Posts Tagged ‘graffiti’

I interviewed Steve Rotman and Huems a couple of months ago. After transcribing everything said, I worked on a script and attempted to pick out the best actualities (fancy word for quotes) from both individuals. Since I’m a newbie in the world of Garage Band, and someone who has little experience with Macs in general, it took me a while to get this done. The result: an entertaining mash up of a graffiti artist, a graffiti photographer and their outlook on the risks involved with street.


I met with West L.A. graffiti artist Huems back in February. He is pretty young yet has a lot of interesting stories to tell and a strong opinion on the street art world. Check out the interview to find out what he had to say.

Huems 26 February 2011

What do you think makes a good graffiti artist?

I think a couple things. I’d say first of all an artist’s ability to kind of master and take part in all forms of graffiti and that means from tags to throw ups all the way up into doing pieces, you know even murals. But definitely one of the things is being well-rounded. If you can’t tag and you have no hand style then you shouldn’t be doing pieces. You shouldn’t be spending all this time on color. Letters are obviously the most important thing but it’s kind of silly to be really good at piecing but not being able to tag. So that’s something that you should be doing from the get go. You know trying fillers and really simple things. I think another thing that makes a good graffiti artist is someone who’s willing to; you know it’s not bending the rules, but more of trying new things. Whether its color, letter structuring, the way they fade or blend things or simply coming up with new concepts, new letter forms or the way they approach new stuff. You see a lot of people all over the world taking some really interesting approaches to piecing.

What are the risks of being a graffiti artist?

The risks are obviously, well first of all your identity. Most people have an alter ego as almost a second identity. For the most part, graffiti writers don’t want people to know who they are, obviously for legal issues but you know there’s a lot of a risk. People sacrifice a lot of things. They sacrifice their time, their money, their time with family or people to go and paint and do all this stuff. Ultimately, they don’t want to get caught so there’s always the getting arrested and dealing with fines or ending up in jail. No one wants that, but you don’t want to stop painting and doing what you love either. So it’s kind of hard. You sacrifice a lot of things and you risk a lot of things. You risk obviously your freedom to a certain extent and financially, for most people who do graffiti, they do so much damage that it would be hard to even pay a small percentage of what they could do in a week. So it’s kind of interesting when you talk about how easy graffiti is to clean up, you just roll a piece of paint over it with a really cheap bucket of hardware store stuff and you pay someone for you know 30 min or an hour of their time to paint it and it’s done, but people face thousands of dollars in fines and it’s kind of just interesting how the whole legal aspect of it works. There’s definitely a lot of risk in doing something and it’s hard because you’re torn between doing something that you love and also sacrificing and putting on the line other things that are obviously important in life.

And what are those other things to you personally?

To me personally I’m a student so I definitely want to be able to stay a student and not have difficulty getting through school just because of dealing with any issues pertaining to graffiti. But then again I don’t want to stop. I’m a graffiti writer and I’m an artist and I want to constantly be able to do both things. There have been times where, I’m still pretty young, and I’ve thought about maybe taking a break but it’s very difficult. I try to be able to balance between family time and spending time with the people that I like to spend time with and then commitments. So there’s definitely a lot of things. It’s difficult to be a student because you know the first thought of getting in trouble for graffiti is ‘oh shit’ I may jeopardize my education, I may jeopardize how I’m paying for school and I want to apply for certain programs but that’s gonna be hard with a stamp on your application. I try to keep a decent balance between what I know in the long run is going to be super important but then also constantly practicing what I like to do.

You mention an alter ego. What is yours and how did you come about that?

My alter ego is Huems, Huems1. I went back and forth through a couple different names over the last four to five years. The early parts of those four to five years being kind of experimental stages, not really doing much and not being good at it yet. But I definitely had some goofy names here and there and I went back and forth. When I moved to San Francisco someone had my old name spelled differently and I didn’t want to have to deal with that because he had pretty much made a good name for himself up here. So I didn’t really want to interrupt that. I started to think of a couple different things. I really like the way five letters were balanced and then having two vowels in the middle and then an ‘m.’ I really liked the way that looked with an ‘s’ at the end and I started out with an ‘r’ at the beginning because that’s just always what I’d done. I kind of gave up the ‘r’ and put the ‘h.’ Then it all kind of came to be Huems. Back home a lot of people who are from the west side of Los Angeles or Santa Monica say things are funny or things are humor or that’s huems so I thought that was kind of funny. You know I’d say I have a good personality and I like to laugh and I’d always hear people say that was huems or that was humorous so I thought ‘okay I could go with that.’ A lot of people were like, ‘oh you should go with Fumes and stuff’ but I was like ‘I don’t dig that.’ Huems was kind of funny and had a little bit of a joke to it. I definitely took some time to think about that but I’m pretty confident that I’m going to stick to this one. There have been times where I’ve done 20 something pieces and spent countless hours painting other names and I’m finally on one where I could say ‘I don’t want to give this one up, I like this, I’m gonna stick with it, I’m gonna keep practicing it until it kind of becomes a stamp.’

