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Street smarts

A graffiti art promoter in Los Feliz gives his unusual collection an unexpected home.

April 02, 2011|David A. Keeps

Some house hunters crave square footage and gourmet kitchens. Others desire windows and views. Roger Gastman, co-curator of a Museum of Contemporary Art show opening later this month on the history of graffiti art, sought an element of surprise.

He could have chosen a downtown loft to showcase his collections of vintage spray-paint cans and art by Shepard Fairey and Banksy, but he deemed that too predictable.

"My collections are not the most normal," said Gastman, 33, co-author of "The History of American Graffiti," to be released Tuesday by Harper Design. "If I put them in some wild super-modern environment with cement floors and big skylights, they would not look as special or unique."

So Gastman bought a different kind of home for his street art and graffiti paraphernalia: a World War II-era Spanish bungalow with Craftsman touches in Los Feliz, thoroughly ordinary on the outside and totally Gastman on the inside.

"Roger's house reflects his real passion for the art scene that he is a part of," Fairey said. "It's like a museum, but not in a stuffy way, of life experiences and all the things he loved that have shaped him."

The Los Feliz house met Gastman's practical requirements: three bedrooms, so he had space for out-of-town guests; a flat backyard for his two Labs, Harley and Nicky; and room for storing his collections. The previous owner, however, had raised the ceilings and knocked down walls to create a more open plan -- renovations that made the house look more contemporary but took away much-needed wall space for art.

To showcase his collection of paintings and prints, Gastman had to get creative. On some walls, the bottoms of frames nearly brush the floor; elsewhere, he snuggled pieces high above eye level, near the peak of vaulted ceilings.

"I am fighting for wall space in this house, and if I abided by traditional rules about how to hang art, I'd have less room and the house wouldn't be as interesting," Gastman said.

Caleb Neelon, Gastman's co-author on "The History of American Graffiti," said the unconventional installation is particularly appropriate because many artists in the collection are known for tagging walls in an almost territorial fashion.

"The graffiti writer aesthetic tends to go for the cover-everything approach that sees every surface as a possible showplace," Nelson said.

Some of the most interesting objets d'art are Gastman's own creations. In the living room, a few steps from the front door, Gastman arranged his stockpile of vintage spray-paint cans, some more than 50 years old, in a cabinet from Crate & Barrel. It's a colorful installation of memorabilia -- the graffiti fan's version of collect-and-trade baseball cards -- that Damien Hirst might envy.

"You walk in and expect to see knickknacks and china like in a grandmother's home and all of a sudden there are vibrant cans of spray paint with old graphics and logos," Gastman said of the hutch. "It's as opposite as you could get from its intention."

The dining room sideboard may be an ornate antique bought from his mother, who runs estate sales in Bethesda, Md. But Gastman turned it into another stage for his passion, placing on top a hollow, see-through lamp base with nozzles from spray-paint cans.

"Who else would fill a big glass lamp with spray tips?" Neelon asked. "Roger has an impeccable eye for collecting and displaying art."

Indeed, Gastman was tapped by MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch to co-curate "Art in the Streets," billed as the first major U.S. museum exhibition of graffiti history. The show, which runs April 17 to Aug. 8 at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary gallery in Little Tokyo, is an important milestone for a frequently misunderstood genre, Gastman said.

"I don't think the right term has been coined for this body of work and collection of artists who have come from graffiti and skateboarding and are now working in advertising or nice corporate jobs with fashion brands," he said. This category of work is no longer a subculture but a multimillion-dollar business, he added. "This is modern Pop Art."

As the founder of R. Rock Enterprises, a Los Angeles media agency representing graffiti and street artists, Gastman has carved a niche in the scene, one that allows him to help artists whom he admires and get paid for it. In the process, Gastman's house has become a gathering spot for artists, Fairey said.

"Sometimes it's mellow like a Gertrude Stein salon with a vegan corn dog truck and lemonade stand in the driveway," Fairey said. "And he's also had a Playboy Mansion-style New Year's Eve party with a topless bartender."

Though the art he collects has a youthful rebelliousness, Gastman also exhibits a grown-up design sensibility in his home. It's a brash but balanced mix of vintage furniture and streamlined pieces including Philippe Starck aluminum counter stools and Jonathan Adler ceramics.

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