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Graffiti’s US History & Art in the Streets: Interview with Roger Gastman

by Hrag Vartanian on April 8, 2011

Eric Kroll, "Patti Astor at Keith Haring's FUN Gallery Show" (1983) (image courtesy MOCA LA)

On April 17, MOCA LA’s Art in the Streets exhibition opens. The show, which was organized in roughly a year or since Deitch became director of the institution, promises to be a major exploration of street art, graffiti and skateboard culture at one of the country’s most important contemporary art institutions.

Today, I spoke to one of the exhibition’s curators, Roger Gastman about his important new book, The History of American Graffiti, which he co-authored with Caleb Neelon, and the MOCA show.

A History of Writing

To coincide with Art in the Streets, and the media frenzy that is sure to follow, curators and historians Gastman & Neelon released an impressive 400+ page volume that attempts to tell the national story of graffiti beginning with its origins on the East Coast in the 1960s until now.

The book is filled with color photographs that do an excellent job of illustrating the art form’s transformation from its more spartan — and less attractive — origins to the more ornamental styles that are commonplace today. If the history of graffiti has almost always focused on New York, which was its first real street laboratory, the authors have made a point to expand the conversation to look at the regional hubs that most people don’t consider, like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Hawaii, Nashville or Phoenix. The reason for that inclusiveness is not only to expand the conversation but also because Gastman, who was raised and first discovered graffiti in Bethesda, Maryland, understands first hand the role that small city scenes have on the movement as a whole.

“We wanted to make the definitive book about graffiti culture, not street art culture, of the US,” Gastman says. “We wanted graffiti kids, that are 17, 18, 19, who are just getting into it, who want to learn their history, to be able to look at it and get it … [we wanted to create something for] teachers who will be able to use the book in college classes. We geared the book to as wide of a demographic as possible. We looked at it as the closest to a graffiti textbook as could be.”

The book does an effective job of cobbling together a readable history that explains terms often tossed around by insiders to the confusion of the uninitiated (tagbanging, throwups, blackbooks … ). If sometimes the language veers towards hyperbole — “Mike Martin was a homeless teenager from Queens with one of the greatest noms de plume in history: IZ THE WIZ.” — its energy makes it a rather easy read only stifled by the lists of events and names that can feel daunting, if necessary, in a large history like this one. If the book aspires to be a textbook than its greatest limitation is a lack of an index, but that is certainly a problem that could easily be solved in a second edition.

MOCA’s Big Street Culture Show

For his contribution to MOCA’s show, Gastman worked hard to tell the story of visual street culture in an attractive, but not necessarily historical, way. According to the co-curator, the exhibition is not geared toward hard-core graffiti fans like himself. “The show is not a history of graffiti, or a history of street art, or a history of skateboarding. The show is the best of the best of artists who have come from those cultures … [though,] we have put together a number of historical elements that are important to showcase the history,” he says.

The exhibition will include a historical timeline, a recreation of the seminal FUN Gallery in the East Village (1981-84), a wall that is a homage to old skool LA, a “Wild Style” display, and a street installation that Gastman says, “will blow people away.”

Gusmano Cesaretti, "Chaz running in a backstreet near Whittier Blvd in East Los Angeles" (1974) (image via MOCA LA)

He explained his contributions to the still unreleased Art in the Streets catalogue as facilitating interviews and providing photography from his archive. He still views graffiti as “revolutionary” and he isn’t bothered by some graffiti writers who dabble with brands and corporations to make a buck. “It’s the MTV culture in a way,” he says. “A lot of artists will participate in those sorts of things and a lot of artists won’t participate. In general, the company or brand will see what’s hot, what people are paying attention to, and then utilize it. It has been done for dozens and dozens of years … [and] it will always continue like that.”

Blades Bojorquez, "Chaz Bojorquez, Señor Suerte tage with 'veterano/veterana' roll calls, Arroyo Seco River, Los Angeles" (1975) (image via MOCA LA)

The Politics of Exclusion

A street work by female street artist Swoon in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Swoon is one of the only women in MOCA's "Art in the Streets" show. (via flickr.com/hragvartanian)

One of the surprising aspects of the exhibition for street art and graffiti observers has been the shroud of secrecy around the final artist list for a show that has been hyped for months. The 100+ names were only published yesterday in the LA Weekly and the list includes 96 names and 11 additional artists who will work on a LA collaborative wall. MOCA confirmed that the LA Weekly list is accurate, though the post also mentions that there is “one extra bonus artist” that some people are guessing might be Banksy, though Gastman could not confirm or deny who the surprise would be. Needless to say, if Banksy is not included in the final show people will be wondering why.