How important is that stamp?

It’s very important, to me. It’s something that along with school, family and any kind of athletic commitment, I always have that graffiti. I want that to be a part of that life I want that to remain a part of my life and I want it to constantly be an important thing. And a lot of people say ‘is it a hobby or is it a passion?’ A hobby is more of a weekend thing and I think it’s a passion because I can’t stop doing it, I really like it. Whether my stuff gets buffed or painted over and stuff, I’m not gonna stop doing it. You know people always have a lot of problems and stuff in graffiti but it’s definitely something that’s gonna stick and I just love it like anything else. I’m not gonna stop.

Would graffiti be as appealing to you if it weren’t illegal?

I don’t think it’d be graffiti if it wasn’t illegal. You’d just be any other artist or muralist doing abstract lettering which is something you could say goes back to traditional graphic designers 40 years ago. Essentially I don’t think it would be what it is. If it wasn’t illegal it obviously wouldn’t have that raw twist to it. It wouldn’t be as out there. And a lot of people, like myself, as nerve wracking as it can be, there’s nothing like that adrenalin rush and that thrill of doing it. It definitely takes away that aspect when you’re doing something and you have hours and hours of free time and space to do it. I think you would just be a regular muralist or an artist if it wasn’t illegal. So, maybe not as appealing. I would just be like any other of the thousands upon thousands of people in this world who just draw and paint and take pictures and do all that kind of stuff. I think graffiti has always had its cool twist and it definitely needs the illegal aspect to it. That’s how it began and I think that’s how it’s going to continue to live.

How do you feel about the term ‘vandalism’ when describing graffiti?

I think that vandalism is like mysterious and destroying or harming something. It’s kind of weird because graffiti, as much as it is illegal and it is an interesting art form and stuff, its art and you can’t deny that there are a lot of fucking talented people out there. There’s people who are spending hours and loosing sleep and putting jobs on the line to go out and leave a piece for not the average person to see, because a lot of people don’t recognize it they just think ‘oh that’s that crap that’s not supposed to be there,’ but you know there’s a lot of really talented artists. And I don’t know many art forms where you could do a full-scale, let’s just say it’s 10 by 30 feet long piece in under 25 or 20 minutes but it’s in full color and looks like someone spent hours doing it. So it’s kind of weird, the term and the stamp vandalism, because you’re like yeah are you a vandal if you’re destroying things that are not yours and you’re not supposed to touch than I guess yeah you are a vandal and it is vandalism. But at the same time it’s an art form too so they should treat it differently. They shouldn’t put it in the same category as breaking windows and stuff because breaking a window or destroying someone’s property in a physical manner that costs a lot more money than rolling over a piece of art with paint. So I think it should be handled differently and not considered vandalism because it is a very predominant art form with young people across the world. So I definitely think it needs to be restructured in the way that they go about calling it vandalism and what not. People are doing art and it may be vandalism and stuff but to them its art and if they’re vandals than so be it, it’s not gonna change or stop the output of work.

Can you describe your most thrilling moment?

Thrilling how so?

The most exciting and exhilarating. The moment you realized this is really what I want to do, regardless of the risks involved.

Almost like an epiphany type thing.


I’ve had a few instances, especially being more into it now and being in college and being in San Francisco and on my own and painting with new people and new friends. There have been multiple times where we’ve found some awesome spot and we’re just hyped to be there and it’s like the colors and everything is working out perfect and you’re like shit this is looking awesome and you pull off something that you love, and this has been multiple times. There was one time at a party on someone’s rooftops; I started hopping roofs and painting people’s roofs and having a fucking blast doing it.

In San Francisco?

In San Francisco. And that was a cool thing to do and obviously super fun and there have been other times where we’ve found old abandoned train yards and simply spent 20 to 25 minutes to do a killer piece. The spot is good, the vibes are good, you’re hanging out with good people so there have been a lot of pivotal moments. And most of all, every time it’s like a little kick in the ass to go further. Like ‘shit I had so much fun but what could I do next time,’ and ‘this came out great but now I really don’t want to stop.’ I’ve definitely had a lot of moments, especially with my new name and having a shift in my mind state and saying this is it, this is who I am; this is what I want to do, where I’m kind of like alright ‘now you may as well do something great every single time.’ It’s mostly an inspiration to keep going. Lots of inspiration to keep going. It’s like falling in love all over again each time you do something really sweet, or you come off with something that’s next level for you and you’re kind of like ‘shit what could I do next?’ The first thing I think of when I take a picture and walk away from a wall is what am I gonna do next week. It’s a constant thought of how could I get better and step my game up. It’s like an addictive thing.

