Roger Gastman Graffiti and Street Art Entrepreneur | In episode 65 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits sits down with graffiti and street art expert Roger Gastman.
Roger Gastman is one of the world’s foremost authorities and on all things graffiti and street art. He’s taking his expertise for art and experiential online to do an exclusive sale and content series with NTWRK. Gastman has written books on street art, curated museum shows, and last year put together a massive display of street art, graffiti, and mural art called “Beyond the Streets.” Roger joins us on Light Culture to talk about how he’s carved his own lane, museums’ reluctance to get on board the movement, and where it’s going next.Read Transcript
Roger Gastman’s life changed when he picked up a can of spray paint and began a career devoted to the art of graffiti. Though his calling was not to be an artist, he never abandoned his first love. Evolving over the decades into one of the world’s foremost authorities on all things graffiti, street art, and beyond, as he likes to say. He’s the co-author of The History of American Graffiti, as well as many other books. He worked on Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, and was also instrumental in bringing the street into major American museums, like the MOCA Los Angeles Art In The Streets exhibit that broke all previous attendance records. From Beyond The Streets in Los Angeles, he built out a forty thousand square foot space inside a converted Chinatown warehouse with highlights including half of a police car, an interactive temple, and handball court, and a recreation of a Venice skate park. When Beyond The Streets moved to Brooklyn, this space included an ephemera laden retrospective to the Beastie Boys, of a Vandal’s Bedroom, and a fully-functional tattoo shop. Now he’s doing something different again. Teaming up with NTWRKs, N-T-W-R-K, on December 5th and 6th for a virtual art fair with exclusive products dropping on the app-driven platform. The roster of artists is a who’s who from the pantheon. With Kenny Scharf, Futura, Fab 5 Freddy, Rammellzee et al. So welcome, Roger.
Thank you. Hello.
Hello. So I mentioned all the installation work that you’ve been doing to enhance the experience of going into your amazing comprehensive shows, but I was wondering why you do that? Is that because you feel like the work needs context, so it’s not- just a gallery exhibition, in order to make these works come to life that are generally not made for indoor spaces?
Absolutely. We want to make work come to life. So much of my attitude with Beyond The Streets and other museum-based projects I’ve been doing, or just large-scale-based projects I’ve been doing the last several years, is the idea of education through entertainment. People get so bored so easily these days. Everyone’s stuck in their phone, everyone wants the new photo for Instagram or their Snapchat, et cetera. So if we can create an experience that drives people in, gives them their incredible photo opportunities, at the same time. It forces them to start reading the didactic text, forces them to be curious about what something is. That’s been the plan, and thankfully it’s been working. We see people come in, they take their photos, they look around. They scream to their friend, “Look at this.” They get excited. And then twenty minutes later, I see them calm down, reading text, really getting up close to paintings, paying attention. And then, you know, see them start to get bored a few minutes later, and then all of a sudden, you know, snap your fingers and there’s another big thing for them to explore and take photos with. We’ve used some of these incredible installations as awesome art objects and further explorations of where the artist can take things. And at the same time, ways to continue the audience’s excitement.
A lot of this work is made for public viewing outdoors. Do you feel the work loses anything by bringing it indoors into this different context?
I think great artists that work outdoors, work indoors, can make work that fits anywhere if they know their audience, if they know themselves, and they know their art. For Beyond The Streets and so many other things we’ve done, the goal is not to just take artwork that was outside, chop it off the wall, and put it inside. Or here’s some photographs of some things. It’s really to work with the artists who have gone on to have these fantastic studio practices and really been able to harness the energy from the streets, and take their learnings from that, and bring it inside.
But at the same time, every tenth or fifteenth exhibit, we absolutely do more of a throwback, more of an ephemeral twist. Something a little bit more historical to remind people where they are, and what they’ve been doing, and take the streets and put it inside. You know, “Oh, shit. This is the photo from this. This is the sketch book from this. This is the jacket this person was wearing when this happened.” Whatever it is.
Art In the Streets had this huge turnout in LA, broke all records, yet it caused controversy within the museum, among a lot of the people there who are more traditional. And I know, Jeffrey Deitch, who was the director of the museum at the time, wound up leaving, possibly- partly because of the show. Because all of the attention it generated actually became a negative for board members and people who control these institutions.
