Sandra Fabara, known as the “first lady of graffiti,” was the only girl in the burgeoning subway-bombing graffiti subculture of 1980–85, when her teenage work, under the name Lady Pink, could be seen throughout the city. Simultaneously, she was exhibiting with street artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, meeting Andy Warhol and collaborating with fine artist Jenny Holzer, which helped her transition to creating art legally — now in collections nationally, internationally and at the Metropolitan, Whitney and Brooklyn museums in New York City. She credits her public school teachers with encouraging her talent and modeling the life of a working artist. “I had all kinds of wonderful teachers who influenced me. They would tell me there is a lot of promise in me, despite my acting out and getting in trouble. I never quite believed them, but they saw potential in me, and it takes a lifetime to realize what they’re telling you as a kid,” Fabara says. She is now returning that favor as a mentor herself, teaching public mural making in an after-school program at Frank Sinatra HS in Astoria.
I’m a first-generation immigrant. I came to this country from Ecuador as a 7-year-old in 1972 with my mom and sister. We started in Catholic school and encountered racism, so my mom pulled us out and put us in PS 17 in Williamsburg and JHS 126 in Greenpoint. There were other Latin kids there so we fit in a lot better in public school for sure.
One of my earliest school memories is of my art teacher in junior high school, Mr. Robbins. He was a little sparrow of a man, already elderly and skinny, with big glasses. He was very kind and encouraged me a lot in my art. He sold one of my repeating designs to a textile company for $100, which was cool at that young age, and he encouraged me to build a portfolio for high school. He was proud when I got into the HS for Art & Design.
I encourage any kid to go to a vocational high school. It gives you a huge edge in the world. Most of these teachers are working professionals. One teacher, Mr. Graves, was instrumental in asking me to curate an art exhibit at Art & Design. He was an elderly black man with glasses and was in charge of the school’s gallery. He believed in us, and I, at the age of 16, was allowed to choose a dozen artists and curate an exhibit of graffiti art. We had a really awesome exhibit!
There were about 300 graffiti writers going to that school when I started and that’s where I met kids from every corner of New York City, neighborhoods I had never even heard of.
We had the most popular table in the lunchroom, and I was queen of the lot. That’s where we planned and did all our business. We all became apprentices and masters — we taught each other. That school was instrumental in nurturing the artists that came out of there, and there are just a massive number of artists, working professionals from there.
The networking and the kind of friendships we made there are equivalent to the sororities and fraternities from universities. We’ve stayed friends.
I learned how to exhibit, how to get press ... It’s not the conventional way of education, but that’s what happened. Although I always did well in school, in high school I went over to the dark side and by my senior year, I barely ever went to class. I didn’t end up graduating. Later on, I went for my GED and nailed it with high grades.
My major in high school was architecture, but I found the mathematics dreadfully boring, lots of straight lines and rules. It’s difficult to sit still and focus on such tedious work when you’re young and want to run around and throw color all over the city. I couldn’t get into it, but the drafting helps me as a professional muralist; understanding the elevations and measurements helps me considerably.
I work with a wonderful teacher now at Frank Sinatra HS, Dr. Jane Kahn. She is inspirational and dedicated. I told her that I come with my own grant to teach painting and mural making to the kids. I like to put these kids into the spotlight, give them huge projects and responsibilities, like they did with me when I was young.
I’ve been doing the after-school program with them for 10 years now. I try to tell the kids I’m working with — and they may not believe me just yet — that they will be amazing when they grow up.
— As told to reporter Cara Metz