Roger Gastman is an intimidating man. He’s an accomplished graffiiti artist, writer, and curator, is a very successful and savvy business man, and looks like he could also beat you up, which is only because he doesn’t look like your average art mogul. He’s very casual, relaxed, and is always himself: he doesn’t adjust to anyone nor does he want you to adjust to him. He is a very smart, strong guy who tells it like it is: that is exactly what has carried Roger to where he is now.
Roger is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, right across the border from Washington, DC. He was a punk rock, hardcore kid in middle school, which is when he was introduced to graffiti. Although he was heavily entrenched in this world, he had no idea that he was a part of a movement. “I didn’t know graffiti existed outside of DC,” he said, “I didn’t know people were running around breakdancing: I didn’t know any of that. That’s what you were doing: going to high school, going out, stealing spray paint, doing things you weren’t supposed to be doing.”
Being in DC’s punk and hardcore scene introduced him to a lot of people in all walks of life. Most notably, he had a lot of friends in bands who were constantly traveling around the country. When he was fifteen and sixteen, he was always traveling: on a school night, he’d be up in New York; on a weekend, he may have been Boston; over a spring break, he may have spent the time in Los Angeles. In doing this, he built a huge network of people all over the country. He also did some graffiti, too.
“I wasn’t planning on necessarily doing anything with [my network]: I was just some kid who knew a lot of people,” he says of his childhood, “I graduated from high school and, by that point, I had been traveling around the country painting graffiti. I had a network of friends (a lot of them older than me), a lot of my friends that were doing graffiti were moving toward art or still doing graffiti–but they were starting to show in galleries. They started getting jobs through corporate clients, doing graffiti work.”
Where did that leave him, though? What was a smart, young artist going to do?
“I went to college: University of Pittsburgh. For barely two semesters,” he says going on to clarify, “The whole college thing is another story, but basically it was just screwing around, writing graffiti, not doing much, and I decided it made more sense to go home, which I did.”
That decision led to a huge moment in his life: starting the magazine While You Were Sleeping in 1997. “I had a lot of friends doing smaller graffiti magazines and figured, ‘I know how to do that: I’ll figure it out,’” he explains, “It was 24 pages and it was graffiti and a couple silly stories. We made 3000 copies and next issue we made more, the next issue we got bigger, the next issue we got bigger.”
Although Roger says that WYWS was his college education, he still took some classes at American University in DC, but eventually stopped going. “I was doing a magazine and I could either go with the momentum of the magazine that was picking up or stop,” he says, “I went with the magazine.” Why? “We started to get real advertisers: we turned it into a real magazine, distributing 30/40K copies of it every other month,” he detailed. WYWS became his education, his job, his lifestyle: WYWS was Roger’s life.
The magazine made it possible for him to do more as his project snowballed and snowballed into business for him. “Magazines lead to making a few books, leading to selling advertisements of brands, which starts leading to brands wanting me to connect them to illustrators and graphic designers,” he says, “So it began. It got bigger. [I] started curating art shows, just traveling, putting out more books, working on a little bit of film stuff here and there…” Roger literally was doing everything.
And, he never set out to do that: “There was no real intention or goal for any of this: it all happened very accidentally. And, almost like dominoes in a way: you knock one over and another knocks over and another one and another.” His magazine eventually fizzled out around 2001. Although he did not explain the details, he did say to check “the WYWS book that we are working on now to find out the whole story.”
How did all of this lead him to Los Angeles? “I was finding myself in LA all the time,” he said, “I knew a ton of people that I met years before, when I was 14/15 years old. I figured I might as well go [to LA]. I wanted to do a new magazine that was a lot different from WYWS.” Swindle was the result, a magazine that he and Shepard Fairey created. Roger and his friend, Ian Sattler, came up with the concept in 2004 and, after the first one was released, he officially made the move to Los Angeles. “The move wasn’t a big transition or anything for me because I knew a lot of people here and I was out here and already had a network,” he said, furthering that the move also shifted his work, too: “I was working with more and more artists, representing them, helping their work go into galleries, working with bigger brands on marketing projects, and putting out a lot of fucking books.”
This is the joy of Roger: he is undefinable as he is a modern Renaissance man, a polymath, whose expertise spread further than you would imagine. How does he describe himself, then? “I don’t even know where to begin to answer that question. I usually ask [the questioner], ‘What do you need done? We’ll figure out how to do it for you.’ I definitely specialized in a specific market and have a knowledge of how to reach that market and, if you know how to reach that market, reaching the masses is way easier,” he explains.