Absolutely. Art In the Streets was an incredible opportunity. I’m grateful for Jeffrey for bringing me onboard and trusting me as one of the main curators that got the show done. The show broke museum record attendance. I think we had over two hundred and twenty thousand people come through. And, to my knowledge, the museum has not even come close to that since then. We had so many incredible events, so many incredible visitors. And don’t forget, there wasn’t Instagram and things like that to drive people in there. It’s really just press and blogs. And everyday there were lines. Everyday there were kids getting excited, everyone was there. From celebrities to serious artists. Ninety-five percent of the press was incredible. We talked about the show travelling, it was supposed to go to the Brooklyn Museum.
Then there was just a little bit of press talking about how much graffiti happened in the neighborhood. And, honestly, I was in that neighborhood probably twelve to sixteen hours a day for six months during the setup and run of the show. And we’re downtown. There was very little extra graffiti compared to what there would have been if there would’ve been a show from any other artists in the world in that space. You’re downtown, you’re in a very urban environment. You bring two hundred and twenty thousand people through something, things are gonna happen here and there. No one talked about all the restaurants that were always packed. All the parking lots that were always busy. The MOCA gift shop that, again, broke records on their sales, and everything like that. Unfortunately, the museum institution was just too afraid to take that show elsewhere, and the powers that be at MOCA, from everything I know, were just unkind and ungrateful for what we had done.
Do you find that to be true throughout that museum world, with regard to the work that you show?
I wish that wasn’t true, but I continually find that to be true throughout the museum world. I will say, in the last five or six years, the museum world has been more opening and welcome. And I understand the museum world, I respect the museum world, but the museum world is greatly driven by dollars and cents. And if you have the backing for a show and the financial support for a show, there’s a much greater chance you’re going to get that show no matter what’s about. It’s not often about artist legacy and how great the artists are. It’s about who is paying for it, and then if that person or that group is continuing to endow and help fund the museum. And that’s partially, goes back to public arts, and museums public and private having to fundraise and get their money. I do see more and more museums taking on bits and pieces of what we’ve done at Art In the Streets, what we’ve done at Beyond The Streets, because that’s safe to take on one artist or group of two or three artists. But doing something that is as expansive as we have done is often, financially, not possible by the museums. They don’t have enough space to do it. Or they’re just afraid to do it.
But aren’t you getting more interest from corporate sponsors to support this? Because, many of them are recognizing and supporting graffiti street art in all dimensions. Painting cars, painting walls, engaging the community with work and supporting it financially, as well. So wouldn’t it be possible to get a Nike, for example, to do something like that for a museum, that would open those doors?
Absolutely. Brands are constantly supporting events like this, shows like this, exhibitions like this. But something that’s always important to remember, and one of the things that always kind of comes back around to work against me, the museums, or the institutions we’re talking about is just the fiscal year. Museums are often planning two, three, four, five years in advance, and brands are on a fiscal. If we have an incredible show happening in 2014 at any institution and around the world, and we call a brand about it, almost every brand would probably say, “That sounds great. Call me that year.” You know, if you want something for 2014, call at the end of 2013. And a museum is not gonna take on that 2014 show unless they know it’s gonna be funded. So the funding often has to come before you even have an opportunity to talk to the institutions.
Okay. Well, that’s an interesting point I’d never thought about. It’s a practical function of how these institutions work. Obviously they’re missing out on a lot by doing it this way.
Absolutely. You’re constantly chasing yourself. Do I have the money ready for the show? Is the artist ready for the show? Now let me go get the institution. I have the institution, but they’re three years out. It’s just a big puzzle that is hard to put together. And that was one of the reasons I was just so frustrated with that system, and decided to go ahead and do something on my own. And then when the museums are welcoming, I will be happy to work with them.
In my introduction I mentioned the pantheon, the stars from the ’80s, let’s say, who were the originators for a lot of the work or set the path for what’s out there now. But what about the younger artists? Who are some of the people that we may not be that familiar with that you see a market for that people are excited about?
There’s a lot of artists out there that people have been just so excited about the last several years. Young artists is a tricky thing because-
Quotes. Young. [laughs]
Exactly, what’s a young artist? To me, as I continue to get older, young artists, in a way, are now in their thirties and forties, that have a solid footing in the gallery world and starting to break their ways into the institution. One example of an artist I represent, so I’m a little biased of course, is out of Valencia, Spain, Felipe Pantone. He’s been doing incredible work. He comes out of a hardcore diet of graffiti, painting walls, going into subways yards, painting trains, travelling the world and doing that. At the same time, was really just enamored and enthralled by op art and started working on studio work. And he’s just an incredible op artist at this point. And when people see his work, they rarely say, “Oh, that guy. He came from graffiti. Or this street artist or that.” Of course, if you see a lot of his graffiti and then you see his paintings, you can see some connections with the color schemes here and there. He’s an incredible young talent that’s getting a lot of play, a lot of buzz.
