Photos of San Francisco’s underground in the 00s

Dave Schubert reflects on his craziest memories of the late Dash Snow and shares rarely-seen images of New York and San Francisco’s graffiti scenes

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Dave Schubert
Photography Dave Schubert

When Dave Schubert was six years old, his father gave him a camera – and he hasn’t put it down since. As the son of a military man and an English mod, Schubert was drawn to anti-authoritarian subcultures. He started writing graffiti after watching The Warriors and skipping school to head up to New York, where he photographed the underground skate scene at the banks by City Hall.

He started shooting for Slap magazine and realised that doing commercial work made him lose his natural instincts. In the 90s, he moved out to San Francisco to go to school and returned to the art of street photography. In the 20 years since he’s been out west, he’s seen the city transform. Once upon a time, there were gun battles right outside his door; today, Silicon Valley computer nerds rock Star Wars t-shirts at the bar.

“I’m only staying here out of spite,” Schubert laughs. “I really want to go somewhere and get my own Unabomber cabin, not be around anyone, and make prints all day long.”

That day may come but until then, Schubert shoots and scores, living as an artist on his own terms. His photographs capture the essence of rebellion, the freedom to create and destroy, the pleasures of sex, drugs, and art, and the spirit of “never say die.” He speaks with us about the pictures he’s made – and the ones that got away.

Your work reminds me of the While You Were Sleeping tag line, “Live the Life.” You’re the quintessential insider, as much a part of the story as the people in your work. What are some of the craziest pictures you’ve taken?

Dave Schubert: (Laughs). Oh wow! Sure. One time I saw two prostitutes walking down the sidewalk, talking. One had a taser in one hand and a cell phone in the other. I took a quick photograph and they looked at me. Then the lady got closer to the sidewalk and was all (growls): “Motherfucker!” Then the taser lit up in her hand! And I was like, “Aww shit!” (Laughs).

I ran out into the middle of the street and the lady jumped off the sidewalk, over the gutter, and into the street with me. I was going in circles but keeping my eyes on her. There are cars at the light looking at us do this dance. She had the taser and the cell phone, and taser keeps going ‘BZZZZ’.

I had my camera in my hand so I went “BLAM” and blasted her right in the face – and you see her, and her arms are spread out and the taser was in her hand but it wasn’t sparking like I saw it.

Then this guy called out, “C’mon y’all!” It’s her pimp and she backed down. Yeah, there’s been a few of those scenes, for sure.

“I’m just looking at this sight like: darkness, trash cans, boxes, and three amazing, beautiful trans prostitutes smoking crack pipes... I decide to take a photograph but then the flash goes off... They all looked at me. I was 15 feet away. They’re all: ‘Oh no you didn’t!’” – Dave Schubert

That’s what I am curious about. Your archive must be filled with crazy moments.  

Dave Schubert: I don’t always win though (Laughs). I’ll tell you a tragedy. It’s a good one. It’s horrible. It was late night and my friend was like, “Come with me man.” We’re going into the crazy Tenderloin (section of San Francisco). He goes into an alley and I go with him. I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing?”

I look behind me and there’s a doorway. It’s the only light in the whole place. I watched three trans prostitutes go under the doorway, pull out crack pipes, and start smoking crack. They’re all done up but it’s after two in the morning so they’re a little worn and I’m just looking at this sight like: darkness, trash cans, boxes, and three amazing, beautiful trans prostitutes smoking crack pipes.

I thought I had a different camera but I was wrong. I decide to take a photograph but then the flash goes off and I’m like, “Ohh shit…”

They all looked at me. I was 15 feet away. They’re all: “Oh no you didn’t!”

I started backing up. I tripped myself on the crate and fell on my back! Bad place to be in any fight situation – let alone when you hear six clamoring heels coming at you!

They started kicking me. One of them grabbed my camera that I had in a black bodega bag and I watched her smash it all over the place. I felt another hand trying to take my wallet so I put all my pressure on my right ass cheek. Then someone reached on my left side and grabbed my phone. Then they start hitting me in the face so my hands are blocking my face.

This is where it gets interesting. My index finger is suddenly wet. I look up and one of them is trying to bite my finger off!

Then this crazy nature film that I had to watch in a studio class comes in my mind. (Does the narrator voiceover): “When reef sharks attack…” It was an instructional video about how to defend yourself just in case you happened to be attacked by a reef shark.

It was saying, “If a reef shark attacks you, most people pull their arms out, thus shredding their limbs. The best way from a reef shark attack is to poke the throat of the shark and it will make the shark gag and release its prey.”

I’m like, “Ohh shit! YES!” I jabbed my index finger into the throat of the prostitute and it worked! (Makes gagging sound). I pulled my hand out. Then my friend came and was like, “What the fuck!”

Then: “Hey!” Same shit. The pimp came: “Man what the fuck. C’mon, c’mon.”

I got up and my friend said, “Let’s get the fuck outta here.” And I was like, “I gotta go to the doctor right now! I got a wild story to tell the emergency room! And I need to get every blood test now.”

That was a rough one (Laughs). As we were walking out, I was like, “Wait!” and I went back and grabbed my camera. I threw it back in the black bag. I still have that thing.

Whewww! I need a moment. (Laughs). What I love about your work is that you have always kept it underground. What’s the best part about being an artist and living life on your own terms?