Just Becauzer, Atwa, Feral

Keys, Angr by Jurne


Steve Rotman… wow. I still can’t believe I managed to get this interview. This was such a nerve-racking day for me. But Rotman is such a calming individual that I managed to get through it all and have fun in the process.

Check out the second part of my interview to find out what Rotman had to say about the role of the internet and his perception of what makes graffiti beautiful. You won’t regret it.

What do you consider to be the real beauty behind street art and graffiti?

Good question. I’m very attracted to color and there’s something very vibrant about a lot of the graffiti that I photograph. Street art is a little different. I think at one level what’s really captivating about graffiti and street art to me is that it’s illegal, and that has all kinds of ramifications. There’s something very raw, something very… I don’t know… it’s hard to put into words. You know if someone decides they are going to break the law and the only reason they want to break the law is to put up their own art, there’s something very inspirational about that to me. You know they’re risking possibly going to jail so that maybe a few of their friends or a few other people will see their art. I’m very inspired by that whole idea. I like the idea of having art sort of randomly available for the public on the street. I think it’s a very cool thing. I enjoy it when I see it and so I wanted to kind of share my enjoyment of graffiti with others and that’s the reason I started doing the photo documentation. So your question: what is the real value of street art? I think the real value is that in a democratic, open, pluralistic urban environment, I think our visual landscape ought to contain something other than sanctioned art and advertisements. I think too often we walk around and the art we see on the street is just advertising or some other corporate kind of sloganeering or sanctioned public art that may or may not be good. What graffiti is, is a very raw, genuine expression by people who live in the city who are expressing themselves individualistically in very provocative ways, and that’s what I see as the real value.

What role do you see the internet playing in graffiti since it is such a short-lived form of art?

Well, that’s been very controversial. I think it’s a lot less controversial than it used to be because photo documentation of graffiti online has now been going on for over a decade. When it first started happening there were a lot of graffiti artists who complained bitterly about it and really hated it because prior to that graffiti was much more of a secret world that only graffiti artists and a few admirers really knew about. And if you wanted to see graffiti you had to go out on the street and find it. Now, that’s totally changed and if you go online and search for graffiti you find countless graffiti blogs, websites and on Flickr alone there are hundreds of thousands of graffiti photos from all over the world. So, things have very much changed, secrets have been exposed, and I think it’s kind of a mixed bag. I mean on one level online photos of graffiti allow someone from Croatia, say, to find the latest burner created by Apex here in San Francisco and get inspired by that and learn about it and that’s cool. On the other hand, graffiti artists continue to complain that people who look at graffiti online are sort of posers and are checking it out as a kind of fun hobby but never go out on the street and get the real feel of what graffiti is like and what the culture is like. And I have some sympathy for that argument. On the whole, it’s hard for me to complain on any level about posting photos online because I’ve spent the last seven years doing it so I obviously believe there is a value in spreading this art to a wider audience in that way. As I said, I get roughly seven to eight thousand hits a day on Flickr so people like to look at this material and I know a lot of graffiti artists like to look at the shots and they visit my Flickr and check it out every day. It’s funny. A lot of graffiti artists have an internal conflict going on about people like me and others who take photos of graffiti. On one hand they really want their graffiti to be seen—because one motivation for graffiti artists is the fame that goes along with painting graffiti and the fame comes from people seeing your work and admiring it. One of the ways that people see the work now is to go online—actually the main way people do that now is to go online. It’s no longer true that most people see your work on the street or in the location it was painted—they mainly see it online. That’s a big change and a lot of graffiti writers really love that; on the other hand, there are a lot of them who fear the consequences of having so much of their stuff seen online. There are legal consequences and the possibility of these “spots” I mentioned earlier being blown up. So if you publicize the location of a spot too much online, there is a possibility authorities will discover it and shut it down, or too many graffiti writers will try to come and paint it and go over good work that’s already there. There are a lot of these conflicts and controversies within the graffiti world. In general, I come down in favor of putting stuff online, and anyway I don’t think you can stop it. At this point it’s a done deal.

And what do you think about graffiti becoming more mainstream recently with certain artists becoming more famous and even developing clothing lines?

I think its fine. Any kind of art form that gets popular is going to have some commercial side to it. I’m very happy for the graffiti artists I know who have been able to make money off of their art. I’d much rather see them do commercial art that’s based on graffiti then going into some corporate setting and doing some graphic design that they hate. I don’t have a problem with it. You know at least here in the Bay Area, while I’ve been shooting graffiti, a lot of galleries have done graffiti-oriented exhibits and shows and generally the graffiti world embraces these shows and enjoys them. The art is good, people pay for the art and the gallery owners get something out of it, the graffiti artists are able to continue making the art they enjoy because they are getting money for doing it. Some of it’s really cheesy, the t-shirts are really cheesy but that’s America, that’s the way it goes.