Hasn’t been sued yet by Pantone? Or is that coming up? [laughs]
He hasn’t been sued yet. His graffiti was Pant, P-A-N-T. And then, a lot of graffiti artists, of course, put numbers after it. So Pant 1.
With regard to your representing him, you mentioned, and what other artists? And, you know, can tell us, I’m happy, let’s hear who you work with directly.
Absolutely. I represent three artists. From helping them with strategy to editions, to gallery work, brand work. Little bits and pieces of their life, and big pieces of their life. Felipe Pantone is from Valencia, Spain, who I mentioned. DabsMyla who are out of Los Angeles via Australia. And, Pose, who’s in Chicago. And I’ve had long-term relationships with all three of them, and it’s been fantastic. We’ve helped each other grow, we’ve supported each other in so many endeavors. And then there’s dozens of artists that, while I don’t officially manage them or take care of all elements of their business, that we work with behind closed doors and help them with the contracts, help them place work with collectors, help them with brand work and strategy.
Let’s talk a little bit about collectors, because, here as well, I feel like it’s not the traditional collector that you would find walking through the Gagosian Gallery. Or maybe it is. Maybe that’s a bad example. But, yeah, who are these collectors? They have traditional collectors who have huge collections? Or is it younger people who may be very successful, like a celebrity? Seth Rogan is obviously someone that you’ve worked with. I believe he was involved with your show in Brooklyn. Who are they and how do they fit into this culture in general?
As any art movement through the years, the collectors are of course so important to keep the movement moving and support the artists. The collectors for the work I work with are so broad and varied, more so than most groups of collectors I have seen that collect, fill in the blank, of any other type of work. It is from some of the people that you’ll run into at a Gagosian or other fancy-ass gallery like that, who are starting to become very interested and immersed in this work. And they ask a lot of questions. To the hedge fund guy to the young lawyer, to someone that’s a bartender at the restaurant down the street. The entry level point to so much of this art is affordable. Three, four, five, six thousand dollars, you can get a great piece. It might not be a huge piece by an artist that has a secondary market record, but it’s a great piece of art. You know, the average price points for so much of the work we work with is twenty to sixty, seventy thousand dollars. And while that’s a lot for a lot of people. In that art world that has been collecting, that still can be looked at as very entry level.
And with that, so many of the collectors really want to be educated. They want to see where the artist is going. They want to see large bodies of work they’ve completed, because so many of them, a lot of the painting’s twenty thousand dollars this year and sixty thousand dollars next year. It’s not the price that bothers them, because I found so many of them, thankfully, can afford it. They want to see the artist’s growth and where they go. So it’s not necessarily about, “Oh, I got in at this entry level price.” They want to see, they want to be educated. So, so much of what I look at, that I’m doing, is not necessarily being an art dealer. I really look at myself as someone who’s educated and consulting interested parties in this work.
And so many traditional art dealers I’ve seen through the years – not all of them, so don’t wanna sound like I’m giving them a bad rap – don’t want to introduce the artists to the collectors, other than maybe a quick handshake at an opening or a large group dinner. I do my best to encourage the collectors and the artists to meet each other, understand each other, and grow from each other. Because if an artist doesn’t really understand, or know, or see where his work’s going, and is just constantly in a small group of artists and not out there talking to all of these other people, they can often be stuck. So the more friends they make that own their work, that collect their work, that are champions of the work, to me, the further the artist goes and the more opportunity that collector also has to talk about the work. Talk about the artist to their friends. So many times, the collector and the artist come from completely different worlds, but they get along and can bond over certain shared experiences. I’ve watched so many collectors become friends with the artists, and it’s just been a wonderful relationship. In the end, I have the attitude that if the collector and the artists want to forget about me and completely go around me with everything, they’re probably people that I don’t want to be working with anyway.
[laughs] Yeah. I was thinking that. That’s probably a reason that Gagosian et all don’t like that. Because, yeah, they could cut you out, right?
