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Interview: Roger Gastman

(Photos by Maddie Flanigan)

Roger Gastman talks about everything, but the one topic he's most interested in at the moment is the underground D.C. graffiti culture of the late '80s into the '90s. Here, we discuss his vast collection of memorabilia from the time, his personal love of graffiti , and what he's doing next (which I hope includes throwing another party).

Interview by Ally Mullen and Maddie Flanigan

Hi Roger, can you give me a brief description of Pump Me Up: The Subculture of the 1980s, the show you just wrapped up at the Corcoran Gallery of Art?
It’s a collection of the D.C. subculture in 1980s: punk rock, go-go, hardcore, gangs, graffiti, and underground culture. A lot of rock culture from D.C. that has never been documented.

What got you interested in the whole subculture depicted in the show?
I grew up in D.C. and in the ‘90s, was running around writing graffiti, and I was always interested in what came before me. What was there before? Who did something first? I kept digging up more and more information over the years and I met someone who was doing graffiti a few years before me. I followed them further downtown—probably some places I shouldn’t have gone—and met Cool Disco Dan, the focus of my documentary The Legend of Cool Disco Dan. He wrote graffiti and opened my eyes to a lot of what the D.C. culture was in the ‘80s, especially the black subculture.



How was your style of graffiti different from what Cool Disco Dan was doing?
For me, graffiti was about punk rock and hardcore. I went to hardcore shows and everybody wrote graffiti, especially during this time. Dan came out of the go-go graffiti community and his was graffiti was completely different from the type we were doing. He had crossed over.

What brought you together?
All of the go-go graffiti writers who were writing their names in the ‘80s stopped in 1987-’88. The crack epidemic came and they started hustling. Dan was never into crack or hustling—he just wanted to continue to write his name. He figured out people in the hardcore scene were writing their name and Dan taught us a lot about downtown, a lot about going out and the culture of downtown and showed us what sparked this kind of graffiti.

Do you think the underground movement of graffiti affected the city at the time?
In D.C. at the time, there was much more dangerous going on. When people are writing graffiti in places like Georgetown, DuPont Circle or heavily trafficked tourist areas, they were more aware of you. If you got busted, something was going to happen to you. But for the most part, the city didn’t care about graffiti. Until the late ‘90s.


How does D.C. compare to other cities when it comes to graffiti?
Cities like Philadelphia, L.A. and New York are much richer in graffiti history, leading back to gang graffiti in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

Where did graffiti begin?
Traditional graffiti as we know it today, writing your name over and over again for the sake of it, started in the late ‘60s in Philadelphia and NYC. People argue about who started it. Philadelphia can win that argument by having a more defined graffiti scene through the ‘60s that was more stylistic, but New York made graffiti famous by the subway trains that they were starting to put out in the early ‘70s.

How would you describe yourself and what you do?
I am a collector, a hoarder, a curator—whatever you want to call me. In the last several years I’ve been putting out magazines, books, documentaries, doing museum shows, gallery shows, working with artists. I am a fan and I’m interested in a lot of this subculture, mostly the subculture that spawns out of the ghettos: graffiti, music, etc. I’ve been able to put together good collections of ephemera and artwork and probably saved a lot of things before they were destroyed or dug up things people didn’t know still existed. 



You don’t write graffiti now, right? Would you ever go back into it?
Sure. I know plenty of people that had second or third graffiti careers in their late ‘30s or ‘40s and did just as much graffiti as they did in their teens. I guess you can’t count me out yet, but I’m not active.

What was your tag and what’s the story behind it?
“Clear” and there’s no real meaning.

Roger tagged my notebook

Where do you think graffiti is today versus where it was in the ‘80s?
In the ‘80s, graffiti was a huge movement. It was in the galleries and it was getting a lot of attention. In the late ‘80s it died out, the trend stops, but in the mid-‘80s it was everywhere in the U.S. and across Europe. In the last ten years, give or take, it’s turn into a multi-million dollar business. It’s not a subculture anymore; it’s its own culture with many different subcultures that have come off of it. It’s the fastest growing art movement in the last 40 plus years.

What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on distribution for The Legend of Cool Disco Dan. I’m working on a film Wall Writers that we just finished about graffiti in 1967 and 1972. John Waters did the voiceover for that. I am also working on a couple other books and working with Sanrio on a couple of projects too.

Who are a few graffiti artists you think everyone should check out?
1. Cost (Queens, NY)
2. Revs (NYC)
3. BLADE (NYC)
4. Freedom (NYC—the Freedom Tunnels ended up being named after him.)
5. Risk (L.A.)

What was your last purchase on your credit card?
Emergen-C at the airport in Phoenix.

What are you watching on Netflix?
I just finished watching all of this really horrible TV show that was amazing called Blue Mountain State. It’s about a football team and every other thing is like a dick joke or getting drunk. 


What’s the best party you’ve ever thrown.
There’s been everything from a Christmas party a few years ago with male strippers. At a birthday party last year we had this big fat man baby bartending. A sword swallower. We had Angelyne, the original ‘80s version of Paris Hilton, come over. She drives a pink corvette. It was a win.

What do you play most on your iPod?
I still listen to the same things that I was listening to when I was a teenager: Naked Raygun, Cock Sparrer, and ‘80s D.C. bands.

What’s your screensaver?
OJ Simpson wearing gloves.



If you could wear one clothing brand from back in the day again, what would it be?
Cross Colours! I never wore it but I wish they’d bring it back so I can wear it.

Where do you get the images for your blog, Roger Gastman Talks About Everything…
I get a few dozen emails a day from my friends, or from some random person I met of fucked up, weird images and links if you can imagine. Or it’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep so I type in crazy searches into Google images and see what pops up. I have folders and folders of thousands of ridiculous image people send to me everyday. What’s on the blog is PG-13 compared to what I’d like to post, but I have clients I work with… but if you get on my personal distribution list you get some real gems.

Thanks Roger!