If you weren’t photographing graffiti, what do you think you would be photographing today? What would be your new obsession?

Good question. Boy, I’ve been kind of wrestling with that question so it’s interesting that you asked that. I’m in kind of a lull photographically in the moment. I’m not shooting nearly as much graffiti as I used to. I think I’m going out maybe once every couple weeks these days. I don’t know. I used to love landscape photography for many years. Long before I shot graffiti I was a hobbyist landscape photographer and the Bay Area was a great place to do that type of photography; it’s such a beautiful area. I may go back to doing landscape photography, or I may take a little hiatus and not do much photography at all. I hopefully will find some new thing I’m passionate about. At the moment I’m trying to become a high school teacher so that’s kind of taking up a lot of my mental energy. I suspect that at some point I will get back to becoming passionate about photography but at the moment I need a little break and that’s what I’m doing.

Why the nickname “funkandjazz?”

Before I started shooting graffiti about 10, 11, 12 years ago, I used to post my landscape photos on a website called Renderosity. At the time I needed a name, an icon and an avatar and all that stuff. I was a jazz deejay for many years in a former life, and I’ve always been into funk and jazz very heavily so I randomly picked the name “funkandjazz” because that’s what I was listening to. That was on Renderosity and I just stuck with it. When I switched over to Flickr, I…. let me recall the sequence of this. Initially with graffiti I got involved with a site called 12ozProfit, which used to be the main online graffiti hangout for Bay Area artists, and at the time I needed a name there too and I wanted the name “funk,” sticking to the theme, but the spelling f-u-n-k was taken so I went with p-h-u-n-k and spelled it that way. So for years a lot of graffiti writers in the Bay Area knew me as “phunk,” p-h-u-n-k, they didn’t know my real name or anything about me. To this day, many of them still call me “phunk.” So when I switched to Flickr I was like “well I wanna keep ‘funk'” so I just I went with “funkandjazz” because I had been using it for so long—for like 10 years I’ve gone by “funkandjazz,” so that’s how people know me. They see me on the street and instead of calling me Steve they either say funk or f and j or something. So it’s kind of funny.

What is the most rewarding part about photographing graffiti throughout the city and the Bay Area?

You know there are a lot of rewarding things about it to me so I don’t know if I could really say what’s most rewarding. One thing is the adventure of finding the locations, getting to the locations and successfully getting in and out and the kind of underground adventure of that. And I’ve had so many adventures over the last seven years of getting in these various buildings and tunnels, so that’s—especially for a guy who’s approaching 50—I’ve felt that’s been keeping me young and active. Other than that I just really love the art, you know? So for me to be able to see this art—it’s like a free art gallery every day, you know? I mean if you’ve ever been to one of these locations where it’s just covered with graffiti or street art, it’s pretty exciting if you like art, especially if you like that kind of art. I mean you go there and it’s all yours for free and you get to look at it for as long as you want and take photos of it and hang out. For me, that’s really fun. And getting to know the community and getting involved in with the members of the street art graffiti world has also been extremely rewarding because the people are great.

Photos by Flickr user funkandjazz

Steve Rotman


Jurnes, Nesta

When I started this street art blog I decided that I needed to do some extensive research on the topic. After Google search upon Google search, I kept stumbling upon a photographer by the name of Steve Rotman. That was more than enough to catch my attention and force me to do some extensive clicking and scrolling.

After some time, it was clear that the Bay Area graffiti and street art photographer definitely knew his way around the urban jungle. That intrigued me. I wondered what this middle-aged man had to do with the street art world. I was sure that I wasn’t the only one with this question, so I decided to email Rotman in hopes of hearing back.

A week later, I was at the Borders book store next to the Stonestown Mall in San Francisco interviewing Rotman and this is part of what came out of it.

For someone who may not know, can you describe what exactly it is that you do?

Well, I’m not doing it so much anymore, but for the last seven years I spent a large portion of my time following and photographing graffiti and street art. Ultimately, I put out two books on those subjects—the first books on those subjects to be published on the Bay Area scenes. I put out a book called Bay Area Graffiti, which is a very large two-hundred and eight page photo book of graffiti from the Bay Area over a four-year period, including interviews with the graffiti artists involved in making the graffiti. And then I put out a book called San Francisco Street Art, a smaller book, which documents some of the street art that was happening specifically in San Francisco over about three years. And then, along with that, I have a Flickr site, that gets about eight thousand hits a day, where I routinely put up my photos of the latest graffiti around the area.

So, with the two books that you’ve had, has photography proven to be lucrative for you?

No, not at all. Photography has not been lucrative. It’s been very rewarding personally. I’ve enjoyed it, I’m very passionate about it and so on that level it’s been very rewarding. But, I would not say that it’s very lucrative. It’s very, very difficult to make money with photography these days. There’s a lot of competition, and especially when you’re photographing something as niche as graffiti, it’s hard to figure out how to make much money from that. So while I’ve enjoyed it, I certainly have not profited financially.