Absolutely. If I’m servicing everyone correctly and really treating them as a friend or a partner in something, all is good. And if I’m treating it just as a straight financial, “Thanks, bye.” Then there’s a much better chance it will happen. And of course we sell and place artwork with people that we don’t know that well, and we don’t have continued relationships with. That’s always gonna happen. And there’s so many people that I’ve placed artwork with that I can say have become friends. And if I never sell them anything again, they’re still my friend.
So much of the art world revolves around social functions and being there to connect with the people who can afford it and are interested in the work. Whether it’s at other openings or parties. We know right now people aren’t really doing that. But overall, is that something you do, as well? You live in LA, right? There’s a big hip hop community there, of people who are very successful, spending lots of money on cars and houses and jewelry, and whatnot. Does that turn out to be some place that you go to looking for customers? Or how do you play it?
In general, we find most of our clients and collectors through word of mouth. Through current collectors, through friends. Through studio visits with the artists. And absolutely, we host dinners, we host small events, and gatherings. And those always help. But in the end, the best clients that I’ve ever come across, it’s always just word of mouth. Because you treated someone properly with respect, you serviced them well, they’re happy, they’re your friend. They want to turn you onto the person they just met, or their old friend that is interested in some work.
Cause they see it at somebody else’s house and they go, “Oh, that’s cool. Maybe I could also get a piece like that.” Do you have to educate them, or do they respond more viscerally to a piece and they don’t really need to know very much about the artist? That, they’re really responding to the work first, the artist second.
It’s both. So many times, people will just write directly to the website or an artist on their social media, or me, saying, “I want that piece right now. I must have it. Please hold it for me.” And you don’t even know who the people are. And they don’t know who the artist is half that time, other than they just saw it and they must, must have it. And other times, the amount of people I’ve had come to my home for a dinner, or something like that, and they’re coming to meet a certain artist that’s here and they’re interested in their work, and they see another painting that’s hanging in my house by another artist, and they’ll say to me, “Hey, Roger. I know you’ve sent me stuff by this artist a few times. You invited me out with them or to their studio. I just didn’t respond to it. But now I see it in person. That’s what I want. Please get me that.” And they ask me a million questions. So there’s no rhyme or reason, in a sense. People will quiz the hell out of you about an artist for two or three years before they will take a piece on, or they’ll just instantly get it. They do sometimes need to be around it and it grows on them. Of course, so much art is placed these days via social media, via text messages, and PDFs. Which is great. But at the same time, there’s nothing like the experience of viewing it and seeing it in person. And I think once you’ve viewed the art and you see it in person, of course it’s much easier to understand than from social or the PDF what it’s going to look like. So I always do my best to make sure people are around the work. “Oh, you like this painting? But please come over and see it. Yes, I’ll hold it for you. Yes, I’m happy to get it for you. But please come over and see it.”
You referred to street art and beyond. So what is beyond? What do you feel coming- Is there something happening out there that we should know about, that you feel is going to extend the format in some way? In the same way street art extended graffiti from writing, which you’re very familiar with, obviously. You’ve written quite a bit about the history all the way from the trains and the hobos putting their signs on to today.
Graffiti and street art are two very different things that have become very blended together in today’s world. And street art is the safe word. And then, at the same time, so many communities around the country and around the world have really embraced this massive mural culture in all parts of their cities. And those murals have so often helped gentrify neighborhoods, and change communities. But while-
Is that a good thing? To gentrify? For you?
Gentrify, is that a good word?
Gentrify is a good word and a bad word. It just depends on how much the community is respecting what was there, and taking care of the people. You know, all things need to move, all things change, whether you want them to or not. So it just depends on how well the community that’s getting gentrified, that was there before, is respected, I guess. Usually, it’s not respected as well as it could be. So it’s not always a good thing. But in the end, I’ve come to accept and understand that things are always going to change and grow. If you look back through history, it’s always happening. So you can do you best to preserve and tell the story of what there was and respect it, or just spend your whole time fighting against it. And you’re usually not going to win. So I’ve usually done my best to respect what was somewhere and tell the history, and then tell the story, and preserve what I can of it.
Yeah. Well, speaking of that, with regard to graffiti in the late, ’80s, early ’90s when we had that initial surge I referred to earlier, and then it went dead. The galleries wouldn’t show it. Nothing was happening. Futura went to work as a bicycle messenger. A lot of people dropped out for a while, trying to figure out how to survive. Some died as well. Never really able to reap any of the rewards of what they had created in their lifetime. So what happened then? What happened to bring it back?
