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Home FEATURES Bay Area Graffiti

Bay Area Graffiti
Written by Dan Carlson   
Thursday, 05 February 2009 05:42
An interview with Steve Rotman who, with Chris Brennan, put out a book on graffiti in the Bay Area published through Mark Batty. Dan Carlson interviews.
While most people are grinding their days away working for "the man," Steve Rotman (better known to his online fans as "funkandjazz" is living his dream. He's out finding the most recent crew production, taking photos of rooftop throwies, seeing who went through and hit up some tags last night or, on a good day, exploring the creepiest abandoned factory you can imagine. All this fueled by his passion for documenting graffiti, an art form that has been deemed illegal, is created by rebels, and oftentimes mastered by kids not old enough to vote.

I met Steve through our mutual interest: hunting graffiti. Over the years we've become good friends. I recently sat down with him to talk about his just-released book, Bay Area Graffiti. - Dan Carlson

Dan Carlson: Steve, congratulations on the new book, Bay Area Graffiti. Let's start by having you tell us a little bit about it.

Steve Rotman: Sure, thanks Dan. The book is the result of my ongoing obsession with finding and photographing graffiti all over the Bay Area, a fascination that began in the spring of 2004. The book presents some of the best, most interesting representative graffiti I photographed during those years. There are more than 700 photos from locations in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, the North Bay, South Bay, all over really. There's a wide range of types of graffiti including tagging, bombing, chill spots, and large, legal productions. Plus, over a couple years, I interviewed more than forty graffiti writers who were prominent in the scene and brief segments of those interviews are featured throughout the book. The book aims to showcase through the photos and quotes the flavor and highlights of the very exciting Bay graffiti scene.

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*Click images for larger view

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D: So this book isn't a history of Bay Area graffiti?

S: I'm glad you asked that. No, it's definitely not a Bay Area graffiti history book. The history of graffiti here extends back at least several decades. I've been shooting graffiti for only about five years. The documentary "Piece By Piece," which came out a few years ago, is a great place to start for anybody who wants to learn more about San Francisco's rich graffiti history. My book presents a whole lot of graffiti from a very specific time-roughly four years.

D: Looking through your book, I realized that most of the graffiti in it is now gone. It's been painted over, buffed out or-in the case of many of the buildings you explored-the whole building has been demolished. One spot that has completely changed is the N-Judah tunnel. It's been entirely buffed of all graffiti. I noticed you have photos in the book of pieces that were in the tunnel. What was it like to be in a Muni train tunnel covered end to end with graffiti? And without giving specifics, is there anything like it still out there?

S: Photographing in that tunnel was one of the most intense graffiti experiences I've had. There's nothing quite like being surrounded by about a mile of tunnel completely covered with graffiti, some of it painted many years before-and when I say covered, I mean walls, ceiling, train tracks, everything! Seeing and photographing all that color and creativity while dodging speeding Muni trains in a dimly lit tunnel in the middle of the night was incredible. It's such a tragedy that it's all gone-so much art and history destroyed in a few days. That was really a kind of graffiti wonderland. Is there anything like it still out there around the bay? I'd have to say no. Of course there are locations where there's a lot of graffiti. But I can't think of anything that even comes close in terms of the sheer volume of graffiti that was in there, or the atmosphere of that location. If there's anything like that out there now, I don't know about it. But I sure wish I did!

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D: Having known you for most of the time you've been documenting graffiti, I've always found it interesting that you've lived in San Francisco since the late 80's but you didn't start "seeing" graffiti until 2004. What opened your eyes to it? And what is it about photographing graffiti that's kept you so interested since then?

S: Yeah, that's right. It's crazy... I've lived here twenty years and had no interest in graffiti until five years ago. Before that, I didn't dislike graffiti-I just never really noticed it. I've been an active hobbyist photographer all my life. I used to be into different subject matter. I was a hiker for years, for example, and used to shoot a lot of landscape stuff: clouds, desert scenes, sunsets, forests. But about five years ago, I shifted to taking more walks in the city and being in a more urban mode. During those walks I got really into photographing the many murals around the city. I was drawn to the art and the colors and also the way digital photography made it easier to capture the art. Little by little, I discovered and began to photograph the graffiti murals around the city. And they totally grabbed me-I couldn't get enough of them, which was a little strange-I had no idea, really, what I was seeing. In many cases I didn't get that I was looking at words and letters. But it didn't matter much because I was so impressed by just the visual experience: the vivid colors and the bold, wild shapes. As I shot more graffiti murals, I began to ask around about them and ultimately a friend directed me to the classic graffiti documentary "Style Wars." That was my real introduction to the basics of graffiti culture-it helped me understand at least a little of what I was seeing on city walls. Then I began to read a lot about graffiti online and checked out a lot of graffiti photos online. I started buying graffiti books and magazines. I got hooked! Ever since, I've been fascinated by graffiti and photograph it constantly.