What made you choose graffiti as a career then?

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a career—careers involve earning a living! It’s more of a hobby that I’ve had for the last seven years. I’ve devoted an enormous amount of time to it so it’s a little more than a hobby I suppose. But it has not exactly been a career. Why did I choose graffiti? Umm… I sort of stumbled on to it by accident. In 2004 I was just walking around the city taking a lot of photos and I started to notice a lot of murals around the city and started to take photos of them because I liked them and I decided I wanted to document a lot of this art that was free and all over the city. And then I started to notice graffiti-based murals. At the time I didn’t understand them at all but I found them especially captivating. They were full of color, very vibrant, and seemed kind of raw and exciting and mysterious. So I decided to search for more of these graffiti murals and ultimately that led me to start to research graffiti and start to understand it and ultimately I became—some might say fascinated some might say obsessed—with the graffiti culture throughout the Bay Area and ended up devoting, like I said, an enormous amount of time to this. There was a period, probably from 2004 to 2008 or so, where I was out shooting graffiti virtually every day and I’ve amassed over the years 40 to 50 thousand photos of graffiti around the Bay Area. So, a hobby but a very intense hobby.

So how has this passion of yours affected your day-to-day life other than the fact that you’ve spent so much time taking photographs?

Well that’s a big one. I mean it sort of devoured up my free time in a pretty intense way. If I wasn’t out photographing graffiti I was thinking about where I was going to go next to photograph graffiti because the locations where graffiti exists are difficult to find and require that either you find them on your own or that you have enough sources to tell you where they are. And I spent years developing those skills, if that’s what you want to call them. How has it affected my life? I guess in a funny way I’ve become a little more solitary over the last seven years because I’ve devoted so much time photographing graffiti that other things have kind of fallen by the wayside. And just over the last six months I’ve kind of come out of that mode a little bit. I’m not shooting graffiti nearly as much as I used to. The books are done and I’m moving on to a kind of new career path at the moment. So I’m not as entrenched in the graffiti obsession as much as I was. But when I was shooting constantly, it caused me to become a little more isolated and very, very focused on what I was doing. And, I guess ultimately one benefit of the whole experience is that it gave me confidence that I could attempt a large, difficult project requiring a lot of time and effort—namely the books—and I could get through it.

Can you describe your most memorable experience with graffiti, or photographing graffiti actually?

Wow. That’s a really… it’s a good question but it’s a really tough question because I’ve shot so many photos, it’s hard to think of just one amazing experience. You know I’ve said before in interviews and I will say it again, that one of the most amazing locations I’ve ever photographed was a Muni tunnel that connects Duboce Park to the Cole Valley neighborhood, often called the N-Judah tunnel. It’s about a mile long tunnel that MUNI trains go through. Well anyway, it used to be up until about maybe 2007 or 2008 it was covered end-to-end with graffiti. We used to go in there, some friends and I, to photograph late at night when the trains sort of stopped running or were running infrequently and we’d spend several hours taking photos. It was absolutely the most amazing location for photographing graffiti I have seen because of the sheer volume of graffiti. I mean it was literally covered from front to back—all the tracks, all the walls, the ceiling, everything was completely covered in graffiti that had built up over 15 or 20 years. And so there was a lot of history to check out and along with that was the need to dodge trains as they were coming through the tunnel and the adventure and risk of that which was actually a lot of fun. So, I guess I will answer your question by saying that was probably the most interesting place I have ever photographed.

What other risks are there involved with photographing graffiti?

There are quite a few. I mean they aren’t necessarily life or death but you have to be careful. Some of the best graffiti exists in places graffiti writers call “spots” or “chill spots.” These are any sort of out-of-the-way location where graffiti writers do graffiti and a “chill spot” is a location where graffiti writers are not likely to be bothered by authorities. Graffiti of course is illegal most of the time so you want to paint, if you’re a graffiti artist, in a place where you’re not going to be bothered by police. So, these are places like out-of-the-way tunnels, highway barrier walls—like backsides of highway barrier walls that you usually see only on the front side—underpasses, out-of-the-way alleys, abandoned buildings, these kinds of places. As you can imagine, there’s some trespassing involved in getting to some of these locations, so I’ve done my share of that. Also, these places are inherently risky at some level. When you go into an abandoned building, floors may be collapsing and walls may be falling out, which can be dangerous. Plus, you never know who’s really there. There may be homeless people or squatters living there. You know, there are those kinds of risks. And these spots are often not in the safest neighborhoods and so I’ve had to become accustomed to going into these kinds of locations and have developed a series of techniques that help me be safer in them. And, you know, knock on wood, nothing really dramatic has ever happened to me so I feel quite lucky. I have friends who have had some dramatic things happen to them. I’ve been in the last couple of years in a lot of tunnels that are not well lit and are full of sort of deep water. So it’s just a matter of being aware of your surroundings, being prepared and being willing to go to those kinds of places and enjoying it at some level. You know, while they’re risky, they’re also quite fascinating and make for interesting, aesthetically interesting, photography.