These murals that are in so many of these neighborhoods now, and cities, are being called street art. So it’s really important for people to understand the difference between graffiti, murals, and street art. Just because it’s an outdoor piece of art, it doesn’t make it street art. Street art, traditionally, is done illegally. So if it’s a mural, it’s happening by a great artist, it doesn’t mean that artist is a street artist. Just because an artist is using some of the tools and styles from graffiti or street art, also doesn’t make that artist a street artist. There’s really a difference between the three.
In doing Beyond The Streets, by looking at graffiti, street art, and beyond. We’re looking at an attitude of a rule breaker and mark maker. There are so many great artists out there now that have been inspired by graffiti, have been inspired by street art, and you can see it come through in their work. They’ll talk about it or they’ll use the tools in it, and they want to prop graffiti and street art up as a true, great, incredible art form. There’s an incredible group of artists that, in the last twenty years, have bucked the system and didn’t go to art school, make some incredible paintings of oil paint. Take a slide of it, take those slides, send it to the gallery. So in Beyond The Streets, we really want to expand like an octopus of multiple arms, and respect artists that have really gone in a non-traditional route. A lot of the graffiti, a lot of the street art.
And what helped make so much of this world get popular again, and make people pay attention, that’s a good question. I’ve thought about that, and I’ve come up with so many answers over the years. And I think it depends on, of course, what city you’re in and where you’re at. But, to me, so much of it is just the coming of age. I’m forty-two. I’ll be forty-three in October. And people that are a little bit older than me started to come of age. They started to go to school. They got their degree in graphic design. They finally then were a creative director at a company, and they were looking back at hip hop, punk rock, skateboarding, graffiti. All of the things that inspired them growing up, or maybe they’ve played a role in. And you started to see it in the ’90s in advertising, you know? If there was anything that was supposed to be a little bit wild, there was skateboarding, there was graffiti, there was hip hop. The punk rocker was the bad character in all the ’80s TV shows and movies, now it was, “Oh, cool. What’s over there?” So I really believe it was the coming of age, and the late ’90s where enough people that are my age, and a little older, started to get some power and a voice at these businesses.
And started to pay attention, they started to rent their own apartments, buy their own homes. What did they want on their walls? What did they want to see? They’d rather hang six skateboards up that were their favorite skate decks from high school than a poster from Z Gallerie, or when they went on a trip to Paris. And then there were a handful of gallerists that really saw it, and were continuing to champion some of the artists that were really working on the streets. And, of course, Jeffrey Deitch and what he was doing in New York was always ahead of the curve. He was ahead of the curve in the ‘80s when he was doing it, and he never gave up on so many of those artists. And gave them a voice and gave them a space, and gave them collectors. And people paid attention. And then, of course, in Europe, this art form was exploding. There was spray paint being made for it. There were clothing brands. Europe always was ahead of time, wanting to support artists and their patronage. They were doing it with graffiti, they were doing it with street art. And by the early 2000s, there were enough galleries opening in these communities across the country. There were enough ways for artists to communicate directly with their fans and collectors online. There was still Tower Records that was helping to support so much independent publications that were talking about these artists. And it was here again. And it hasn’t gone anywhere.
And look at what’s going on now, most recently, at Sotheby’s, where they had that auction of hip hop ephemera, painting, and objects. How do you feel about that? Did you look at that at all?
Absolutely. Auction houses have been starting to take on this work from small print edition auctions that have been monthly, to the huge hip hop auction that just happened at Sotheby’s, which was incredible to see. They dug up some awesome ephemera and unique objects from the last thirty-five, forty-five years. And it just proved the power of the hip hop generation, and the audience for it. While I don’t know everyone that was purchasing what was there, there had to be some serious people purchasing. Because if you look at the prices that things were going through, and it just set the stage for what’s to come. Hip hop’s coming up on its fiftieth anniversary. And I think that’s just the start of what we’re in store for.
Well, Biggie’s crown sold for like six hundred thousand dollars. What- what is it made of? It wasn’t really made of anything valuable, minerals or precious diamonds, or nothing like that, right? It was just fabrication for a photo shoot.
Absolutely. And I found through the years of digging and archiving, because so much of what I do, also, is collect ephemera, photograph ephemera, scan ephemera, get it however I can. Because it’s continued to disappear. And while I’ve been able to find a lot more ephemera based on punk rock and graffiti, finding ephemera and fliers and posters, et cetera, based around hip hop is not easy. There was not as much hip hop ephemera and collectibles out there as there were for graffiti, as there were for street art, as there were for punk rock. And as much of it that there was, it was not saved and collected, as we found with punk rock, graffiti, and a few of these other subcultures.
