sava. Enjoy.
Tim Maughan: Sorry, you don’t mind, do you?
Lady Pink: No, yeah, I don’t mind. so the Vandal Squad actually came into my house, the SWAT team truck outside, my neighbors coming out to look, I’m like “oh ho ho”. So I’m not under arrest, I’ve not been charged, but they still took all my stuff, my computers, my published books out of my book case, a 100 books, as well as all my photos, my everything, So all my life’s work walked out the door. My computers, which meant my jobs, my contacts, my contracts, sales, opportunities, travel, everything walked out the door. I couldn’t reach anyone, I couldn’t… they basically fucked me. And my husband still has an open case! You still have to defend yourself, even if you’re innocent. You still have to go to court, hire and expensive lawyer, and prove that you’re innocent, and when that’s all over, then they’ll give me back my stuff.
T: So how long ago was this?
LP: In May.
T: In May?!
LP: In May.
T: Are you still writing on walls?
LP: Of course not. I have not broken the law in a couple of decades!
T: So why now?
LP: Because this is what the police do. They oppress artists. So yes, we’re accepted *here* [at the gallery], but nevertheless, if any of us idiots have the nerve to organize an event, do a public function, or in any way show that you are prospering and profiting from that, then they’ll get the police – they’ll raid your house and they’ll get your stuff and do fishing – try to find some kind of crimes or something something. So when they take in my husband, charged him with graffiti, and they say, “yes we seized 800 cans of spray paint from the house” it sounds bad! But then when you say the wife is a professional muralist and a respected artist and such, then it’s perfectly legitimate, but nevertheless they still have all my stuff.
And so what happened with that, 3 months ago I moved out of the city, I live upstate now. a couple of hours away from this. I came in yesterday to be here for all you people, because I live far away now. The Vandal Squad doesn’t have jurisdiction upstate, so they can’t move. and this is the second time they got into my house. they did this to me ten years ago. I have a beautiful house in queens. We don’t break the law. and my husband, for the past few years, had been a train operator, driving subway trains, with no time to scratch his belly button, much less do any trouble or anything, but this is what the police want, for him to lose his job, to fuck me over as a professional artist, and to make me… question… it’s hard enough to be an artist, why do I bother? Why don’t I just let the police win, fuck it. But you know, I have responsibilities, I have exhibits, I have… I’m a role model for young people, I have a following, I can’t stop! But the police are making it very very hard so I had to buy a house upstate, and I live in the country – outside my windows looks just like this [snowy central park]. It’s just nothing but forest. I don’t see people, I don’t see nothing.
T: Are you going to be ok getting back?
LP: Well my husband’s coming for the opening tonight, so we should be able to drive back tonight. They clean the city streets pretty well. It’s upstate I worry.
sava: It’s weird that they’ve come after you decades after you’ve done this stuff… I don’t understand that… I don’t understand the logic behind that.
LP: Because we’re in the public eye and we have the nerve to profit from what we do and they just can’t stand it, so they got nothing better to do than to take down a couple of high profile artists. And they’ve done this to other people who have organized things, so we’re not the only ones. They get into your house and do fishing, try to find something something that’s in there, even some old photos that’s inside your camera that, you know, that shows anything. But there’s nothing in my house for them to have found and charged anything, you know. But still. It’s just terrifying the police are… that they’re thugs, that they have that kind of power and we have no control, no way to stop them from doing whatever they want to do. We’re just artists, so…
S: do you know if you’re going to get your stuff back?
LP: When the case is over, they’re supposed to give it all back. But the truth of it is, that they don’t give it all back. They keep whatever they want to keep. And give you back what they want to give back. So other people who had their stuff seized and when they took my stuff ten years ago, I only got back like maybe 90% of it. They kept some memorabilia, some antique subway signs, and stuff like that. And now I don’t know what they could possibly keep, you know. I had to sit there with a police lady on my sofa and watch those people walk out the door with all my paint, all my books, all my photos, computers… pshew, everything out, everything gone.
T: They’ve still got the computers?
LP: Yes, yes! They still have all our stuff, and, but I do have a brilliant brilliant attorney… she’s expensive, but she’s the best, the best that there is. And she’ll make this thing go away.
T: That’s still… that’s disgusting.
LP: That they can do this, right?
S: You should invite them to this!
LP: I don’t doubt the vandal squad will be here tomorrow night. I mean it’s the public opening and all the little graffiti writers and riffraff…
T: They wouldn’t pick anybody up…
LP: They’ve picked people up at their own gallery openings. They’ll pick people up. They’ll say, “oh we have a photo of some wall… that we’re not so sure if it was legal. and you come with us.” They’re gallery openings! So yes, they’re going to be out here like vultures. circling circling. maybe they see somebody you know… even around the block because the kids on their way here, from the subway. Even at 5 pointz there was a perfectly legal place to paint…
T: We got down there like three days before they white washed it all.
