From Venus To The East Village: Lady Pink Rewrites Graffiti Herstory

Written by Christina Elia

Lady Pink needs no introduction. During her illustrious, forty-year career, she’s earned her stripes in the streets and galleries globally, forging her path as New York’s foremost female muralist. Thanks to her cult following in the 1980s, many continue to recognize her today as ‘the first lady of graffiti,’ a renegade who dared to express her femininity in a male-dominated medium. Now, she’s chronicling this immense growth through Graffiti Herstory, her new solo show at Miami’s Museum of Graffiti. On view until May 20th, the exhibition surveys Lady Pink’s favorite career milestones, celebrating her artistic mentors alongside her activist origins.


Art by @ladypinknyc // Photo provided by the artist


Any feminist exhibition unveiled during Women’s History Month comes with certain expectations. We’ve reached a point where female empowerment can seem forced without authenticity, self-awareness, and inclusivity. In addition to highlighting real-world issues women battle, Graffiti Herstory presents a genuine glimpse at Lady Pink’s body of work thus far. It also illustrates her personal journey as an artist, tipping her hat to graffiti’s yesteryear. Nostalgia pulses through the exhibition, from the artist’s chromatic portraiture to her recreation of past illustrations. For anyone who may not be familiar with her work, a central wall in the front room offers visitors a quick crash course in all things Lady Pink. Guests can trace her progression from the 1980s until the present on a printed timeline, which incorporates all her major accomplishments. An above collection of miscellaneous newspaper clippings and framed sketches invite spectators inside this unique universe. 


Art by @ladypinknyc // Photo provided by the artist


Graffiti Herstory reads like a long love letter to Lady Pink’s youth, with one of its biggest walls honoring her artistic mentors. Like separate parts to a bigger whole, each canvas encapsulates its own unique backstory, explaining how the artist improved into who she is today. In one vibrant representation of the famous graffiti crew TC5, she reminisces on her first-ever experience painting in a train yard. Another depicts Lady Heart, a peer who came up alongside her. Caine One Forever, a portrait of the eponymous writer, shows the legend emerging from a haze of flames in a leather jacket, set against a bombed 7 train. It’s a two-in-one reference to a dear friend as well as Lady Pink’s early subterfuge in the subway, immortalized by her role in the cult classic Wild Style (1982). Even in a museum setting, the artist remains true to her radical roots, keeping the legacy of graffiti’s pioneers alive. 


“I needed to pay tribute to these guys, my support, my teachers, my masters, and my friends. These are all the folks that made me possible,” Lady Pink said. “Without their support, love, acceptance, and skills to teach me and believe in me, I wouldn’t be who I am.”


Art by @ladypinknyc // Photo provided by the artist


It’s admirable to see Lady Pink’s evolution since NYC’s underground boom. By 1985, she’d made a name for herself bombing the subway, standing out due to her bold, iridescent lettering. Without intending to be an activist, her art developed alongside the burgeoning feminist movement, which urged women to venture beyond the domestic space. Lady Pink made her presence undeniable by invading the transit system with her distinctly feminine penmanship. Even as she pursued a three-dimensional technique in the 1990s, the artist never forgot her foundation. No piece demonstrates this better than War – What’s It Good For. Featuring an overlay of dynamic lettering, several allegories occupy the composition’s background – women reclining nude, a city burning to bits. In her typical daring style, Lady Pink’s soft forms curve into an image of a flower. Her creative transformation mirrors a similar journey within the street art scene, moving toward muralism while maintaining graffiti’s rebellious spirit intact. 


“Lettering is very specific by region and era. My pieces from the early 80s have that specific 80s flavor,” Lady Pink told me. “Over the years, I’ve had to adapt and see what other cats are doing, always keeping things up to date.” 


Consider it a lens into a bygone era where creatives overcrowded cheap apartments, painters embraced celebrity status, and New York’s gallery scene and nightlife intertwined. 


Another painting dives even deeper into this niche history. In Graffiti Herstory, a small purple and red canvas, Lady Pink recreates an illustration she showcased in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s 2007 text The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive NYC. Centered on the symbiotic relationship between culture and commerce, the book contains insightful interviews with Lady Pink, Lee Quinones, and Futura 2000, among others. Its central premise is all-to-familiar to anyone well-versed in the East Village’s 1980s art scene: the city’s social life controls its overlapping creative industries. No one understood this better than Andy Warhol, a prescient entrepreneur who unified New York’s brightest artists, fashionistas, and filmmakers. With its intricate portrayal of a female silhouette blended into hip-hop elements, Lady Pink’s painting serves as a personal time capsule. Consider it a lens into a bygone era where creatives overcrowded cheap apartments, painters embraced celebrity status, and New York’s gallery scene and nightlife intertwined. 