Exactly. Psychedelic art. It’s just not there. So it proves its value. It’s hard to find, there’s not much of it, it looks just as fantastic, if not better than so much of the other things I’ve collected and see. It has its own voice. It has its own style. It has its own artists that helped create so much of it. And I hope it continues to rise.
And what would you want from that show? Were there any pieces that you wish you could have?
There were a few posters in that show that were incredible that I hadn’t seen before. That I would have loved to have. And the early Dr. Dre and Wrecking Crew tracksuits were pretty fantastic.
[laughs] Definitely want to see you wearing those.
What did you want?
I’m not really a collector in that way. I have some of my own collection of ephemera that I’ve been saving over the years from getting so much stuff at Paper. Invitations and posters that I have stashed away. There was nothing really that grabbed me that much, that I had to have. But there was so much that I would love to have, because it’s just such a touchstone for me, it reminds me so much of my life and my history.
I was wondering, jumping back a second to when you were talking about murals. The king of the murals is probably Shepard at this stage, right? Shepard Fairey, seems to be doing those more than anybody else. I know he’s on a little bit of a hiatus now. But you have a long history as well. You had teamed up with Shepard to do a magazine at one time, called Swindle. Could you tell me a little bit about your history with Shepard? At your show in Brooklyn, you had a whole floor devoted to his work. So I know you guys are still at least talking. [laughs]
I became aware of Shepard when I saw an ad in Flipside Magazine. The old punk rock magazine when I was in high school. Probably in ’94? If I had to date it. And he had a company, AG, Alternative Graphics, if I’m getting that right. And you could order stickers and t-shirts. And I ordered some stickers and t-shirts that I still have to this day. And I was aware of what he was doing. I was travelling, I was seeing the stickers, and I didn’t think a ton about it. To me, this isn’t graffiti, this isn’t street art. It was just there. It was everywhere, and it was something that I thought was really fun.
What were you doing then? Were you already a historian of this work?
At this point, I was just travelling with friends, and writing graffiti, and going to punk rock and hardcore shows. And yes, while I was interested in the histories in cities, you know, I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-years-old. And just starting to get interested in the history of cities, so I definitely wouldn’t call myself a historian at that point. Other than a fan and trying to learn and get my hands on anything I could.
So you were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen travelling around the country by yourself, or with friends?
With friends. You know, going to write graffiti or with a friend’s band, for the weekend. Going to play shows you know, New Jersey and New York. And at the same time, I’d help them sell merch, and then I’d go paint on something.
You grew up around the Washington DC area and Bethesda, Maryland. And you’ve done a lot of work to establish that scene as something unique and special in its day. And, thanks to you, we know that to be a fact today. What was it about Washington DC that gave it this unique scene, Bad Brains, go-go music, also graffiti.
Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland a couple miles from the DC border, it was an awesome place to grow up. It was safe. I was around so many different people, and you could go down into DC and it was a wild, wild city in the early ’90s still. Coming off of being the murder capitol, it was a city that was really deserted by seven, eight o’clock mostly. In the ’90s, when we were there. And there was just still so much culture there and so much culture that hadn’t fully left DC.
I missed the first couple waves of the incredible music, but I very quickly found out about it. And we were going to shows several times a week. Then I discovered go-go and was enthralled by that, although that was never, um, my favorite music as I was still to this day listening to so much of the same hardcore punk rock I was listening to then. I was just enthralled by the go-go culture. What it meant, what it stood for, where it came from. Did my best to learn and find out more. And, years later, I ended up producing a book, a film, and a museum show at the Corcoran that really showcased so much of the go-go culture of DC in ’80s.
The graffiti culture of DC in the ’80s. The hip hop culture of DC in the ’80s. The first book I made was about the DC graffiti culture called Free Agents. I put it out in 2000. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. It sprung from a magazine article we were working on that just kept getting bigger and bigger. And my collection of DC graffiti and, thankfully, being able to find a lot of the people that had helped start the DC graffiti scene. And, turned into a two hundred-plus page book, called Free Agents. We did a gallery show with it. We had incredible press. And that’s what really kicked me into doing anything in the gallery world. I had no idea what I was doing. It was like, “Hey, we have this book. We gotta promote it somehow. It’s with a bunch of artists. I guess we should just hang up a bunch of their stuff downtown at a gallery.” And, it worked. And, that’s sort of the fault of why I’m still sitting here today, I guess.
