Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco Street Art’

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