LP: So the vandal squad will go around and around and around and wait for somebody that’s painting on the wall, to go down like this and go “ts ts” on the sidewalk? that’s it. handcuffs. You’re going down. Because the building is permission, but the sidewalk belongs to the city. You ain’t got permission to paint that! So… they do that. like I said, vultures… circle, circle, wait for someone to slip up.
T: That’s the only good thing… it’s the one thing that’s come out of Banksy back home is now it’s kind of legit. The police don’t do that. They do and they don’t. But because of Banksy, it’s kind of like, ah it’s art now so… yeah, I know, we all feel the same about Banksy, but… he’s kind of… I haven’t heard of anything like that going on for a while now back home… but wow man, seriously.
LP: No, I like Banksy. I like what he’s done, what he stands for and… um… where he’s brought us. The legitimacy. there’s towns and villages and places where they’re like, “alright! cool!” and that is priceless, what he has done. So… whoever he might be, whatever… I love it. I just love it. I know other people have problems with Banksy and all of that, but I think it’s all good. Because there are many other riffraff that we’ve exhibited with that just completely destroy and fuck it up for us. So that places never have us back because some guys misbehaved and that is a given, some of these guys are riffraff from the ghetto and don’t know how to behave properly and don’t care if they drag us all down with them, so that Banksy can put us in the positive light is a plus, right? And a bunch of homeboys wrecking up some hotel and tagging up in front of everything, you know, that’s not good, so can’t argue with that… and the amount of money that he’s commanding? It rubs off on us all.
T: I hope so, I hope so.
LP: Yes. Yes. We do sell our paintings in the 5 and 6 figures.
T: Right ok. ok that’s good to know.
LP: Yeah. So yeah. We do well. And how the police hate that.
T: Yeah, Yeah, I bet.
S: How does it feel to kind of get together… do you keep in touch with all the people?
LP: No, we see each other all the time. I stuck with these guys forever.
S: Ok, so it’s fun to kind of hang out together and do this…
LP: Two of them are my exes, and one of them is my sister’s ex. That movie Wild Style was written about the actual love story between me and Lee. we dated for four years, a very stormy relationship but they’re… strong personalities, didn’t quite… but we’ve always exhibited together, and we’ve had to get over it and just become friends and such. I even had Lee’s son work on one of my mural projects with the other children and stuff. I’m like why doesn’t he paint with you? Yeah. Why’re you giving him to me? I do well with kids, so.
S: Your husband?
LP: He’s also a graffiti artist, but he’s from a different generation. The generation after me. I quit it in ’85, he started in ’85.
S: Is that how you met? through…
LP: Not back then. we met in ’93, um… to make a long story short, I had a couple of really cute European kids staying with me – all of 19-20 year olds – they wanted to paint subway trains really really bad. and all I knew was the civilized guys and nice places like this. Honestly, after so many years, I didn’t know where to go paint a train safely. You gotta be safe. So I had to dig up the last die-hard painter who did subway trains and I found, I dug up my husband. He agreed to take these young kids to do a train, only if I came along. And I was like “I’m too old to go, I haven’t run from the police in so many years, that’s not my thing!” But I didn’t want the kids to be disappointed, so I went along. We’re painting a subway train, and we got raided by the police and we had to run! And I had initially said I’m not going running, I’m too old, I’m staying here and getting arrested, you guys go ahead. But when I saw them running, my friends were already gone, I took off as well, and we did escape, we got away. We got split up and he thought he lost me and stuff, and I think that raid, we fell in love and stuff. And it was cool. So he was always more of a vandal and bad boy of graffiti, and I was the good girl artist type. So we got together, I turned him more into… brought out, nurtured the art in him, because he had a lot of talent.
T: Is he still working now? Is he still writing?
LP: Not illegally, certainly not. He’s my executive assistant, he helps me with all my work, mostly the administrative stuff but as well as the painting. With a man in tow, I can do bigger work and with a white guy in tow, I command higher prices. That’s just the way… it’s still a white man’s world, unfortunately. So your blue eyes will command a lot more money, and you’ll get a lot more respect than just being a female. You gotta play that game because that’s the way it is. So easily I push… he’s a very quiet man, but I push him forward, “speak! you ask for $10,000, because you’re going to get it.”
T: This sounds really familiar.
LP: We have to balance each other and work as partners in order to succeed in this world. As a little female I always get “you can’t paint that, little girl! that’s so big!” but with a man in tow, they won’t say that… and that’s just sexism. We paint a lot of high-end businesses, in the construction world. A female in the construction world it’s a little… unusual. That’s what we have to do: play the game.