Gastman did explain that the list doesn’t clarify how the artists are represented and until the doors open we won’t know who will have major works on display and who will be marginal players. For instance, REVS, who famously doesn’t show in galleries, is included on the list but will only appear on the historical timeline, while his longtime collaborator, COST, has an art work on display.

Examining the list, I wasn’t surprised how many of the artists are from Deitch’s old stable (Swoon, Dash Snow, Barry McGee, Keith Haring … ) but I was struck by the lack of non-Americans (roughly 10% of the list) and women (approximately 8%). While the latter is shocking it could’ve easily have been predicted as its an open secret that few female graffiti writers, street artists or skateboarders are on the scene, but the former curatorial choice is more surprising, particularly since in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s the street art scene in Europe was flowering at a rate that allowed it to catch up by the turn of the millennium to America’s major head start.

About the lack of women in all the movements represented in the MOCA show, Gastman is frank. “There are just fewer women in the culture of graffiti, street art and skateboarding. None of us can do anything about that, the only people who can do anything about that is more girls and women picking up the tools, going out and doing it. I feel we’ve represented some of the best women coming out of the culture in this show.”

The LA exhibition expects to travel and next year it will land at the Brooklyn Museum, where the audience, Gastman says, can expect an altered version. This tidbit of information will probably provide relief to New York art fans who have already noticed the exclusion of a number of prominent local talents in the LA debut.

Local Street Critics

The poster critical of MOCA's "Art in the Streets" show that showed up in LA this week (image via LA RAW) (click to enlarge)

While champions of MOCA’s street art/graffiti/skateboarding show are excited for the opening next week, not everyone is popping the champagne. Since MOCA’s censorship of the mural by Italian street artist Blu last December, many local LA artists have been protesting (12, 3, 4, 5, 6) Jeffrey Deitch and the museum for what they see as the lapse in judgment.

Gastman refused to discuss the Blu incident but did offer an opinion about the street response by many LA artists critical of the show for whitewashing the political voice in street art and graffiti.

“Everyone is always going to be critical of what we do no matter what it is,” he says. “There’s a ton of people we wish could be in the show but there’s only so much room. If people have responses to things, that’s fine. But there’s a lot [of other things] going on in the city that is also positive. A lot of galleries and people are planning things that will happen during the time of the show,” he says.

There’s no denying that for the next few weeks, the Los Angeles street art and graffiti scene will be riding the wave of attention caused by Art in the Streets. Whether the show will bring new faces into the halls of MOCA, create greater awareness about the value of visual street culture or generate new energy at an institution that only a few years ago faced financial turmoil is anyone’s guess, but what is assured is that this coming week more people will be talking about street art and graffiti and wondering what all the fuss is about more than ever.

The History of American Graffiti by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

Art in the Streets runs at MOCA LA’s Geffen Contemporary (152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles) from April 17 until August 8, 2011.

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  • Den Hickey

    And of course no one wants to really speak out too much on this and no artists will pull out.. wouldn’t want to take the chance of hurting their own careers just because they might want to stand against censorship. And how many who claim to care about the issue will go ahead and go to the show and drop their cash for the book, too. Why can they get away with censorship? Because no one finds standing up to them worth more than their careerism or even being included in some passive way in this tiny aspect of the local zeitgeist.

  • Morningbear

    Note that Tony Silver’s legendary film, Style Wars will (at the last minute) be screened in MOCA’s Art in the Streets show. STYLE WARS has become an emblem of the original, embracing spirit of hip hop as it reached out across the world from underground tunnel.

  • http://www.basic-space.com Tricia

    Based on the list so far, there are not many women represented and I’m not buying the explanation. Here’s my commentary on that subject:

    http://www.basic-space.com/2011/04/art-in-the-streets-minus-these-.html

    Although… if there is yet to be a final list, perhaps more women will be included. I did see on Lady Aiko’s website that she will be in LA for the show, but she is not included on the current list.

    Why so much secrecy? Probably for hype.

    • Sigh

      Hi Tricia- Thanks for your commentary and list of female artists that they could have chosen- because saying there aren’t enough is simply BS. This statement is a lie:

      ”There are just fewer women in the culture of graffiti, street art and skateboarding. None of us can do anything about that, the only people who can do anything about that is more girls and women picking up the tools, going out and doing it. I feel we’ve represented some of the best women coming out of the culture in this show.”

      None of us can do anything about that? How about putting more women in the show. That’s something you can do. There are so many female street artists and graff artists, they just aren’t in people collections- which is why they aren’t in the show. This show is to up the value of work already selling and in collections.

  • ggp

    Hows this 1 minute plus video showing graffiti and a sexagenarian (60 something) person?
    http://vimeo.com/11888165

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