In art and in life, Michael Roman was a man of many layers, colorful visions and haunting complexities.
The stencil artist and silkscreen printmaker, best known for layered prints depicting cultural and political icons, died on Monday, succumbing to severe health complications. He was 60 years old.
Three months ago, Roman was out to see a movie with his partner of six years, Kate Rosenberger, when he suddenly began heaving and panting heavily.
The movie date ended with a three-week hospital stay for Roman, said Rosenberger. It was then that doctors discovered lesions on his brain, that two of his heart valves had stopped functioning, and that a “massive tumor” had taken hold of his right kidney, she said.
Roman, who was also suffering from Hepatitis B and diabetes, was told that liquid had accumulated in his heart. This would have complicated a life-saving open-heart surgery, making it unlikely he would survive.
“He did not want to die,” said Rosenberger. “The surgeon did not want to operate on him. It was weeks of back and forth.”
Sick of being “poked and prodded,” Roman eventually requested to “die at home.” Rosenberger took the artist into her care.
“It was a life or death decision,” she said. “It was hard.”
Roman died the morning after Christmas, in Rosenberger’s arms.
Remembering Michael Roman
Although news of Roman’s deteriorating health had spread quickly throughout the Mission’s art community, his sudden death shocked many.
“We were trying to raise money to pay for his rent while he was in the hospital,” said Cindy DeLosa, an artist with Precita Eyes, a community art and mural organization where Roman would often sell his work.
Less than a month ago, Roman’s community created a GoFundMe campaign to help the struggling artist pay for his studio at 16th and Capp streets.
“Who knew it would be fatal?” DeLosa said.
Those close to him remembered Roman as a tortured genius whose unrelenting generosity was often at odds with his fluctuating moods.
“Michael was on some days very quiet and at other times very vivacious,” said Denise Gonzalez, owner of Luz de Luna at 3182 24th St., where Roman sold his work. “So many times he would get upset in the morning, but then I’d see him in the afternoon and he was full of life.”
DeLosa said she jokingly referred to Roman as “tripolar.” “He was sweet and absolutely crazy,” she said.
“He was a simple man with simple pleasures, but also really complex and multilayered,” said Rosenberger. The two had met outside of Dog Eared Books at 900 Valencia, which Rosenberger runs.
Roman was stenciling on the sidewalk in front of the store, and the bookstore owner said she was immediately smitten.
“I couldn’t believe such an interesting man existed in the universe,” she said. “He would tell you the most startlingly perceptive thing about any situation.”
And his art, too, “was not of this world,” she added.
Roman’s edgy, colorful, and imaginative art often linked modern life to culture and tradition, and is in the permanent collection of the New York Textile Museum and San Francisco’s Mexican Museum, as well as in private collections.
Inspired by frequent trips to Oaxaca, Mexico, DeLosa described Roman’s unique flair as “Latino wildstyle.”
“His art, his way of thinking, is absolutely unique,” said DeLosa. “He was into Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Coltrane. He had a little ‘Latin soul’ thing going on.”
Mission community leader Roberto Hernandez called Roman’s style and life “the incredible loco.”
“He was a genius – artistically he’s one of a kind,” said Hernandez. “He could never stay still. It was that constant fast pace that he lived.”
Blending Tradition with Pop Culture
Roman, a Mexican American, was a Los Angeles native who became entrenched in New York City’s vibrant art scene after moving there in the ’80s.
Working as a bike messenger, Roman delivered transparencies to Andy Warhol’s factory, and soon made a name for himself as a stencil graffiti artist tagging subway trains with the likes of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Roman’s art bled into fashion when he began designing his now-famous long-sleeve shirts, imprinted with pre-Hispanic motifs and traditional patterns. Roman helped outfit rock icons such as Keith Richards and The Ramones.
“He leaned a lot on African and Aztec images and later incorporated artistic icons like Frida [Kahlo] and Che [Guevera]. He had a romance with both of them,” said Hernandez.
Big-name celebrities soon took note. Madonna enlisted Roman to design props for the set of her 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan.
But with Roman’s growing popularity came drug abuse.
“He had his demons alcohol and drugs. That’s why he was so loco,” said Hernandez. “That experimenting with drugs, it gives you vision, to connect beyond the earthly with the universe, and then come back to do your art.”
Roman’s move to San Francisco helped him to conquer his vices and is in part credited to a longstanding friendship with local music legend Carlos Santana, who commissioned Roman to design the cover of his 1993 album Milagro, and hired him to teach his craft at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.
There, Roman taught silkscreen printing for almost a decade, inspiring many local artists, including Calixto Robles and Juan Fuentes. It was through his work at the cultural center that Roman found some stability, said Hernandez.
“As long as I knew Michael, he was a gypsy,” said Hernandez. “He hopped from place to place. He was homeless. At the MCCLA, he had a home there, a place to do his art.”
Roman was a starving artist for the entirety of his life, because he didn’t “give a rat’s ass about money,” said Rosenberger.
“He gave away a lot of art for free. People ripped off his designs,” she said. “He didn’t care about that stuff. The man was his art and the art was the man. He lived in a different realm.”
Roman was notorious for his generosity, often gifting the shirts and prints he made to both friends and strangers.
“I’d pack him two lunches, because I knew he’d give at least one of them away,” said Rosenberger. “I honored that about him.”
Mabel Jimenez, photo editor for the Mission-based newspaper El Tecolote, said she knew Roman from around the neighborhood, where he could often be seen selling his prints outside of a frame store on Valencia Street or printing his stencils on sidewalks.
“He was always very nice to me and gifted me two great pieces when I told him I had moved to a new apartment,” said Jimenez.
Altars commemorating Roman appeared in the windows of book and art stores along 24th Street this week. His influence and the reverence of his community was made visible by the artists, merchants and fans who wore his signature printed shirts with pride days after his death.
“This shirt I have on – I wear them all the time anyway. This is my normal uniform. I have about 20 of them,” said DeLosa. “There will never be any work like his again.”
A memorial will be held for Michael Roman at the St. John Coltrane Church, located at 2091 Turk St., on February 17 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Community members are invited to contribute to an altar that has been constructed in honor of Roman in the window of Alley Cat Bookstore, at 3036 24th St.