Described by the Washington Post as a “self-styled graffiti historian,” Roger Gastman has been at the forefront of the street art movement for decades, and was a key figure in street art’s journey from subway cars and abandoned billboards to gallery walls and fashion runways.
Without Gastman’s work as an entrepreneur, cultural curator, and artist promoter, it’s safe to say the very concept of a graffiti art show might not exist, and his efforts are a large part of why, as he told Evan Pricco in an interview with Juxtapoz magazine,“graffiti and street art movements have [so] trickled into nearly every aspect of contemporary culture that we are always immersed in some version of it.”
Punk Rock Polymath: Roger Gastman’s Street Art Origins & Influence
Like many of the best-known figures of his generation’s street art movement, Roger Gastman stumbled into graffiti through music. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s punk rock scene in Washington D.C. was a milieu in which – as Gastman said in an interview with culture website Los Angeles I’m Yours – “running around writing on crap” felt like a natural way to spend one’s time, along with “going out, stealing spray paint, [and] doing things you weren’t supposed to be doing.”
Gastman’s teenage years, much of which he spent traveling with touring bands, introduced him to a large network of street artists from across the country, and at just 19 years old, drawing on this network and on his own graduation money, he founded the street art magazine While You Were Sleeping. Gastman shepherded the magazine as its circulation grew from 3,000 copies to over 30,000 published every other month, an experience he later described as his own version of a college education.
Gastman soon founded another magazine, the pop culture quarterly Swindle, with street art legend Shepard Fairey, and leveraged his street art expertise to create books, consult on graffiti-inspired advertising, and curate street art shows, acting as a go-between for artists and galleries, brands and designers. Gastman’s curatorial efforts helped usher the street art movement into the mainstream, and he’s written dozens of books on the subject – including The History of American Graffiti, co-authored with Caleb Neelon and published by HarperCollins, a project that took five years – and produced a number of related films, including Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Still, Gastman is reluctant to take too much credit for the cultural explosion of street art and the success of the artists he’s helped promote, and has stated in the past: “I’ve helped a lot of people but they have helped me too. If they weren’t already really good at what they do, they wouldn’t have gotten where they are now.”
Art in the Streets: The Original Street Art Show
A high point in Gastman’s curatorial career was the now-legendary Art in the Streets exhibit, which he helped bring to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles as an associate curator.
The Los Angeles graffiti art show – a project for which he told The New York Times' T Magazine he “felt like [he’d] been training…[his] whole life” – ran from April 17 to August 8, 2011 and traced street art’s development from the 1970’s to the 2000’s. The show featured artists from across the world – spanning such cities as New York City, Los Angeles, Sao Paolo, and London – and work from such street art luminaries as Barry McGee, Os Gemeos, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. Art in the Streets attracted a record number of visitors to the Geffen Contemporary, the show’s four-month run drawing over 200,000 people.
Art in the Streets still stands as a landmark exhibit that, according to Jeffrey Deitch, then-curator of MOCA, “transformed the lives of a number of the artists who were in it, people who were not part of the mainstream dialogue of contemporary art.”
“Not Just Painting After Painting”: Roger Gastman’s New Beyond the Streets Exhibit
Today, Roger Gastman continues to push the envelope with his most ambitious street art show yet: the Beyond the Streets exhibit, which opened May 6, 2018 in Downtown Los Angeles.
In what organizers deem “the definitive showcase of graffiti & street art,” Gastman brings together a stunning roster of iconic artists to not only celebrate street art and explore its continued evolution, but also to highlight the enormous influence the movement has had on other genres in contemporary art.
Described in Los Angeles Magazine as a blend of “history lesson, artwork, and experiential environment,” Gastman’s new street art show can be seen as a spiritual successor to his wildly popular Los Angeles graffiti show Art in the Streets. One major difference, however, is that the Beyond the Streets exhibit was produced independently, a change that’s allowed Gastman and his team to take risks and incorporate work on a scale difficult to imagine in a more traditional art exhibit.
Occupying over 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space within and around a converted warehouse east of Chinatown in Downtown Los Angeles, Gastman’s Beyond the Streets exhibit is sure to stun visitors with its eclectic mix of artists and its grand scope.
The show features a slew of new work from such street art luminaries as Jason Revok, Ron English, Mister Cartoon, Guerilla Girls, and Mark Mothersbaugh, as well pieces from emerging artists like Felipe Pantone – who uploaded a preview of his work to Instagram this week, created with “cheap masking tape” and Montana Colors paint. Gastman has also included elaborate installations and environments, such as a green space designed by self-described “Gangsta Gardener” Ron Finley and such enormously ambitious installations as a full-sized, playable recreation of the iconic LEE handball court and a recreated section of the Venice pavilion circa the 1980’s, featuring live skateboarders and period-appropriate street art, tags, and tattered concert flyers. In another notable break from art exhibit tradition, which typically sees curators displaying pieces on loan from other galleries, Gastman estimates that 85-90% of the work on view has been made specifically for the Beyond the Streets exhibit.
Featured alongside legendary street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring – artists whose work recently inspired a line of unique, limited edition spray cans by Montana Colors – is the work of other, less-expected, artists who’ve been influenced by the street art movement, including Jenny Holzer and Takashi Murakami. As Gastman explained in Juxtapoz: “It was important to include a wide reach of artists that have connection to the culture by either participating or being inspired by it,” and “so many more artists than one thinks have a deep connection” to the world of street art.
This eclectic mix of styles and enormous scale speaks to street art’s uniquely immersive quality, Gastman noting in his Juxtapoz interview: “You don’t have to go to the museums to see the work. You experience it on your way to your job, biking to school, walking your dogs.” This, Gastman says, fuels a seemingly ever-expanding public interest in street art and contributes to his desire to curate a show that is “full of surprises nobody will want to miss” and “not just painting after painting.”Roger Gastman’s Beyond the Streets exhibit runs through July 6, 2018 at 1667 N. Main St. in Chinatown. Advance tickets (required) are available online.