“New York City is a land of lost souls. I remember before “political correctness” when we referred to some homeless woman as a ’shopping bag lady’. Such women (barely) survived in the shadows of our (suppsedly) cosmopolitan city. PRAY was one such individual. She is, in my opinion, the most prolific graffiti writer ever.
Over the course of 4 or 5 decades, PRAY has painstakingly scratched small, somewhat obscure inscriptions reading “Obey God“, “Go to church“, and often “PRAY” into glass, plastic, and metal surfaces throughout the city.
To simply call her “prolific” would be an insult to her productivity, an enormous understatement. In New York City her scrathiti was everywhere. In the 1970’s, at the height of her productivity, New York probably had more PRAY tags than residents.
Ironically, there is a strong chance you’ve never noticed her handiwork. That is because her messages are often subliminal. They exist below the surface, literally and figuratively, but if you look in the right places you will find them… And when you do you will realize just how ubiquitous they are. PRAY’s trademark is commonly found scratched into the lower coin box section of public payphones. She often hit the vertical edge-runners of storefront roll down gates. The pillars of subway stations were also fair game to her.
I first became aware of her work in the early 1970’s. Her consistency was impressive, her volume mind-boggling. I discovered that many of my peers were aware of PRAY too. (Of note is Craig Castleman’s 1982 book ‘Getting Up‘ in which the artist Bama speaks at length about PRAY)
In 1978 I had my first encounter with PRAY. I was hanging out on the counter of West 86th St. with a few of my RTW homies. Across the avenue I saw an elderly woman slowly dip into a doorway on the east side of the avenue. For reasons I cannot explain, I immediately knew that it was PRAY. I ran across the street and as I approached her I saw that she had a rolled up newspaper in her left hand. She used it to cover the activity she was doing with her right hand. Her right hand was busy and her hands were gnarled from years of etching her graffiti into hard surfaces.
The top joint of her right index finger was wrapped in tape and her scratching tool was simply a dry-wall screw, also wrapped in tape. Her hands were black from the silt of NYC. She was disheveled, greasy looking, and appeared to have been clearly living on the streets for a long time. She was an elderly woman but possibly younger than she appeared. She was the living definition of ”a hard life”.
I came up behind her, I was awe-struck and I said “Oh wow! You’re PRAY?!”. Not a bright move. I startled her and she scurried away.
I looked where she had stood , and sure enough, she had left her imprint. Since I had startled her she had only left her P-R and first stroke of her A. I felt terrible. I had panicked the queen in “mid-etch” mode and caused her to leave her work unfinished.
In 1982 I was doing cel animation at an office in Times Square. Times Square was really sleazy back then: an ongoing parade of hustlers, hookers, addicts, and eccentric characters. It was great!
I saw PRAY in Times Square a few times during this period. On a couple occasions I actually followed her for a while. No one ever noticed or paid attention to her. She was dirty and forgotten: invisible. She moved at the pace of a sloth. She’d pick through garbage cans as she passed, but I never saw her actually take anything after them. I would follow at a safe distance, not wanting to repeat my mistake from a few years earlier. Sure enough, I’d get to see her do her thing. She moved slow but her scratchiti was very fast. PRAY is without question the all-time queen of graffiti. No one did as much. No one ever will.
Four years later, April 1986, I was sitting in Washington Square Park with a photographer friend. Lo and behold there was PRAY sitting directly across from us, perusing the newspaper. My friend was able to snap a photo of her. At that moment, history was made when the mysterious figure of PRAY was captured on film.
Over the years, I’ve discussed PRAY with countless people. People who were both familiar with her work and those who were not. I have written this out of my unique respect for this odd woman. She seemed singularly fixated on scratching PRAY everywhere she went. How or why she became so obsessed with this practice we will never know. Currently, no concrete facts about her personal life are known.
Among people familiar with her work, rumors abound. One common rumor was that she had a son with whom she collaborated. My research has found nothing to support this. It is also commonly assumed that a large group of people were responsible for these markings. I reject this premise outright. Let’s give credit where it is due. PRAY worked alone. Of course we can assume PRAY produced some copy-cats, but I fully believe these obscure marking still found on the streets of New York City were done by one individual. PRAY. The queen of graffiti."