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To say that Roger Gastman is an asset to graffiti culture would be cutting it short. Considered as a mediator between the subculture and the mainstream world, Gastman has successfully parlayed his passion into a career. With more than 30 art books and magazines under his belt, starting with While You Were Sleeping, in which he started in his mother’s garage, onto Swindle — a high-end pop culture quarterly started by him and Shepard Fairey – Gastman continues to keep his finger on the pulse, connecting the dots between brands, galleries and producers with artists both emerging and established. While his commercial accolades consists of over 70 murals for the likes of Reebok, M&Ms, Coca-Cola and Heineken, producing films like Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop offered another channel for his discerning commentary. His latest documentary The Legend of “Cool” Disco Dan profiles the namesake graffiti kingpin and go-go culture in 1980s Washington D.C. — a time when drug wars and the crack epidemic swamped the nation’s capital. We caught up with Gastman just before the movie screening at this year’s POW! WOW! to learn more about the current state of graffiti; how the internet is both beneficial and damaging to the culture; and the go-go legend, Cool “Disco” Dan.
“As a curator, author, producer and ex-active member of the graffiti community, I continue to see the movement grow exponentially.”
Roger Gastman talks about his perception of graffiti culture and its change
As a curator of graffiti culture, how has the perception of the art form changed since its formative years (1967-72)?
Traditional graffiti started in Philadelphia in the mid-’60s and became famous on the New York subway trains in the early ’70s. As a curator, author, producer and ex-active member of the graffiti community, I continue to see the movement grow exponentially. There needs to be much more education and definition behind the history and culture of graffiti and its differentiation with street art. For example, if a piece of art has been done with a can of spray paint, all of a sudden the term “street art” comes to play. That’s not necessarily the case: it’s a mural and someone was using a spray can. It’s amazing how many stems have grown from graffiti. There just needs to be a clearer distinction.
Therefore, in your opinion, what’s the difference between graffiti and street art?
Graffiti and street art are kissing cousins. They play with a lot of the same tools in the same places, but are immensely different. A graffiti writer is based on a name, not an image. Street artists are usually based on an image. A street artist can come up with a fun face of a dog which he can illustrate via a number of techniques — stenciling, wheatpasting or spray painting — and prepare his work ahead of time. By contrast, a graffiti artist who may have put in good work for the last 12 years, climbing rooftops and train tracks and developing an engaging hand style, would be overshadowed if the two were to do a dozen pieces in a square-mile radius. This is because the dog face is more approachable and easily digested by the general public. Many artists have capitalized from this approach.
There’s always a stigma between graffiti and the idea of “selling out” to commercial jobs. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t mind all the corporate jobs that stem off graffiti. A lot of how I make a living is blending brands with art, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities. If I don’t do the job, then someone else would. It could easily be someone who doesn’t do it correctly or deserve the job. I’m always careful about how a job is branded or perceived. If the art and brands fit, then there shouldn’t be any prejudice against the opportunity.
Curating art culture is nothing new to you. In an era of social media and the internet, how has the documentation of graffiti changed?
A few years ago, Caleb Neelon and I put out the book The History of American Graffiti. For my whole life I feel like I’ve been researching for that book — going through cities, speaking to people, collecting photographs — and we needed to figure out when the book was going to stop. We stopped the book in the mid to late ’90s because that’s when the internet began booming. While we wanted to tell the story as thoroughly as we could, we only had a certain number of pages. Now, the digital documentation of graffiti with the aid of the internet has allowed for greater communication. One can be inspired by graffiti that happened in New York or LA last night, or what an artist did five minutes ago.
When I used to trade photos with people in the ’90s, I would send someone 20 photos of what was going on in Washington D.C., and they would send me 20 photos of the scene in Philadelphia. More often than not, you could tell by those photos what city it was via the hand style and often the color palettes available in local hardware stores. Now paint is so accessible and everyone’s using the same brands. This is great, but the internet has made a lot of cities lose their identities. Styles that are built over 5 to 40 years get lost, but it spreads the culture so much further that it’s more than an even trade.
“Since the release of the movie, I have seen a lot of kids working on their go-go style and name. It’s fair to say that the movie has brought on a new wave of go-go artist.”
Roger Gastman talks about his film The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan
You’re set to showcase The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan at POW WOW. What can you tell us about the film and how it might be received?
The film The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan is an educational film and it’s the last thing I thought I would ever make in my life. It’s not necessarily a graffiti film, although the main character, Cool “Disco” Dan, is a graffiti artist. He takes you through Washington D.C. in the 1980s through his eyes. He was the most famous person in D.C. in the ’80s other than the President or Marion Barry. Even in the mid ’90s, you could go up to a lawyer, cook, or a crackhead and they would know his name. The movie is set in a really rough part of the city, and explores a subculture indigenous to D.C.: go-go — which could be defined as funkadelic meets hip-hop. The film consists of graffiti writers, murders, and the crack epidemic in a time following from Martin Luther King’s killing. I think it’ll surprise people who watch it.
What kind of themes did Cool “Disco” Dan leave behind in graffiti?
The graffiti in Cool “Disco” Dan is go-go graffiti, not traditional graffiti. The names were like Cool “Calm” Chuck, Gangster George, Lisa of the World, or gangs like Gangster Chronicles and Minnesota Avenue Crew. They were long drawn-out names, and were very ego-driven. The style was distinctive and they weren’t doing multicolor tags like you see in traditional graffiti. Most go-go graffiti stopped in D.C. in the ’80s, yet Cool “Disco” Dan carried the torch and kept the style going. People paid attention because it stood out, but no one was pushing that style. Since the release of the movie, I have seen a lot of kids working on their go-go style and name. It’s fair to say that the movie has brought on a new wave of go-go artists.
“I don’t work well if I’m working on one thing. I normally have a dozen things going on at once, maybe something for a corporate client or a passion project.”
Roger Gastman discusses his drive for projects
With over 15 years in the forefront of street culture and graffiti-art movements, which would you say is your proudest release?
The release of The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan was a huge success. It became a book, concert and museum show at the Corcoran Gallery last year. We doubled the museum’s attendance for any show in the last decade, and we sold out the book. I grew up in D.C. studying local graffiti and culture, so in a sense I’ve been working towards this for the last 12 years. Art in the Streets a few years ago at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was also amazing. We had 250,000 people come through in a few months.
As an ardent collaborator and curator, where do you get the drive for all these projects?
I don’t work well if I’m working on one thing. I normally have a dozen things going on at once, maybe something for a corporate client or a passion project. I have four to five books in production right now. I keep finding things that other people think are great, and great things find me. Many of them are passion projects that take time to put out because there’s no funding behind them, but I feel that they are important pieces of subcultures that need to be preserved.
What does 2014 hold? Any collaborations or projects you can let us in on?
I have separate books with Blade, Anthony Lister and Risk coming out. A big show in August at Jonathan Levine Gallery. I’m going to release a capsule T-shirt collection with The Seventh Letter called “Tools of Criminal Mischief” and keep showing The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan around the United States.