D: You mention viewing photos online. You and I are on Flickr almost every day, posting photos, or seeing what others have posted. Was the online community helpful while you were putting your book together?

S: The online community has been essential. In many ways, the book project got rolling because so many within the graffiti culture urged me to make a book after viewing my daily photo posts. All these years of posting online helped me develop some familiarity and, more importantly, credibility within the graffiti culture. That credibility made it easier for me to reach out to writers for interviews. I'd say throughout the process of making the book, support and enthusiasm for the project expressed by people online fueled the effort, and I'm thankful for all that encouragement.

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D: So how is it for you to view your photos on the pages of the book? Is it different than viewing the photos online?

S: It's definitely cool to see the photos actually printed on paper in a completed book! My book partner, Chris Brennan, and I worked hard for a long time to put this all together, so it's exciting to finally page through the finished product. I have to say that holding it has kind of reminded me about one of the reasons I wanted to make a book instead of just having photos online. To me, there's something more "real" or permanent about the feeling of a book and the printed page compared to a computer screen-maybe I'm showing my age there! Before I started this project I was so impressed by all the books on the market about the New York graffiti scene, and the graffiti culture in Los Angeles. And I felt the remarkable graffiti scene I was documenting here deserved similar treatment-a permanent celebration in book form, something you can hold, something tangible. It's gratifying for sure to have that dream become a reality.

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John Trippe: We know there can be beef and stuff with graffiti. You notice any of that and any problems from any of the writers in creating the book?

S: There was plenty of beef between writers on the streets throughout the time I was making the book. It had no effect on the process. Beef is always a part of graffiti, but it's something I try to avoid. I try to be a neutral documenter and I tried to have a neutral mindset putting the book together. I didn't have any serious problems from writers while working on the book. Most writers seemed happy that I was making the book and encouraged me to keep at it.

J: How is the graffiti scene today? It seems the city has been trying to "clean up" a bit... I also often think about how expensive the city is to live in these days compared to like 10 years ago. I know you've been only following for the last 5 or so years, but from what you know, how is it different from back then if at all?

S: Great question. I do only feel qualified to comment on the scene during the time I've been involved, about five years. And yes, it's true that San Francisco has cracked down aggressively in the last few years. "The buff," as writers say, is quicker and more thorough than it used to be and I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that that's had an effect. There's much less graffiti in the city today than just a few years ago. Many of the "chill" spots no longer exist. Many have been shut down or made impossible to paint. It won't be a surprise to anybody that I think that's a tragedy. I love graffiti, and it makes me sad to see the scene deteriorate. An active graffiti culture makes San Francisco a far more interesting and colorful place. It seems to me there are far more useful ways to spend the millions the city wastes on graffiti removal. There are reasons to be optimistic, though. The East Bay has an exciting scene right now with a lot of extremely active, talented, prolific writers. Also, many writers tell me that there are always cycles-periods of more or less graffiti. I hope there will be a shift back to more abundant graffiti in San Francisco in the future.

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J: Any good trespassing police incidents while trying to get photos?

S: No, not really. I've been fortunate. Everything's worked out well. I've been told to leave locations a few times. But no major problems. Knock on wood.

J: Ever try writing anything yourself?

S: No. Writers have coaxed me to give it a try for years, but it's not my thing. And honestly, I don't want to embarrass myself!-I think I'd be a terrible graffiti writer. I'm a photographer and a graffiti fan, and I'm content with that. Best to leave the writing to the professionals!

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--

Published through Mark Batty Publisher
Steve Rotman & Chris Brennan
Page Count: 208, Size: 11 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches, Format: Casebound
Publication Date: January 2009, $ 45
Available @Amazon now for only $29.70

--

Can view more images of the book HERE {moscomment}

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