[laughs] You dug your own hole, man.
[laughs] That scene is all pretty much gone, I would expect, at this time, right?
DC still has a very active graffiti scene. But the scene I came up with, the locations we came up with, the gentrification has changed it all. The city has changed it all. There’s still a few people left in the DC graffiti community that I came up with. But for the most part, the generations have just continued to turn over.
Was that the time that Marion Barry was Mayor? The crackhead Mayor?
I remember Marion Barry well. Yes, Marion Barry was Mayor during a lot of DC’s graffiti heyday. But, the heyday when I was really downtown Marion Barry had been, uh, outcast from being Mayor at that point. But his name and his attitude, and the love people had for him in the city were still very, very real.
He’s a hero. Working class hero. Are you interested in artists working in more traditional space, as well? Do you go to galleries and museums, and just on your own to look at the history of art in that way, or even new artists showing at the galleries?
I will admittedly say I don’t get out of my bubble of the artists I work with and interact with as much as I would like to. I’m so stuck on continuing to find the next great collection of early ’70s tags, or a photo collection from LA from the early ’80s that hasn’t been seen while they’re still out there to find. That I am not looking at new work as much as I would like to. I do look at new work. I do go to galleries. I do go to museums. I do read about artists. But I’m constantly on the hunt to keep digging up the classic, the historical, and archive it and tell its story. Because, unfortunately, so many of those artists, those collectors, those photographers, or just that club promoter that had everything are dying, disappearing, getting rid of what they had, or it’s going into hands that don’t understand it or respect it. Or collections are getting ripped apart. So I’ve continued to do my best to find things, preserve and archive. And that’s where so much of my time and energy goes.
Well are you working for anyone now? Any particular book or subject?
There are a few books we have going right now. When they’ll come out, I don’t know. But sooner than later, I hope. They’re all almost done. We have an incredible book with Martha Cooper, photos 1980 to ’84 of graffiti, most that have never been seen, and some outtakes of the more well known images. It’s over seven hundred photos from her archive. There’s not that many left from that body of work that haven’t been seen. The book is pretty much done, and we’re figuring out what we’re gonna do right now to print and distribute it. I’m very excited about it. We’ve been working with Chris Pape and Michael Lawrence on a book about NOGA, a less known graffiti group in New York that was run by Jack Pelsinger in the early ’70s to late ’70s. It was inspired by UGA, United Graffiti Artists, was a much more open group for people. You might remember it.
I remember UGA, but not familiar with the NOGA.
NOGA was I don’t want to say spinoff, because that’s not the case, but a like minded group that was a little bit more inclusive. And Michael Lawrence has an incredible body of hundreds and hundreds of photographs of the time, some sketches, the letters, paperwork, all kinds of wonderful ephemeras. So we’re almost done with the book on that. We dug up a few other photos that really helped round it out. And, uh, Michael, actually, just found another, I think, two hundred slides that he’s FedExing us right now. We thought we were done with the book, and Michael said, “Stop. Stop. Stop. I just found a few more things.” And then lastly, for years I’ve been collecting Chicago gang cards since the late ’90s, and that’s a culture that has exploded with the Printed Matter Book Fair and things like that. Chicago gang cards have just become overly trendy. Things that were once easy to find and I had some sources in Chicago that I would get them, you now see a single card on eBay for two or three hundred dollars. There’s gang jackets. There’s also gang sweaters with patches. I mean, it’s a scary world, of course, but it’s incredible iconography and stories, and a lost time that I think needs to be told, as it also helps shape the unfortunate truth of what’s going on in the city of Chicago right now, still to this day.
There’s so many other projects like that we’re working on. One more I’ll mention, “The History of American Graffiti” is a book I did in 2011, I think? It came out with Harper Collins and it was massive. We interviewed over five hundred people for it. From Texas to New Jersey. All the major cities and did the best to tell from graffiti inception in their city up to the late ’90s when there’s so much more documentation of it, and magazines start coming out, we really focused on the early parts of major American cities. Harper Collins, unfortunately, just kept cutting the book smaller and smaller and smaller in trim size, in page count, and changed our editors. And you name it. While I’m proud of the product that’s out there, Harper Collins just dropped the ball in helping get it out and doing anything with it. And a couple years ago, thankfully, we got the rights back for it. And I’ve been working with a few friends and building that out the way I want. It will probably take a few more years. But if we had a chapter about Cleveland that I originally had three thousand words, and Harpers made it fifteen hundred, it’s now seven thousand words. [laughter] We’ve gone back and we’ve talked to all the people that we talked to originally to really get and to fact check, and a few other people that came out of the woodwork. We’re talking to them. So we’re just really expanding the stories. And that thing’s gonna have to be four volumes and be a few thousand pages by the time we’re done with it. It’ll get done when it gets done. And I’m proud of it.
