Steam in SF
Frank Malt, known to many of his friends as Steam (or Steam 156), has been tirelessly documenting the UK graffiti scene for almost three decades. No-one else has recorded so much of the UK scene for so long. Put simply, major parts of the visual record of UK graffiti have been built up by Frank, especially the early days of the scene in the 1980s and 1990s. We catch up with Steam to find out what drove him to document the scene long before others, including myself, started. Steam is also the man behind the website www.aerosolplanet.com….
Testing the Water
I started documenting graffiti around 83/84 - I was living in Brighton at the time and started as a breakdancer and then became a writer. I had a Haminex 110 camera which was kind of cool back then. I would go to all the halls of fames to get photos. It was a small scene there but a good one.
I got my name Steam around 1985: my friends use to say I had a lot of energy and was a fast runner – like I was letting off steam. The 156 came later when I was making early visits to Paris to photograph graffiti around 86/87. I used to stay with my good friend Jon156 (a famous NYC graffiti writer who had to moved to Paris). He formed the crew ‘156 Nation’ of international writers… so that’s the 156!
Some of the most important scenes that I documented in the early days were mainly London, Paris, NYC, LA. My early days documenting graffiti in London were fun and often risky. Writers did not like you taking photos of their work (because of biting) – you’d risk getting robbed or beaten if you were caught. It was crazy times but it was all part of the culture back then.
Futura in NY
For many early years my main focus documenting was the USA, making many (over 40) visits to NYC, San Francisco and LA. Apart from Paris I hardly visited Europe until the last few years. I have a good friend from Nottingham (Cruel103 ) who recommends where to see the best train graffiti in Europe. There is a real buzz standing at a platform waiting for a train to pull in to see what is painted on it. I loved photographing trains in Rome, Libjuiana, Milan and Naples.
My early visits to NYC played an important part of my archives, meeting writers like Futura, Dondi and hundreds more and bringing back photos to show people in the UK. With my visits to LA no one had really heard of writers like Hex, Slick or Risk in the UK. When I returned writers here were amazed what these guys were producing out there.
As time has gone by I no longer have to spend a fortune getting prints made or on posting pictures, I don’t have to spend ages sticking photos together with tape and I don’t have to get up at 7am to avoid getting robbed. It’s very easy these days. The game has changed now - just look how many people document the artform these days. There is a lot of competition – people aim to get the most exclusive pic, upload it first, see who can get the most comments on flickr, etc. There are hardcore photographers that love graffiti and this whole scene and then there are the people that just go around East London and take pics of the usual stuff.
Before the internet I traded with hundreds of people from all over the world and contributed towards many early magazines (such as IGT, Can Control, Hype and many others). In the mid-19080s I was getting up to 14 letters a week trading pictures. It was expensive but fun and gave me a great insight into what was going on all over the world.
I have been doing this 30 years and have photographed graffiti nearly all over the world. I spend thousands of pounds from working my shitty job to jump on a plane and go take photos. I will get up early, ride the subway looking for the best spots and stand for 11 hours on a train platform to get photos. I don’t mess around when I go to these places - these are not tourist holiday spots; it’s a mission to get as many photos as I can in the time I have there.
I still have the love for the art but spending two days at the weekend getting flicks like I use to is just too much for me these days. I like to relax and put my feet up a lot more than I used to. Back in the day it was always great to go to a hall of fame and find something new. Now you’ll see it on the internet before the paint’s even dried!
When it comes to what writers the question you should ask is what writers I have not met in my time! I have met everyone from the NYC subway kings (to name a few , Dondi, Lee, Crash, Daze, Seen, Quik) to European masters (such as Delta , Loomit, Seak, etc.). I kind of looked at Subway Art and Spraycan Art [two classic graffiti books] as a guide to what writers were where and went about trying to find them and meet up with them.
I was one of the people who started Graphotism. I heard a radio advert about this guy Julio was looking for help to make a graffiti magazine. I got in touch and we worked on ideas in his loft; we put the very first copy out around 1990; it was a good quality black and white magazine. The first issue had a feature on Hex from LA and my visit there. I was assistant editor and then more people got involved. After about a year I left for various reasons but I still stayed in touch with them. It was a great shame the magazine closed and a shame they never even did a proper article or feature on me!
Steam on Hex
I started the AerosolPlanet website around 2006. I had 1000s of photos and wanted to do something with them. I enjoyed putting together a basic site. After a few years I took the site down because I didn’t have the time to sustain it. Then an old writer Chic2 (from the Custom Boise crew in London) offered to update the site. We invited a few people to join the AP team who started doing articles for us. We started to have lot of technical issues; the site’s been down for around 9 months now but maybe we’ll be back one day.
The best advice I could give to other people documenting the art is to show respect to the artists and their work. Don’t just go stick a camera in their face. Ask them if it’s ok to take a picture of them or their work . Get out there, travel , meet the writers and get the pics !
100 UK Artists…The Book
I had an idea to make ‘100 UK Graffiti Artists A-Z,’ which is out now. If it would have been 1000 UK I could have fit so many more writers in. Choosing 100 artists is not a easy task but most people loved the book and shows some of the great talent we have in this country. The book was hard work!
100 UK Graffiti Artists by Steam - check the links!