“It covered everything from breakdancing to the music scene,” Lady Pink expanded on her beginnings in the 1980s scene. “What a great potpourri of creativity in downtown New York City.” 


Art by @ladypinknyc // Photo provided by the artist

Lady Pink’s large-scale canvases also focus on art as a means of activism and self-expression, for herself and other women. In Graffiti Herstory, she’s not just concerned with preserving the past – she also wants to retell it. While feminism has advanced white women’s standard of living, the material conditions of marginalized communities remain unchanged. Through her art, Lady Pink reimagines a world where women of color find a voice in history and modern-day politics. Just look at her standout painting Black Venus, which riffs off the ancient artifact Venus Of Willendorf (25,000 BCE). This time, Venus is a curvaceous Black woman covered in colorful tattoos, most notably a giant marijuana leaf. One of her hands rests proudly on her hip while the other grips a Lady Liberty torch. Atop her head sits a pink “pussy hat,” a feminist symbol of defiance popularized during the 2017 Women’s March. 


“Our job still isn’t done, and women of color are underrepresented,” Lady Pink elaborated. “I’m just going about my business as an artist.” 


Art by @ladypinknyc // Photo provided by the artist


Supporting her community is a lifelong pursuit. Lady Pink demonstrates her dedication to bettering humanity one painting at a time in her commentative canvas Activism Is Never Done. Showcasing a young child painted green as the focal point, an image of an emaciated woman occupies the background. Other figures inhabit the composition in a faint sketch, either shackled, behind bars, or pregnant. Overlaid on a cell door says the sentence: “over 80% of women in prison are mothers.” Lady Pink’s heavy-handed symbolism addresses the challenges women face today – poverty, incarceration, and teen pregnancy, among others. There’s even a small nod to the feminist street art group the Guerrilla Girls in the upper right-hand corner, with a depiction of a figure wearing a gorilla mask balancing below a fragmented quote from the group’s famous poster. Expounding her wide visual vocabulary, Lady Pink positions her work within a larger feminist tradition. 


“The painting was only exhibited once a few years back at The Bronx Museum, so I’m glad to have it out in the world now,” Lady Pink said. “It’s going to a good home.” 


Art by @ladypinknyc // Photo provided by the artist


Her other muses skew more organic. Inspired by her childhood in Ecuador, where she had an aviary, some of Lady Pink’s paintings incorporate various natural themes. In Sisters Oh Sisters, she combines her penchant for activism with images of chromatic flora and fauna. A mother carrying a tired child occupies the piece’s lower righthand corner while a blue female figure inhabits the lower left, her hair flowing to expose an intricate, swirling flower pattern. In the upper-righthand corner, evocative eyes alert spectators of their commanding presence. Nature becomes the central subject of an adjacent painting titled Unity Tree, which depicts a budding tree of life against a black background. Every branch debuts a different flower – orchids, tulips, roses – each synthesizing in harmony to act as personal symbols of strength, growth, and beauty. Lady Pink’s current home in the countryside continues to encourage her adoration of the living world.  

“I grew up around flowers and an abundance of color, which inspires me to use this imagery in my artwork,” she told me. “Now, I live in the country, surrounded by nature again. It’s sunny, warm, and wonderful.” 


Art by @ladypinknyc // Photo provided by the artist

All of these coalescing themes come together smoothly in Graffiti Herstory. Varied subject matter aside, seeing the exhibition virtually felt akin to watching a self-produced documentary. Ever since her first solo show at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia at age twenty-one, Lady Pink has matured her muralism alongside her studio practice, outdoing herself with every new endeavor. Her support for her community never wavered either, and she still furthers her activism by teaching art to children. With Graffiti Herstory, Lady Pink continues to prove feminism isn’t antithetical to graffiti, asserting that women can succeed in a ‘man’s world’ without yielding to its patriarchal constraints. However, the exhibition isn’t wholly defined by this political ethos. It’s equally about how Lady Pink herself molded graffiti’s history, a toast to the friends, foes, and inspiration she met along the way. Now that she’s paid her dues to the past, only time will reveal her future triumphs.

Christina Elia is a freelance journalist and personal essayist from New York City, where she currently writes about topics ranging from street art to pop culture, television, and travel. Her work has been published online in The Observer and has appeared in print in Graffiti Art Magazine.