A note from Amanda Jean, Baby Bitch: I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Roger Gastman, the curator of the new “Pump Me Up” exhibit at the Corcoran. While I have absolutely no artistic talent, it’s clear that Roger does, and he knows exactly what he’s talking about. Not only did I learn about street art, Go-Go, and the D.C. art scene in the 1980s, but he had me laughing the entire time. Can’t make it to the exhibit this weekend? No worries! “Pump Me Up” is open until April 7 for your viewing pleasure.
Amanda Jean: You began writing graffiti as a teenager. What fascinated you about graffiti and made you get into it?
Roger Gastman: I began to find out about graffiti in ’91, but didn’t become seriously involved until I was in ninth grade in 1992, about 15 years old. I got introduced through punk rock and hardcore shows. It was just something you did, something interesting to do. I got into it fairly quickly, got caught up in it, and started learning more and more about it. It’s addictive. Most of my teenage years were spent doing graffiti or thinking of more graffiti I could do.
Amanda Jean: Was there any one graffiti artist that inspired you, or still inspires you?
Roger Gastman: Early ’90s D.C. graffiti in general, since it was what I saw growing up. I also started traveling early on, and saw graffiti from other cities. Friends who did graffiti were an early inspiration. When I traveled to Chicago as a fifteen-year-old, I hooked up with older writers, one in particular, “East,” was a huge inspiration, he was helping out a little a kid in a way. East took me under his wing; it was a kind of community thing.
Amanda Jean: What made you want to get into curating?
Roger Gastman: I got into curating by accident. I published a magazine While You Were Sleeping beginning in 1997, a small graffiti magazine, but I kept adding more and more to the magazine. It got bigger and bigger, and I added more and more art. A lot of the artists started to get bigger, and I dealt with brands with advertising. I became an agent for different artists, and through that started working with galleries here and there.
Moca (in Georgetown) gave me my first shot, where I did my first show in 2000, called Free Agents, along with my first book, called Free Agents, which was about D.C. Graffiti. The show helped to open up a few people’s careers, and the gallery asked if I wanted to do anything else. Through the magazine I was in touch with other artists, and did another show called Player Haters (2001), and that show started touring. It was really a case of one thing leading to the next.
Amanda Jean: Cool “Disco” Dan has been a contributor of graffiti and D.C. culture since the early 1980s. What made you want to focus on Cool “Disco” Dan, Go-Go music, and the punk and hardcore scene?
Roger Gastman: Cool Disco Dan is a fixture of D.C. Graffiti. I became aware of him before I was really even aware of most D.C. graffiti. Most people in D.C. recognized Dan’s name. I first met Dan at hardcore shows twenty years ago. Dan was a lot older than me and my friends, but taught us how to climb to rooftops, where the holes in the fence were, and things like that.
Amanda Jean: What do you think sets graffiti art apart from other art cultures?
Roger Gastman: Graffiti is one of the fastest spreading cultures in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s out there whether you like it or hate it, and it’s something that everyone can do. It can be straight vandalism or it can be pure art, and everything in between. It’s not just a subculture anymore; it’s a culture with multiple subcultures.
Amanda Jean: In general, what do you think of the art scene in D.C.?
Roger Gastman: Honestly, I can’t say much about the D.C. art scene. There seems to be much more of an art scene in the years since 2004, when I moved away to Los Angeles. There now seem to be more events, artists, and galleries.
Amanda Jean: The exhibit at the Corcoran is made up of photos, flyers, posters, records, newspaper clippings, stage clothes, instruments, video loops, among other things. Does the exhibit aim to tell a certain story, or more so aim to transport the audience back to the 1980s and show a different side to D.C.?
Roger Gastman: The exhibit does both. It’s designed as a timeline. It takes you around with photos and ephemera, awesome surprises, short blurbs about things that happened. It jumps from one community to the next to give an idea of the diversity of what was happening in D.C. at the time.
Anyone that lived in D.C. at the time will remember the Go-Go posters, for instance. The exhibit has a start and finish, but you can go anywhere in the exhibit and enjoy it and digest it. The exhibit is made up of so many objects, and it is really a fun exhibit. You’ll end up leaving learning new things, even if you think you’re an expert.
Amanda Jean: How do you think Go-Go has affected D.C. culture?
Roger Gastman: Go-Go is D.C. culture. Most everyone in D.C. knows what Go-Go is. Go-Go is the soundtrack to D.C. Especially in the ’80s through the ’90s. It affected fashion, music, radio, events, it really did everything. There were so many bands that were playing four to seven nights a week, constantly; it was their livelihood. It was their meeting place for so many people. Go-Go night was a very social thing.
Amanda Jean: Part of Cool “Disco” Dan’s legacy was that he was never arrested or killed, partially due to his refusal to join or participate in gang activity. Do you think this had an impact on other graffiti artists, and graffiti as an art?
Roger Gastman: D.C. was known for street crews. The crews largely disbanded after crack was introduced to the scene. Dan was a part of many crews, but he kept the focus on graffiti. He never did drugs, he never drank, he was never someone who got into that crazy gang lifestyle. Dan was so private and to himself. He was hanging out both with kids that were getting messed up all the time, and kids that were straight edge. Graffiti was the common bond, that’s what it was about, not the drugs or drinking, and that was the lesson he was teaching.
Amanda Jean: How do you think that graffiti culture has changed since the 1980s?
Roger Gastman: Graffiti has absolutely changed since the 1980s. It was a really small group of people in the 1980s, Go-Go graffiti writers died out in the late 1980s, when the more traditional New York style began to migrate here. The D.C. graffiti started to explode in the 1990s and really sparked a movement. There were only a handful in the 1980s but there were hundreds by the 1990s.
Amanda Jean: Do you think it has different meaning, or that it is viewed differently?
Roger Gastman: Graffiti is much more accepted now than it ever was. The buzz word in graffiti is street art. They now have graffiti start-up kits. One of the main things that helped pushed graffiti in the limelight are stars like Banksy and Shepard Fairey that have made it much more acceptable. Films like “Exit Through the Gift Shop” really pushed it into the mainstream.
Amanda Jean: If you had any advice for today’s graffiti artists what would it be?
Roger Gastman: If you’re going to do graffiti it is a lifestyle choice. You will probably get arrested; you will probably get in trouble, and be aware of the consequences if you’re serious about it.
Amanda Jean: Lastly, and probably most importantly, do you ever brunch in D.C.? And if so, where do you brunch?
Roger Gastman: I don’t think I’ve ever brunched in D.C.
Amanda Jean: Where are you excited to brunch?
Roger Gastman: Come up with a list for me, I’m drawing a blank.
Sounds like this man might need to brunch with the Bitches and experience another Washington tradition.
Pump Me Up
February 23-April 7, 2013
Corcoran Gallery of Art
500 17th St. N.W.