Wow. So there’s no shortage of things for you to work on.
And including up and coming to what I alluded to earlier that you’re having, the virtual art fair with NTWRK, which is an app. Aaron Levant, who started the ComplexCon, that’s who was a guest on my show, as well, earlier this year. Tell me what that’s gonna be like. So people are gonna be able to purchase via the app, and then you’re gonna have exclusive drops?
I’ve been friends with Aaron for twenty-plus years. I remember him from when he was an intern in the late ’90s at clothing- streetwear brands in Los Angeles.
And he’s been an incredible supporter of the artists and the arts through all of his endeavors, and always done his best to be as inclusive as he could, and push his friends that were artists and support them in their careers. And he has an incredible new business at NTWRK, and he really has this awesome, young audience. Before, when you were talking about a young audience and who are younger artists, he has harnessed an incredible younger audience. A younger audience that should be educated, should know about graffiti, should know about street art, should know about some of the major artists coming out of it. And I want to teach that audience that right now they can buy a limited edition t-shirt or screen print, and in five years they might want paintings for their home, they might not. But they’ll be educated on what this great culture is. So when he came to me and said, “Let’s figure out how to do something with the NTWRK app.” It made perfect sense. Obviously, we’re not doing any shows in real life this year.
We’re probably not doing any shows any time early in ’21 in real life. The Beyond The Street show takes well over a year to plan it properly, so you can do the math and know when we will be back. We will be back with some fantastic shows though. And I said, “Great. Let’s do something.” I don’t want to do something though that’s VR-driven or where you’re an avatar looking through a gallery and so many viewing rooms like that we’ve seen. While all of those are fantastic and serve their own purposes, for a lot of the Beyond The Street’s audience or the NTWRK audience that I really need to make sure we harness and respect, I think you’d get bored fairly quickly. I think those viewing rooms and alike are perfect for one artist, really understanding the work and context and size, the scale. But so many people now are all ingesting their media and their information on their cell phone with YouTube videos, Tik Tok, Instagram, you name it. And how can we respect that?
So we’re calling it an art fair, not a festival. You’re going to learn from and be inspired by this. In the end, it’s very product-driven. And at an art fair, you’re inspired and you learn also. But the point of an art fair is dealers to buy booth space and place their paintings with collectors. You know, an art fair is very commerce-driven. So our goal for this is going to be very commerce-driven. We’re gonna have thirty or forty episodes over two days, December 5th and 6th. And we’re gonna have a lot of incredible limited edition products from skate decks to screen prints, to paintings to sculptures, to cookie jars, apparel. A lot that will be in collaboration with some great brands. A lot of the artists are making themselves. A lot that we’re helping the artists produce. And we’re gonna tell a lot of the artist’s stories with quick hitting video content. And then we’re gonna have a lot of surprises in between those episodes of some how-to’s, some lessons, some behind the scenes tours, and, do our damndest to make it a really engaging two days of fast hitting fun. Engaging, yet educational content.
So the artists will be represented in the videos or in the content?
Yes. Almost every artist that we will be working with will be represented in the video content, and in the storytelling.
Wow. It sounds amazing. Sounds entertaining, if nothing else. And then all of the drops will be limited edition, for sale?
Absolutely. The products will be available. The plan is to roll products out and episodes out every half hour. And new products will be available with each episode. And they will be from extremely limited editions of, potentially, one-off pieces to, you know, editions of four or five hundred depending on what they are.
Very interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing this iteration of what you’ve started and managed to keep growing over these years very successfully. Thank you very much, Roger, for being on the show. And, catching us up on all this stuff that’s going on right now.
No, thank you for having me. You’ve been very inspirational. Everything you’ve put out through the years. And I’ve watched closely, and still have stacks of magazines.
Alright, my friend. Talk to you soon.
Thank you. Bye.