NYC graffiti legend ‘Lady Pink’ now helps young artists paint their future

Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara’s teenage years were filled with vandalizing subways after dark, running from law enforcement, and partying with the likes of Andy Warhol in New York City. Forty years later, she has traded her spray paint-fueled sprints for a paintbrush, commissions, and a business of giving back.

Born in Ambato, Ecuador, she moved to New York City at age 7 and grew up in Queens. Now 55-years-old and living in upstate New York, Lady Pink regularly commutes back to NYC and travels around the world to help students perfect their crafts. Primarily working with art and design students, she helps burgeoning artists develop large murals for their neighborhoods.

“I love to nurture and mentor young people — that’s how we taught in the graffiti culture,” she said. “It was always master to apprentice.”

The skills required for painting murals three-to-four times the size of the artist is not taught in schools, Lady Pink said. While even the best arts school will teach students fundamentals of composition and painting on canvas, approaching a street work for millions to see requires an entirely different strategy.

“I see the confidence and pride [the students] take when they do these kinds of large adaptations of their artwork … on the street where people are going to stop and give you their unfiltered comments and appreciation,” she said. “They’ll stop the car and get out and shake your hand and pound your back. Where do you get that kind of stuff from complete strangers like that?”

While Lady Pink doesn’t teach students her original craft of spray painting and graffiti — she said it takes years to be able to do properly — she does push them to stick to a theme and think larger than life. One group of 23 students from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts even created a block-long mural with their individual illustrations.

And that encouragement to further develop others’ artistic abilities does not just end with middle and high school students. Lady Pink is on a mission to “go with the flow” and help whomever she can, whenever she feels like doing so, just as her graffiti forefathers did. She worked with one of her neighbors, a 71-year-old woman, to paint a mural, which ignited the woman’s love for street art. Another mentee was 60 years old.

“All it takes is a little encouraging and ‘You go girl,’” she said.

John “Crash” Matos has been friends with Lady Pink since they were teenagers. A fellow graffiti artist, the 58-year-old Bronx resident said that her’s success stems from her intelligence and what she and very few others saw between the lines of the street art around New York City. 

"We saw that there was something that we were doing that was important in the sense of communication that hadn’t been really explored," Matos said. "She grasped the importance of what we were doing early on, so the fact that she maintained her work ethic throughout the years to the level that she’s at now, I think it’s great." 

Matos said that Lady Pink’s thick skin and attempts to hide her compassionate nature are a natural consequence of not only her grasp of graffiti’s possibilities, but also of her being one of only a few girls in the graffiti scene in the 1980s. Her artistic skills were the ire of members of the majority-male graffiti gangs; they treated her poorly — and many men, he said, still do.

“To be a girl in a male-dominated situation like we were in, she had to take a lot. She took it and she just made it her own,” she said. “She really has an incredible ability and there are people out there who will just shoot her down for no reason other than they’re stupid, I guess.”

But Lady Pink made it clear that she is not a teacher, and that this lifestyle of working with kids and running PinkSmith Designs with her husband — fellow artist Roger Smith, of graffiti duo SANESMITH — was not always her intention. As her street gained recognition, what she wanted initially was the popularity, the fame, and most importantly, the adventures.

“It was way fun … our names in all the best nightclubs and watching the birth of hip-hop,” she said. “It was a hub of energy and chaos and unpredictable stuff going on.”

She partied with notable artists and celebrities and got lost in the Ghost Yard — a subway yard between 207th and 215th streets along the Harlem River that was built on an old burial ground. She starred in the 1983 movie "Wild Style" about graffiti culture. The kiss of death narrowly missed her as her friends died on train lines and fell off elevated tracks throughout her teenage years.

Even the way she and her husband fell in love was an unexpected chaos. They met through mutual friends and went on a late-night trip to paint a train underneath Central Park, but were raided by police and had to flee the scene. That was, she said, the moment they fell in love.

And now 25 years later, she and her husband want nothing more than to thrive on their artistic work and share their street smarts with the next generation of artists looking to set their own path.  

“I’m a business woman. I’m not a touchy, feely, flighty, fluffy little artist — business first,” Lady Pink said. “But the most rewarding work that I do is mentoring young people. … It’s way cool.”