A Brief Chat With Steve Rotman, Graffiti Photographer

Steve Rotman(Photo: Troy Holden)

Graffiti photographer Steve Rotman sees more than the average person strolling past a graffiti mural thrown in the Bay Area’s city streets. He sees art waiting to be captured through his camera lens. With graffiti books such as Bay Area Graffiti, and San Francisco Street Art, it is no wonder why he has grown respect in the graffiti world over the past few years.

“I was not working, but I became a full time photographer,” says Rotman after losing a job a little over six years ago and taking to the streets with his camera. But do not be fooled by his full time work as a graffiti photographer. Rotman says he has never found a way to make much income photographing graffiti. In fact, he’s been mostly living off savings the whole time and, as his resources dwindle, he’s now looking for work. “I spent all this time shooting graffiti because I love it and also I wanted to fulfill my dream of making the books,” he says in an email. Part of Rotman’s success can be attributed through the release of his two books, but his early recognition started with the photo uploading website Flickr. “Sometimes I was putting up seven to ten photos up a day,” says Rotman, who took photos almost every day of the week, five to six hours a day.

And Rotman literally went everywhere he could think of to get amazing shots of graffiti around the Bay Area. But how did a “newbie,” such as Rotman when he started taking photos, locate so many hidden graffiti spots? Well, for starters, he looked where most people go surfing. No, I’m not talking about at the local beach hangouts where model types walk around in string bikinis and disgustingly hairy, overweight dudes chase them in unflattering Speedos. Rather, he found his information online. With the help of the net and a good ol’ sense of exploring, Rotman traveled to abandoned buildings, “chill spots” (locations that are not easily spotted by police authorities), and graffiti-covered trucks, which sometimes required him to trespass. It was Rotman’s luck that he has never been caught—well kind of. “I had a few run-ins where homeless folks would ask me to leave,” he says. When Rotman began getting recognition on Flickr under the equally cool screen name Funkandjazz, Bay Area graffiti writers began requesting him to take photos of their work. But it was not always that way.

“In the beginning a lot of writers thought I was a cop because I’m older and I look kind of square,” he says with a laugh.

With years of experience under his belt, Rotman seen and interviewed hundreds of the Bay Area’s finest. With his newfound love for the graffit subculture he grew attached to something more than the work itself: the writers. “When you get to know one particular artist it is fun to watch them progress and grow,” he says, recalling several artists he fondly remembers. Though he loves a variety of writers for their different styles, one writer he is enjoys is a Bay Area writer known as “Apex.” “The technique and precision of what he does is pretty amazing,” says Rotman, who admires the array of colors Apex uses in his pieces.

As Rotman’s graffiti photo-taking days slow down, he, along with those closely connected to the graffiti world, notices the gradual deterioration of graffiti around San Francisco due to measures from the Gavin Newsom administration. “They want to discourage graffiti writers,” says Rotman, “they’re encouraging store owners to get rid of graffiti paint on their walls. If they don’t, they get fined.”

Rotman sees this move to a “clean” city as a result of the types of individuals moving into San Francisco. Higher income equals the urge to make the city more “presentable.” And I agree with him on this. But what does this do for the city? Will taking out all of the city’s graffiti truly make it a better place? Well, I don’t think so. I’d rather live in a city full of culture, flavor, vibrancy, and, yes, graffiti. Why not keep art on the streets for everyone to see? And, even better, it’s free!

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~ by Mr. Fem-Bot on March 9, 2010.

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