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“This used to be a graffiti Mecca,” says former “bomber” Roger Gastman, pointing out the window of the Metro car toward a cement retaining wall below the Rhode Island Avenue station. The wall was not always as colorless as the gray Washington sky that blankets this Saturday afternoon. Gastman flips through the pages of the book he’s recently completed to a photograph of the spot back in the mid-’80s, when a now-legendary “writer” (a more politically correct term among graffiti artists than “bomber”) named Seven covered the cement with “SEV VS REL” in voluptuous green and white letters.
The book, Free Agents: A History of Washington D.C. Graffiti, is a collection of nearly three dozen profilesmost penned by Gastmanof writers who painted during graffiti’s golden age in D.C.: from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. Stuffed with photographs of each writer’s outdoor portfolio, Free Agents is a record of wall writings that are steadily disappearing as cleanup crews paint and sandblast walls and as a younger generation of writers covers over the work of its forebears. Gastman shakes his head at the rooftops and building walls on which young bombers have scribbled over heyday-era artifacts. “The kids who paint now have no sense of history; they talk trash and have no respect,” the 23-year-old Gastman says. “Their walls just look cluttered and gross.”
As the train moves toward Union Station, Gastman points out a lonely red-brick building he bombed during one of his very first missions with Cool Disco Dana legend of D.C.’s mid-’80s go-go graffiti scene who has spray-painted more tags in more D.C. neighborhoods than any other graffiti artist. As a ninth-grader, Gastmanwho would occasionally put up the near-mythical writer in his mother’s Bethesda houseclimbed a tree with Dan to the roof of the then-abandoned structure. He had told his mother he was sleeping at a friend’s housebut wound up walking the Red Line with about a dozen cans of spray paint.
Gastman gave up bombing two years ago, when his magazine, While You Were Sleepingwhich originally reported solely on graffiti but expanded to include articles on serial killers, sex, and alienstook off and forced its editor aboveground. Just about the time he stopped bombing, Gastman picked up the phone to track down writers for an in-depth magazine article on the history of D.C. graffiti, which eventually swelled into the 164-page Free Agents. If Gastman can no longer tag on the sly, he can at least document the work of his contemporaries and influences before their tags get buffed or sidebusted (defaced by new bombers). Compiling the chunky graffiti folio turned Gastman from artist to archivist. He still writes, but only on sanctioned surfaces: The Coca-Cola Co. pays him to transfer art drawn by children in poster-design contests onto city walls.
Later in the afternoon, Gastman pulls his Jeep behind a Shop Express convenience store in Southeast to check out a wall bearing rare go-go-era scribbling. He spies a street vendor selling go-go CDs in the parking lot and asks him about Dan’s whereabouts. (Gastman has not been able to track the artist down for the past year.) The vendor hasn’t seen Dan, but he knows where Gastman might be able to get go-go-graffiti photos: from a man called Mr. G. Walking back to the Jeep, Gastman mutters, “I’ve called him, but Mr. G never returns my calls. If I could get those photos, I would publish a 100-page book just on go-go graffiti.” Dan Gilgoff
Free Agents: A History of Washington D.C. Graffiti is published in conjunction with the opening of an art show of the same title curated by Gastman at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The show opens Friday, April 20, with a reception at MOCA from 6 to 9 p.m., and runs through June 26. For more information on the book and the exhibit, visit www.cooldiscodan.com.