Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

San Antonio-born Performance Artist and Activist Advocates for Outcasts as ‘Mother Pigeon’


  • Courtesy of Mother Pigeon
In the sparse greenery of New York City, a flock of pigeons and their creator can be found nestled among chess hustlers and cheap paintings for sale. Typically, a handmade sign that reads, “Do Not Feed the Pigeons, They’re Already Stuffed” is set up next to a battered suitcase filled with well-earned tips. Upon closer inspection, the pigeons are frozen in place. As animated as they look, these life-size pigeons are crafted from felt, wire and yarn, and stuffed with recycled clothing by Mother Pigeon, an activist, artist and urban wildlife advocate who often wears whimsical, hand-sewn, faux-feathered frocks as she tends to the flock or works away on her vintage battery-powered sewing machine. Pigeons aren’t the only form of urban wildlife she creates — the flock of birds is often joined by hand-crafted rats that appear to be chowing down on a slice of felt pizza.

A fixture on the New York performance art scene who’s been covered by The New York Times, The New Yorker and NBC News, among other outlets, Mother Pigeon (born Tina Piña) is a San Antonio native who moved to New York in the 1980s to live out her passion as an artist. One visit to the Big Apple was all she needed to realize that was where she belonged. “When I got back from my trip, I said to everyone that I’m moving there and I’ll do whatever it takes to get there, and I did, three months later,” she said. Her love of New York-centric movies such as Midnight Cowboy and Rosemary’s Baby also inspired her life-changing move as “these references were a part of [her] life.”

Coming from San Antonio — often pegged as a big city with a small-town vibe — Mother Pigeon admits the adjustment was “a little scary” at first. “When I arrived, I stayed at a YMCA on the Upper East Side, and that was terrifying,” she recalled. “I was totally scaring myself to death.” After leaving the YMCA a week later, she rented a room in Chelsea. “At the time, Chelsea was the pits of New York,” she said. “People wouldn’t even visit me there, and it was the actual meatpacking district of New York. There were prostitutes and a drug-ridden situation just along the streets.”

Now Mother Pigeon is settled in a quirky Brooklyn nest complete with a talented family seemingly plucked out of a Wes Anderson film. For more than a decade, she performed with her husband Jason, an off-off-Broadway playwright and big-band composer, and their daughter Rachel, a model and vocalist currently in the band Wooing, as the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a family band that would make the Partridge Family look tragically uncool. While doing unglamorous temp work to fill in the gaps, Mother Pigeon was also making art and selling it on the street. “My dream always was to be able to work for myself [rather than] do what someone was telling [me] to do,” she said.

Pigeons, to most New Yorkers, are filthy, feathered misfits. And that’s one of the reasons Mother Pigeon has dedicated her life to inspiring love for so-called “rats with wings.”

“I have always been an advocate — whatever you want to call it – for the underdog. And whenever I see that someone doesn’t like someone or something then I really want to find out why,” she said. That empathetic spirit cultivated Mother Pigeon’s love for her feathered friends. She elaborated on the origins of her pigeon religion: “Living in New York, I noticed that there were these pigeons flying around, and they were really cool and I’d love to feed them — I’ve always loved to feed everyone really — and I didn’t realize how hated and reviled they were. I really didn’t understand why, so I wanted to do something to give them some respect and some love and just to make people see them in a different way than just the horrible press that they get.”

To fight the stigma against the misunderstood birds, Mother Pigeon created. “I started making the pigeons, and people really love them,” she said. “They’re always moving, always flying, and here they are still, so people always gather and have a nice time looking at them. And then I can talk to them about how much I really adore and love them.”
  • Courtesy of Mother Pigeon
How do people react to Mother Pigeon perched in the park, cooing at her feathered children who surround her? “There are people who always get really disturbed or angry by the ‘outstillation’ street art, and I’m always really surprised by that,” Mother Pigeon said about unfavorable feedback. “I also get people who really love it and are extremely complimentary and excited. They laugh a lot, and even some come up to me and tell me it’s the best street art they’ve ever seen.”

New York has long been an epicenter for DIY culture and street art. Speaking to that particular niche, Mother Pigeon said, “One of the big reasons I like to be on the streets is because I feel like galleries are elitist and museums are uptight and they make you feel uncomfortable. I’d rather walk down the street and see someone painting with stacks of paintings around them.” In addition to her contributions to the street art scene, Mother Pigeon also created 300 Pigeons in the Park (300 Pigeons of Peace), a “renegade flash-flock” designed to bring attention to illegal pigeon netting in New York City.

Not only is Mother Pigeon a friend to the often-derided pigeon, she’s an activist for everything with a heartbeat. “I’ve always loved animals and cared for them and rescued them from bad situations,” she said. “I remember walking on 14th street in New York and there were these people who would set up a little table and have pamphlets — this was pre-internet garbage — that would depict the most horrifying photographs of animals being tortured and slaughtered for our food. I really needed to see that. I decided that I can’t contribute to this kind of lifestyle that we’ve been brainwashed to think that it just appears on our plate or our coat or whatever.”

Mother Pigeon is also known to frequent animal rights marches and protests in style — complete with a papier-mâché pigeon head and a boom box blasting everything from “Free Bird” to “I Love My Little Rooster.”

Reflecting on her inspiration to embrace the underdog and change the world’s perception of pigeons, she said, “I love that it affects everyone, and it bypasses class and color and all of that.”

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