And how is it exactly that you find these places throughout the city?

Well, not just throughout the city but all around the Bay Area. I spend time photographing in the East Bay, the North Bay and the South Bay, too. How do I find them? Well it’s a long process built up over the years—a combination of exploration on my own and exploration with friends and having a sense of where graffiti tends to exist. So once you get that feel you can find some of these locations on your own. Also, I’ve developed contacts throughout the graffiti world over the years who tip me off about where to go. At this point I would probably say I’ve been doing this for so long that almost nobody in the Bay Area knows more contemporary graffiti spots or locations than I do. I think I have in my head the most comprehensive map of graffiti locations in the Bay Area.

How did you develop those connections to the graffiti artists who usually tend to be secretive and keep stuff to themselves?

For sure. Well again, it was a long process. When I first started to shoot graffiti, many graffiti writers wanted nothing to do with me. They didn’t know me, they didn’t want to tell me their secrets and they certainly didn’t trust me. Some of them thought I was a police officer. So it was not easy. I had to sort of prove myself to them and start to make friends little by little and because my involvement online is pretty extensive, over time the graffiti community started to notice my photos and many people within the graffiti world liked my photos. And so they would write me by email or send me a message on Flickr and wanted to start to get to know me or say “Hey, let’s go out shooting. I’ve got this location I really want to show you.” Or “Hey can we meet up for lunch so I can find out who you are?” Or “Let’s talk.” Little by little my network just built up and built up. So when I did the books, things really snowballed because I put word out to the community that I really wanted to interview as many graffiti artists as possible. And so I started to meet more and more of them. And the more they met me the more they started to realize that, yeah, I was an old square, but at least I wasn’t a cop and I was a pretty nice guy who was easy to get along with and very passionate about the subject. So I began to respect and learn about them and the converse was true as well. I now have a lot of graffiti writers who are friends and I hang out with them sometimes. We shoot photographs together and I spend time with them when they paint and so at this point those older issues have drifted away, thank goodness.

So what was your perception of graffiti artists before you started photographing and has it changed since then?

It’s a long time ago now. I started shooting graffiti in 2004 and at that time I knew nothing about graffiti. I got into it completely by accident. I didn’t understand the culture; I didn’t understand the reasons for doing the art. I certainly didn’t understand the street graffiti scene and the reasons behind tagging and the kind of illegal graffiti that most people find offensive. I just didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t know who was painting it. Many people find this surprising but I didn’t know if it was young people or if it was old people. I guessed it was younger people but I didn’t know for sure because I had never met a graffiti artist and I just didn’t know anything about graffiti. So I don’t think I had many preconceptions to be honest with you. It was just something that was not on my radar screen at all. Then I started to hang out on graffiti forums online and based on what I was seeing on those graffiti forums I developed a stereotype in my head about graffiti writers that turned out to be pretty inaccurate. And the stereotype was that they were, I don’t know, intensely urban, part of the urban street culture, spoke in a kind of heavily urban, kind of youthful vernacular and I didn’t understand it at all. They used words like “sick” and “dope” and “hella” and amazingly, believe it or not, I am such a square I had no clue what they were talking about. So it seemed kind of threatening and a little bit mysterious and a little bit scary to me at the time because I just didn’t know. That’s a long way of saying that once I got to know some of these graffiti writers, my feelings changed pretty dramatically. What I discovered was that most of the graffiti writers I met were thoughtful, interesting people who were mostly young—in their late teens and early twenties—very passionate about the art they were doing and very focused and creative people. For many of them, it was their whole lives. I mean they really thought about graffiti or street art 24 hours a day more or less. I really enjoyed meeting these people and I found out that they were as varied as people in ordinary life. Some of them worked in very high-powered jobs and some of them were graduate students and some of them were like hustlers working the streets. It was a real mix of interesting people. And so, yeah, I think my opinions did change and I now have a great deal of respect and admiration for most of the graffiti writers that I have come to know.

Photos by Flickr users funkandjazz and Troy Holden

Stay Strong Japan!

There have been talks that the world is going to end in 2012. Terrifying websites are dedicated to the entire year and of course there’s even that pesky little movie properly entitled 2012 that we’ve all grown to love, well sort of.

Although some people have their doubts, like me, it is undeniable that horrific natural disasters have been increasing in size and destruction as we approach the inevitable date. There was Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and most recently the events that took place in Japan.

