Michael Roman, an influential stencil artist whose work was used by Carlos Santana, Madonna and other notable artists, died Monday from health issues. He was 60.

Roman was born in Los Angeles but moved to New York City in the early ’80s, where he worked as a bike messenger, delivering transparencies to Andy Warhol. There he became known rather quickly in the New York art scene for his stenciled graffiti and silkscreen designs, all of which leaned heavily on African and Aztec imagery. Later, he would incorporate artistic icons such as Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara and Lou Reed.

Legendary dance clubs as Danceteria and the Pyramid Club were just a few of the places that had their walls plastered with his work.

When he was first garnering attention for his work, Roman tagged subway cars with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and worked for established designers such as Betsey Johnson and Kate Spade. But his real break came when Madonna asked Roman to provide some of his stencil work for her movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Roman designed the skulls and skeletons that are prominently displayed on Madonna’s suitcase and a van that she rides in in the film.

Robert Joy and Madonna in 'Desperately Seeking Susan,' standing near a van adorned with Michael Roman's skull stencil
Robert Joy and Madonna in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ standing near a van adorned with Michael Roman’s stenciled art

The exposure led to him becoming an in-demand artist and clothing designer. His long-sleeve shirts and wall hangings were sold in boutiques and galleries all over New York.

“I specialize in long sleeves…because I don’t think in terms of short stories,” he told the New York Times in 1991.

As his star was rising, Roman used drugs heavily, while many of his friends died from their addictions. Roman survived because “I always did more art than drugs,” he told the East Bay Express back in 2003.

Roman said that he was also saved from his drug issues in the late ’80s by guitar legend Santana, who became a big fan of his work. Santana would end up commissioning Roman to design t-shirts and the cover of his 1993 album Milagro, and hiring him to work at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco’s Mission District.

An example of Roman's work
An example of Roman’s work (via Facebook)

“He’s a brilliant, gifted artist. He’s very raw, he’s very unique with what he does with color,” Santana said in 2003.

After relocating to San Francisco, Roman entrenched himself in the Mission’s art scene, showing at the deYoung Museum and many local galleries, teaching art classes and still making art — for example, he provided stencil work on 14 El Balazo Tacquerias around the Bay Area.

Roman’s work is in the permanent collections at the New York Textile Museum and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, and is on indefinite display in Oaxaca, Mexico. But for many years, Roman could be seen selling his silkscreened shirts behind a framing shop in San Francisco.

It was revealed in November that Roman needed heart surgery, but he was determined to be too weak to undergo surgery – he had liquid in his lungs – so he went home, where he died days later

“Michael’s brother Victor asked me to post that Michael passed away this morning peacefully in [his wife] Kate’s arms,” Lawrence El Colacion wrote on Facebook.

Memorial plans have not been made public since his death was announced.

Watch a video of Roman discussing his artistic process:

CORRECTION: This story previously reported that Roman had undergone heart surgery before dying, which was incorrect.

  • Ivy Jeanne McClelland

    Rest in Peace Michael Roman, a truly visionary artist and wonderful friend.
    Your art adorns the walls, sidewalks, canvasses, clothing, and hearts
    and minds of La Mision and beyond. I will miss you dearly and am so
    grateful for your support and friendship over the years. You will always
    be Presente!

  • shiva pakdel

    He was an amazing artist and a lovely man — we will miss him greatly!

  • Raul Martinez

    I will miss my Friend, I will always remember the lessons he showed me as his student at Mission Cultural Center at age 12.

Author

Kevin L. Jones

Kevin Jones reports on the Bay Area arts scene for KQED. He loves his wife and two kids, and music today makes him feel old.

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