NYC, by Way of Danville 

Michael Roman's long, strange trip from tagging subway cars to decorating taquerias.

An unusual friendship between a local restaurateur and a former graffiti artist who once tagged subway cars with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat has brought the man's work to an East Bay taqueria chain. The man behind the food is Marino Sandoval, owner of the seven El Balazo taquerias. The man behind the brush is Michael Roman, a political pop artist most famous for designing posters, T-shirts, and album art for the musician Carlos Santana.

Roman is the Tasmanian devil of the Bay Area art world. When he's on, he's a wound-up ball of talent and idealism producing brightly colored prints at 100 miles per hour. But his material success has been thwarted by his own self-destructive tendencies.

Roman's faults are the Bay Area's gain. An artist whose work might otherwise be inaccessible gives suburban customers a chance to see fine art on their lunch breaks. "He's a real character," Santana says. "He's a brilliant, gifted artist. He's very raw, he's very unique with what he does with color."

What Roman does with color, paint, and print makes El Balazo's Danville location a fascinating place to eat a burrito or drink a margarita. Two black-and-white painted calaveras (Day of the Dead skeletons) dance on an orange wall, one handing his red heart to his pink-skirted bony lover. Wooden carvings of vaqueros (cowboys) romp around a silk-screened Frida Kahlo. Reincarnated as a mermaid, she strums a guitar that transforms into an Aztec serpent. She hangs not too far from a Zapatista freedom fighter holding a picture of her dead husband.

Roman is serious in his homage to Latino politics, culture, and myth, yet the colorful way he layers Aztec patterns, skeletons, and Mexican revolutionaries feels whimsical. "I stick scary stuff up there," he says of what he aptly describes as "a spaghetti Western taqueria."

And Sandoval's affluent Danville clientele loves the stuff. "People always want to buy it," he says. "They think I sell art, but I don't. You ought to see kids' faces when they come to the store."

The energy of New York City fuels Roman's artistic style, but also his darker side. Roman moved to New York from California in 1979. The defiant 23-year-old with a Mohawk shacked up in an abandoned bank building on Avenue A. Working at a copy shop by day and making T-shirts by night, he lived the punk-rock life of the Lower East Side, whose space-constrained squalor gave him access to its elite. "You used to see Allen Ginsberg on the street. You'd see William Burroughs in the A&P," he says. "You'd see Patti Smith with her face passed out in a bowl of borscht."

Drugs ended up killing some of Roman's contemporaries. Asked why his own heroin, cocaine, and alcohol abuse didn't take him down the same finite path, he replies: "I always did more art than drugs."

But actually, meeting Carlos Santana in 1987 may have been what saved Michael Roman. "The connection was Bleecker Records," says Santana about Bleecker Bob's, the East Village record shop where Santana saw Roman's art. "His T-shirts were in there. They wouldn't give me his name. They were like pimps. They were afraid I was going to take him away. I did."

Santana took Roman to San Francisco to design T-shirts, sets, and the cover of his 1992 album Milagro. "Carlos turned me on to spirituality and paid me to do certain projects," Roman says. "I don't know where I'd be without him."

Roman began working at San Francisco's Mission Cultural Center, a community art center funded by the musician. There, he met up with a fiery group of street artists very different from those he knew in New York. "This new crew would flood neighborhoods with their posters," he says. "These people were humble. They believed in it. That kind of stuff made me realize that galleries weren't important anymore."

Indeed, Roman sells prints at deeply discounted rates that he can't afford -- about $70 for a poster, $200 to $400 for a canvas -- so that non-art snobs can buy them. It's not that he never makes any money; it's just that he can't hang on to it. "I had enough to buy two houses," he says, explaining that he pissed it away on food, drinks, clothes, drugs and, more constructively, art supplies. When money is tight, his phone is often disconnected, and sometimes the only way to contact him is to stomp on the metal door to his cellar studio, which is below street level under the Mint Street El Balazo in San Francisco.

Still, this street ethos is the key to his appeal, and the passion behind his work is palpable. When describing an upcoming piece he calls Waterworld, featuring the floating heads of children killed in war, Roman explains the images are cut from foreign news magazines that the US media won't show. "We don't have to be bombed," he says. "We get bombed by lies." This is two-bit protest talk, but when spoken by Roman with the beginnings of tears in his eyes, his passion is palpable.

Sandoval met Roman at the point that his art began to mature politically. In some ways, Roman reminds Sandoval of himself. Both men are passionate about their Latin-American heritage, and Sandoval, a 50-year-old former draft dodger once involved with the radical Venceremos Brigade, can relate to the 47-year-old artist's history of rebellion.

The restaurateur opened the first El Balazo in 1993 in San Francisco's Upper Haight before establishing East Bay locations in Danville, Pleasanton, San Ramon, and Lafayette. With its roughly fifty pieces, his Danville taqueria is the best spot to view Roman's art. The Lafayette store shows off about twenty pieces, and Sandoval recently commissioned thirty more for Pleasanton. San Ramon's Crow Canyon Road location has Sandoval's favorite piece, a four-foot-tall Aztec wooden carving. But ironically the separate downtown San Ramon location -- a sterile-looking cafeteria with adjoining sports bar -- contains little of Roman's work. Next in the El Balazo lineup is a Livermore vineyard and chicken ranch that Sandoval recently purchased. In a couple of years he'll transform it into a restaurant, banquet facility, and bed-and-breakfast megacomplex, which of course will host an art gallery. "Michael Roman's going to do the art for that one too," says Sandoval matter-of-factly, as if considering another designer would be betrayal.

But ask Sandoval why his flagship location is noticeably lacking in Roman's art, and an edge of frustration surfaces in his voice. "He's his own worst enemy," he says bluntly. "He's a no-show. Michael was supposed to decorate the store."

Sandoval estimates he gives Roman $200 to $700 at least once a month for art. And he's not the only one. "I bought a lot over the years," Santana says. "I buy more than what I need to help him with the rent."

The musician, who similarly owns hundreds of Roman originals, says his favorite piece is a silkscreen of Cesar Chavez. "He captures the innocence, purity, and sweetness of Cesar Chavez," Santana says. "I'm not surprised, because there's a part of Michael Roman that is like a child."

If Roman is like a child, it's a decidedly mixed blessing. It's why he's able to weave hundreds of years of Mexican culture into museum-grade art. It's also why his art is not actually in a museum, given his fondness for melodrama, binge drinking, and flakiness about delivering commissioned art on time.

Roman defends himself by saying the art will come and it will be good, harboring small resentments of Sandoval and even Santana, rooted in the vast difference of their financial situations. "He has so much money, and look at me. I have to come back to this hole and do my artwork here," Roman says. He looks at a picture of the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards wearing one of his silk-screened shirts and says he feels unappreciated.

Yet despite the theatrics, patrons Santana and Sandoval support Roman because they adore the artist and his art. "I miss him when he's not around," Sandoval says.

"He's a real character," Santana says. "We need characters on this planet."


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