It clearly isn’t the end of the world, at least not yet, and although it has been a couple of weeks since Japan was hit by the 8.9 earthquake and resulting tsunami, efforts to help aid those in need have not yet ceased.

From celebrities to non-profits, all have been lending a helping hand to increase awareness or aid to the country. Efforts range from donations to simple tweets on the topic, all with the common goal in mind: helping rebuild the country that once was.

Street artists are no different. Although they may not have millions of dollars to give away or Twitter accounts to share their thoughts, artists and designers have taken on the task of creating pieces to get the word out.

These efforts, uniquely different from that of others, still play a large role in spreading awareness to the public. They even help target a new audience that may not find popular media outlets like Twitter or CNN as the way to go.

Some artists, like Pure Evil have even created prints specifically for the tsunami to raise money for the Japanese Red Cross.

Regardless of whether or not you believe that the world is actually ending… or if you are a fan of street art, all efforts are positive ones. Although the events are tragic and unfortunate, this should not mean that Japan is forgotten about. That is why I admire the work done by these artists.

Photo by Flickr user Kent Ng

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In the midst of a tornado warning in the Bay Area this week, my friends and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and hit up Ocean Beach for the day in search of some local graffiti. Although there was no camo in site, I was equipped with a camera and ready to shoot.

Before we got there, I never realized exactly how much graffiti actually covers the sea wall. Much of work is painted over and over several times, but that hasn’t stopped street artists from consistently taking advantage of the mile-long stretch of wall.

Thank God.

Because of that, I had the opportunity to see pretty much every form of graffiti that day. The most common was lettering, but there was also a fair share of characters and even some stenciling.

And to think street artists ventured off into this far-off land to plaster their alias or their iconic character on a wall for a few to gawk and others to despise.

I mean it tends to be easy to forget that although someone like me enjoys seeing the influences of the street art world throughout the city of San Francisco and especially in places like Ocean Beach, others don’t share the same enthusiasm as me. Crazy, isn’t it?

The Department of Public Works hosts a Community Clean Team that helps paint out graffiti throughout the city, with much of their efforts focused specifically on Ocean Beach. This citywide volunteer program considers street art to be a form of vandalism, a belief that is common throughout big cities.

While their main mission is to beautify San Francisco by covering up the street art that so many of us admire, they can’t stop the persistence that so many of these artists have. These sea walls represent just that, persistence.

Mural: U‘WA

It’s easy to get swept up by the more traditional forms of graffiti that you see driving along the freeway or sitting in a BART train going from Daly City to Fremont. If you get hungry, like I probably would, crave an amazing quesadilla suiza from El Farolito and decide to take a little detour in the Mission… you will be bombarded by a different form of street art.

Murals are brightly handcrafted masterpieces that can be found throughout the Mission on the sides of buildings new and old. People often don’t associate murals with street art because they tend to see it less as vandalism and more as welcomed pieces of work. In the Mission, however, it’s neither. Instead, it’s part of the districts rich history that goes as far back as the 1970’s.

I must admit that I never really considered muralists when working on this blog either. Then I looked up at the wall in my room and noticed that a lot of the photos I’ve taken in the city were of random buildings in the Mission with murals on them. That’s when I decided to do some research and found out about a San Francisco muralist by the name of Jet Martinez. I read his bio and instantly fell in love with his work. The guy uses colors that we take for granted every single day and creates the most amazing form of eye candy! I was enamored by Jet’s story and then saw that pesky little link that said contact me. I thought… oh why the hell not! So I proceeded to email him hoping to hear back and before you know it I did.

Even though he is a busy man, Jet took the time out to answer some of my questions. The interview is quite long, so I split it up into two as equally amazing parts. Please enjoy.

Q: How did you get involved in the art world? How long have you been doing this?

A: I have been painting or drawing since I can remember. I’ve always had the ability for drawing and color but only got serious about it three years into a Spanish literature degree at the University of Colorado. I came out to SF to go to [San Francisco Art Institute] in 97, and have been pretty serious about gallery and street work since.

Q: Do you feel that your educational background at the Art Institute was beneficial to forming the artist that you are today?

A: In a round about way, I do feel like SFAI was instrumental to the artist I am today. I think the “tute” is a different place then than it is now. For one, at 24 years old, I was one of the youngest people there. There was only a small handful of kids right out of high school, so most of my peers were already along in their artistic careers. I’m not completely sure about this, but it does seem like there are lots of younger folks there these days. The professors I had were all showing artists and really gave invaluable lessons about life as an artist. SFAI was not the place you went to if you wanted to learn technique. It was the place you went to if you wanted to delve deeply into what you were already doing and surround yourself with other people who were quite serious about their art as well. The things I learned at SFAI were the intangibles: how to organize a studio, how to translate thought into image, how to feel and most importantly, dedication to your craft. Sadly, what I didn’t get too much of at the “tute” was a strong art business education, marketing, etc. That would certainly have been helpful considering the tremendous loans I had to take on to go there. But, I love the “tute,” and will always cherish my time there.