Working with large clients and brands affords him allowances to be able to do passion projects. “The History Of American Graffiti book is the biggest book I’ve done today with Caleb Neelon. Harper Collins published it, we talked to over 500 people for it, and we worked on that book for a long five years,” he says, explaining it’s relationship and importance to MOCA’s Art In The Streets, which he was one of the curators of.
Roger currently has a lot of projects he is working on, but he has shifted his gaze at the moment to focus on film. “It’s fun because it’s different but it’s also very comfortable because its a very natural progression from telling stories and putting things together in magazines and books,” he says, “They’re different but they’re not different at the same time. That’s definitely another direction I’m going off into because its the more visual way to tell the story.”
Roger considers himself a storyteller most of all, but a storyteller who specializes in multiple means of expression. His two new films have nothing to do with Los Angeles or “Hollywood,” but it helps to be in this city as those tools are so accessible. To give you a taste of what they are about, one of the films he has been working on before he even moved to Los Angeles and is nearing completion as the other one is a result of The History Of American Graffiti.
On top of these projects, Roger has thousands of other little pots brewing with projects. This is when he feels the most creative: when he is working on multiple things at a time, as he feels he can “cut and paste and pull from all of the projects” he’s working on. It happens naturally and is not recycling, as Roger is one of the only people who is a historian of the graffiti world, allowing him to be able to pull a photo from a personal photo album or from an interview in WYWS because no one else has access to that history. Similarly, he explains this leads to overlapping in collaborators–writers, photographers, producers, staff–he works with as they are all a part of this history and creative process. Everything in his life is intertwined with the history of graffiti as he has and is living it–so much to the point he even still collaborates and works with friends he has know since middle school.
Could he have done what he was doing elsewhere, though? Is his telling the history of graffiti something he only could have done in Los Angeles? Yes, but he could have also done the job just as well in New York City? “To do what I’ve done, I needed to feel comfortable and I don’t feel comfortable in New York.” he says. He tried to work from DC, but–as he notes–DC’s scene isn’t quite there yet (but is getting close!). So, he explains, “It was New York or LA – LA won – So, I’m here.”
He also has very specific reasons for why he could’t deal with New York, which make absolute sense for him and his work. He details very bluntly: “I like space and I don’t like noise. I don’t like having to live an hour away in Queens or Brooklyn or wherever to have space then get on the subway, on four different lines and one of them isn’t running that day and it’s a 100 degrees outside and 120 degrees on the subway. I like a backyard, I like a house, I like quiet, and I also like being near things. LA does that for me.”
Looking to the future, Roger isn’t going anywhere. He hopes to be wearing suits everyday (“Nice suits,” he jokes), he’d like a driver (“I hate driving. I don’t have to have some crazy house in the hills: I just want a driver.”), and “more labrador retrievers, some better pizza restaurants, and I’d probably be happy.” As far as his work, he doesn’t know where it will take him: “There hasn’t been a big game plan for what there currently is so, if things keep going in the positive direction they’ve been going, I’ll be happy. I’ve definitely returned to a lot of trains of thoughts and attitudes that I had when I was having my most fun, which was the first three years of WYWS. We were doing things we shouldn’t have been doing–but we were getting away with it.”
He ended his thoughts on the future with a final, sardonic, declaration: “I need to get my star on Hollywood Blvd. That’s the only reason I moved here.” Soon enough, Roger. Soon enough.
One thing Roger mentioned while we had our conversation was that there is a certain area of his house that no one ever mentions, touches, or publishes when running a story on him. “A lot of people come through my house, which is fine, I like it here,” he says, “In the guest bathroom, I have a lot of different art. Some of the more interesting art is from some serial killers you may have heard of: The Nightstalker Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, Ottis Toole, Manson–I have a lot of things, but there is a little bit framed and hanging in the bathroom. I have a hand print from John Wayne Gacy, a Nightstalker Knife with Skull…” Roger trails off listing more serial killer artwork he has, which is impressively extensive.
“If you are a dude standing up peeing, you’re staring at it. You either get it or you don’t and you’re either really disturbed or you’re psyched,” he says, “More people are psyched than disturbed–but everyone has been too big a pussy to write about it or show it.”
Well, you have heard it and seen it here first: Roger Gastman’s collection of serial killer art work that hang in his guest bathroom. Roger laughed, smiling happily, as we told him we would publish it. To that, he declared, “I’m glad you guys aren’t too big of pussies.”
We’re glad we aren’t either.