Dave Schubert: I don’t know. It’s all work. I work until late at night, go to bed, get up when I want to get up. I get to spend my time how I want and do something that I made. But it’s war all the time. There’s no comfortability but at least it’s my time.

I have so many photos just sitting in boxes. Everyone in the 90s used to drop their film off and get two (prints) for one or an extra nickel and I’d be like, “Sure why not! I’ll give that to whoever’ – but I never did. I have so many photos but it’s a roll of film and maybe if there’s one good photo I’m excited. So there are boxes that I haven’t even looked at like since 95. So part of me is like, I want to take ‘em and put ‘em all in a shredder!

Oh no!

Dave Schubert: I don’t give a shit. But then I’ll put an old graffiti photo on Instagram and people will kind of like it. Kids half my age are like, “Oh man! The 90s San Francisco graffiti – that’s the shit!’

So I went and made a little graffiti zine called Graffiti Document and kids liked it. But it took me a long ass time because I made each one like a painting. It takes me an hour to make one zine.

I printed each page myself. I made the paper for the cover. I wanted it to be really flat black and I couldn’t find any paper so I found a bunch of Xerox toners on the street one night. I took them home, drilled a hole in them, and poured them into the Xerox machine. It’s broken – it just prints out black. Each cover, I put through the drawer 20 times to make it super black. It’s crazy. I went through three printers and two Xerox machines!

I never thought I’d be doing that. I’ll like, “Damn I just spent all day and I made ten zines.”  Each one is its own painting. Each one is a little different.

Yeah, you sent me the one that says Record on the cover and I was like, “This is next level.” It’s all hand done.

Dave Schubert: Yeah, it’s like that. I used a white out pen on it. And a lot of tape. Getting the bubbles out of the tape takes forever. Goddamn tape bubbles! I’m like, “Damn people bought these. I gotta send em. I don’t mind making them, but this sucks.”

You’re using all this technological equipment but you still have the hand touch.

Dave Schubert: Yeah, a dressed up 1980s zine.

“After a week hanging out... I told Dash, ‘Before I leave I want to make a portrait of you with this work because they’re so amazing.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Can I be naked?’” – Dave Schubert

This takes me back to how we first met, when you sent me a copy of Abandon Ship. I wanted to ask you about your famous photo of Dash Snow, naked in a bathtub filled with Polaroids. How did that picture happen?

Dave Schubert: My friend was starting a small publishing company and was doing books with Mark Gonzales and a bunch of other people. He was like, “I want you to be the first. You know those in IRAK.”

I called Dash and he said, “Yeah, man, come through.” I went to Dash’s house and when I got there, he was like, “Yo, Schubert, man, I forgot I gotta go to Miami for that Art Basel thing. I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I’ll be back in a week! Hold my spot down.” (Laughs).

Dash was like, “Before I leave, check this shit out.” He went to his closet and pulled out a busboy’s dolly. It had two big tubs and inside were thousands of Polaroids lined up in rows. He was like, “Yo, I never show anyone this shit. Tell me what you think when I get back.”

I was so blown away by his photographs. We had a lot of similar things. One of the photos he showed me, he got into a fight with his roommate and had blood all over his face. He took a Polaroid of himself. I was like, “That photo is awesome!” (Speaks formally): “I, too, have a bloody head photo.” (Laughs).

After a week hanging out with his Polaroids and looking through them, I told Dash, “Before I leave I want to make a portrait of you with this work because they’re so amazing.”

He looked at me and said, “Can I be naked?”

I was like, “Do whatever. I don’t give a shit.”

The next day, he was like, “I got it! How about the bathtub? I’ll get naked and get in the bathtub and you cover me with Polaroids.”

Then he said, “Wait, I want my feet to stick out. Get a pillow.” So I got a pillow and tucked it under his ankles. Then I got the dolly and was dumping these Polaroids over him. I was throwing them in the air and he was catching them and telling me about them. I think in the one that everyone knows, he’s holding a picture of Ryan McGinley after he’s vomited.

I was on a ladder looking down at him and all of a sudden the doorbell rings. It’s a New York apartment so I went out of the bathroom and I opened the front door. My right foot was still in the bathroom while my left foot was in the front door.

I didn’t see anyone. Then this little girl stamped her foot and I looked down. I saw this little girl in a gypsy costume and I said, “Uhh, hi little girl.”

And she said (in a demanding voice), “Is Dash here?” and crossed her arms across her chest.

I leaned back and looked at Dash and he was shaking his head and doing the “cuts off your head” move.

I leaned back over and said “No little girl.” She said, “Okay, tell him I came by.”

After I shut the door, Dash laughing at me said, "Yo, Schubert man, that sounded kinda creepy. I'm all naked, in a bathtub and you're all, 'Hey little girl can I take your picture?'" (Laughs).

When I got the film and made the contact sheet I was like, “Oh shit, there’s the little girl.” She’s dead on in the center of the contact sheet.

Oh yeah, and one morning I heard her say the best thing. This is before I took the photograph of Dash. I heard her jumping up the steps both feet at once. She was like: BOOM. “What do I want to do?” BOOM. “What do I want to be?” BOOM. “Anything I want! I live in New York City!”

Graffiti Document is available to buy here

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