Q: How long does it take you to develop an idea for a mural/painting?

A: That’s kind of a tough one and it really comes down to the fact that I have a family now and need to make a living. On the one hand I have all these ideas that I would love to do, and will do when I can fund them. I have been lucky in that I am mostly commissioned to do the things that I already do. Back in the day, when I got an idea, it was just a matter of finding the wall and I would make it happen. Now, I’ve gotta make those hours count towards a mortgage and all that good stuff, so I try to work through grants and city funds. About half of my work now comes from private and public commissions. Often these types of projects involve translating the client’s desires into imagery. I really have to tread the line carefully because on the one hand it is absolutely important to me to retain my artistic integrity and be able to own up to everything that I do (For example, I don’t want to find myself painting scenes of Tuscany or other typical cheesy murals). On the other hand, sometimes you’re dealing with potentially large budgets and do need to take the client’s desires into consideration. Sometimes, in the design process it’s hard to find the balance where you know that you’ve been hired because the client likes your work, but they also want you to do something different than your usual work. In this kind of case, coming up with a design can take a while. The last couple of years has really been a struggle with exactly this topic. I have famously taken incredibly long on not necessarily the biggest walls and frankly, it’s not good for business. When I start busting out the one hair brushes on a wall in an alley where I’m almost not getting paid I know I’m in trouble. This has made me change it up a bit and some enormous commissions I’ve had in the last couple years were really quite simple designs. It’s good to do different things, but I do fear that my work can suffer a bit when I have to consider my budgetary limitations. I never want to let money hinder my vision, but for the time being, these little babies at home are the biggest project going.

Q: Can you describe your most memorable experience?

A: Recently, while painting in the Tenderloin, a group of winos who always hung out and watched me paint whilst getting completely obliterated…They would get wasted then start yelling, then fighting with each other, then telling each other how much they loved one another, then start jonesing crack or whatever… in short, they became a daily bummer to paint around. One morning, I came to the wall around 8 a.m., and there were about 15 of them camped out in front of my wall. Long story short, the entire alley got blasted by taggers the night before, but they said they would stay out there the whole night and make sure no one tagged my wall. To this day, the wall is squeaky clean. When it comes to painting, I probably have hundreds of stories about how people really become affected by seeing someone paint something in public. I really feel like it can change people’s day, if not their lives to see someone create art in a public space. That’s why I love painting on the streets. That’s why I am true to it like I am to my girl.

Q: What do you think is the biggest difference, if any, between graffiti artists and muralists?

A: Graffiti artist are animals! Just kidding. I love ‘em. The first real graffiti artist I became friends with was Saber, a really intense cat from the MSK crew. He and Revok used to own this town for a while and they were some very serious dudes: serious about art and serious about territory and respect. I wont generalize because I don’t think that I am like most muralists, so I definitely give the benefit of the doubt, but there is definitely a strong code with graffiti artists and that code can get you mad respect or in serious beef. I think there is also a third tier to this conversation and this is self styled “aerosol artists.” Folks who use cans to create ridiculous work that can no longer fully be described as graffiti. A good friend of mine called Chor Boogie is doing some pretty amazing things and I think he is trying to break out of the politics of graffiti and just identify himself as an artist. There’s a few others, and they all bring that amazing energy of the speed of the can but are creating amazing new forms. Frankly, I’m a bit jealous of graffiti artists, and really, the crux of that jealousy is the speed with which they can get things done. There’s also an unspoken way in which collaborations are easier and that comes from the letter forms. I definitely could have, and still could, pick up a can but the look I am trying to get needs brushes. Muralists are a bit different. To tell the truth, I do relate a bit more to the energy of graffiti artists. I want to feel like I own the city one wall at a time. I want to push visuals to a new realm. I want to create a new original aesthetic.

A lot of my favorite muralists are graffiti artists. In some ways, muralists, and again there’s all kinds, but muralists can be a bit more precious. In the public realm, graffiti artists expect that their work may be tagged and they are ready to reclaim their space. When muralists get tagged, they have a community event to declaim the problems with society and raise funds to repaint the mural. I’m exaggerating, but I do sometimes feel that we muralists can be a bit too precious and this probably has something to do with the fact that it does take a lot longer to do something. In that sense, a public muralist really does get more of a chance to get to know the community they are working in. I’ll put it this way, the best thing about graffiti art is that it is pure passion and raw talent exploding on a wall reminding us of the potential for spontaneous creativity. The best thing about public murals is that it is also pure passion and raw talent, but slowly growing on a wall, creating community, reminding us not only of the importance of art in our communities, but also of artists, living out their passion in the day-to-day.

Photo by Flickr user Franco Folini