In the first issue of his graffiti and pop-culture magazine While You Were Sleeping, Roger Gastman thanked “Mom for the loot,” and then thanked “everyone who ever told me that graff was a dumb waste of my time.” 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 “Art in the Streets,” a major graffiti and street-art survey he’s curating along with the museum’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch, and the independent curator Aaron Rose. “The History of American Graffiti” (HarperCollins), written by Gastman and Caleb Neelon, also comes out next month.
While the tattooed, baseball-capped Gastman says he wasn’t expecting the e-mail he received from Deitch about the MoCA show, “I sort of feel like I’ve been training for it my whole life.”
He was introduced to his calling in the streets of Washington, D.C. “Everyone had a tag,” he recalls, sitting under an Adam Wallacavage octopus chandelier in his Los Feliz living room. “It was just what you did.” His skills may have been “average at best,” but he was there — 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 — he met the now legendary Saber under a bridge when he was 15 — and an ability to keep his word. “Most people are flaky,” he says with a shrug.
“What I really liked about Roger from the beginning,” says Shepard Fairey, a fixture in the pages of While You Were Sleeping and later Gastman’s partner in Swindle magazine, “was that he seemed really self-motivated, smart, funny and irreverent. But he’s also professional enough to put out a magazine and organize all the moving parts that go into that. It’s a pretty unique blend.”