GIRLS KICK ASS. In 1973, at the "tough" age of 12, I began navigating the Philly subway system to get to school and was immediately fascinated with the graffiti emblazoned on grimy trains and tiled station walls. The underground "galleries" were filled with those phat, blown-up letters, convoluted names and colorful, cartoonish images.

I never heard of any women taggers back then. But apparently, a cadre of women has been writing on trains and walls all over the world, documented since the early '70s. Pioneers like Manhattan's Barbara 62 and Brooklyn's Cowboy lobbed city streets, public parks and the ubiquitous subway-station-as-canvas with as much vigor as their male counterparts.

In 1979, 15-year-old Lady Pink made her debut. Today, at 39, she's become an enduring female figure in the history of graffiti writing.

"I've been representing the culture for a long time," says Lady Pink (or "Pink," as she's better known) as we talk by phone from her Astoria Queens home. The doyen of the graffiti community, along with her husband, runs a mural company painting legal walls above ground now.

"I'm not actually going out and doing the writing in the dark with a can of spray paint. That's for younger women to deal with."

Women like Claw and Miss 17 and Doña have followed Pink's inspiration, coming up through the ranks as talented artists and savvy sprayers. The four artists visit Tucson to talk about graffiti culture and also to paint an all-women wall on the side of Access Tucson's downtown Broadway Boulevard building.

"They're calling it Girls Unchained," says the project's coordinator, Jessica Pabon, a graduate student in UA's Women's Studies Department, who's investigating women graffiti writers for her thesis.

"In the model of other women's folk art--the quilt--each of the artists will create different panels. Over the whole 'quilt' will be drawn a big, rusty, broken chain. They'll have help from the local aerosol art youth program, Art in Reality, run by Muse, over the three days of painting."

Pink adds, "It'll be geometric, but loose--a real crazy quilt," of the 15-foot-high and nearly 50-foot-wide mural that will stay up until the sun makes it go away.

Pink's studied the local landscape. She visited Tucson back in the '90s, working with Albert Soto and other artists on murals here. She even left her mark.

"I painted some freight trains out in the desert by moonlight. It was kind of creepy."

Seems a dank subway station is a more comforting milieu for Pink. But she knows about Tucson's strong tradition of murals.

"It doesn't seem like people are as freaked out about graffiti like they are here in New York. When people see spray paint, they call 9-1-1. There's fear and terror, like, 'Next thing we'll have is drugs and hookers.'"

Despite this reaction, Pink has established a name for her graffiti art and garnered respect, not only at the Whitney or other New York museums and galleries where she's exhibited.

"I've worked up my own neighborhood. They don't fear me. But, I can't get away with doing crappy work here. I organize big murals. I give back to our community. I'm not just doing mosquito bites, you know, little tags."

She adds, "Recently, a store owner said to me that he's had 30 years of illegal graffiti on his wall, and he'd rather have us come and paint it and make it nice."

But it's not all rosy.

"In New York, everyone has an attitude, a bunch of real tough-ass people. We beat ourselves up with internal strife. We were a bunch of knuckleheads back in the day. When gangsta rap came in É oh my."

As Pink sighs deeply over the phone, I remember that she's pushing 40 and has a long history in the graffiti culture, filled with joy and strife.

"Some of the ladies have struggled with the vandal squad, the graffiti police. Even though I stopped illegal writing back in '85, that hasn't stopped the police from harassing me. Last September, they arrested us all on trumped-up charges. They took 4,000 photos and slides of mine and all my paintings. Now I have to hire lawyers. There's been a real crackdown even on us legal taggers."

She adds, "If they could outlaw inspiration, they would."

Jessica Pabon echoes Pink's frustration. Despite the strong mural tradition in Tucson, she's noticed some internal wars.

"People were initially really excited about the mural. But I got a phone call recently from someone who said that this one may inspire violence. Who owns the walls in this city, anyway?" Pabon wonders.

Pink says the struggles of women writers are parallel to women in hip-hop.

"Basically, there are very few of us, and we have to work really hard for the respect from other writers. But like folk art, we're valid. We're not about big white walls and a mailing list like the uptown galleries."

And still, turf wars prevail.

"The guys misbehave something terrible. Last week, we lost an all-woman wall. The guys said the owner told them it was OK to go over our stuff. That's not right. So we're gonna mess up their wall. But we're gonna be tactical. We're not powerless women who are going to have a hissy fit, if that's what the guys are expecting. I can't let these punks win."

Women graffiti artists Lady Pink, Claw, Doña and Miss 17 celebrate the completion of their mural Girls Unchained with a panel discussion at Access Tucson, located at 124 E. Broadway Blvd., at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 19. It's free and open to the public.

Call 628-4829 for details.

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