In the first issue of his graffiti and pop-culture magazine While You Were Sleeping, Roger Gastman thanked â€œMom for the loot,â€ and then thanked â€œeveryone who ever told me that graff was a dumb waste of my time.â€ Gastman, who was 19 at the time, had already been running a graffiti supply business in Bethesda, Md., for three years and was starting to assemble a valuable collection of graffiti ephemera, sourcing discontinued Krylon paint colors at mom-and-pop hardware stores as though he knew, even as a teen, that his obsession would serve him well.
Now 33 and living in Los Angeles, Gastman is still having the last laugh. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is gearing up for the April opening of â€œArt in the Streets,â€ a major graffiti and street-art survey heâ€™s curating along with the museumâ€™s new director, Jeffrey Deitch, and the independent curator Aaron Rose. â€œThe History of American Graffitiâ€ (HarperCollins), written by Gastman and Caleb Neelon, also comes out next month.
While the tattooed, baseball-capped Gastman says he wasnâ€™t expecting the e-mail he received from Deitch about the MoCA show, â€œI sort of feel like Iâ€™ve been training for it my whole life.â€
He was introduced to his calling in the streets of Washington, D.C. â€œEveryone had a tag,â€ he recalls, sitting under an Adam Wallacavage octopus chandelier in his Los Feliz living room. â€œIt was just what you did.â€ His skills may have been â€œaverage at best,â€ but he was there â€” climbing the rooftops, painting the freight train cars and documenting it all. He says his tight network of artists, collaborators and friends is simply a product of being in the right place at the right time â€” he met the now legendary Saber under a bridge when he was 15 â€” and an ability to keep his word. â€œMost people are flaky,â€ he says with a shrug.
â€œWhat I really liked about Roger from the beginning,â€ says Shepard Fairey, a fixture in the pages of While You Were Sleeping and later Gastmanâ€™s partner in Swindle magazine, â€œwas that he seemed really self-motivated, smart, funny and irreverent. But heâ€™s also professional enough to put out a magazine and organize all the moving parts that go into that. Itâ€™s a pretty unique blend.â€
Swindle â€” named in honor of the Sex Pistols movie â€” came out from 2004 to 2008, years that saw seismic shifts in the impact and visibility of street art and graffiti. Banksyâ€™s 2006 â€œBarely Legalâ€ show in L.A. was heralded on one cover, featuring his spoof of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore. In early 2008, Fairey designed the Obama â€œHopeâ€ graphic. By the time Gastman was called in to help Mr. Brainwash, a k a Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman obsessed with street art, mount a massive show on Sunset Boulevard, Fairey and Banksy were practically household names.
To everyoneâ€™s surprise, the Banksy documentary â€œExit Through the Gift Shop,â€ which explores the street-art phenomenon through the story of Guettaâ€™s unlikely ascent, received lots of mainstream attention. (Gastman was a consulting producer on the film and also has a cameo.) â€œI keep thinking the bubbleâ€™s gonna burst, this canâ€™t get bigger,â€ he says. â€œThen somebody pushes something else.â€
According to Deitch, graffiti/street art is the most influential art movement since Pop, and the level of interest from the public and from scholars is what necessitated the show. â€œItâ€™s so big,â€ he says. â€œThe museum world now has to acknowledge it and look at it from a historical point of view.â€
Some may think the two are interchangeable, but Gastman says street art and graffiti are â€œvery different animals.â€ The former is iconic and message-driven, while graffiti is simply the practice of writing your name over and over again for the sake of fame: â€œThey want to be king of their block.â€
Aware of the inherent irony of a curated museum show celebrating mostly illegal, temporary outdoor art, Deitch and Gastman have chosen to focus on those artists who have gone on to build serious careers. A large part of the exhibition will be installations by mythic outlaws like the subway painter and â€œWild Styleâ€ star Lee QuiÃ±ones and Chaz BojÃ³rquez, whose style draws from cholo gang graffiti and Asian calligraphy. There will also be works by still-rising stars like Miss Van and Revok. Fun Gallery, the East Village storefront where Patti Astor showcased graffiti and gave early shows to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, will be recreated on-site.
Fairey, who will also be doing an installation, says Gastmanâ€™s presence is a buffer. â€œWith a crowd of people so inherently suspicious of the wielders of power â€” the gatekeepers â€” to have somebody like Roger involved is extremely important.â€
Still, Gastman, who has curated art shows for clients like Scion and Sanrio, knows that a stamp of approval from the establishment only carries so much weight for artists who have chosen the street as their gallery. â€œTheyâ€™re excited to be in a museum setting,â€ he says, â€œbut theyâ€™re also still really excited to go paint a huge wall off the freeway.â€
ByÂ Steffie Nelson for NYTIMES
Photography: Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao