Rajiv Raman, December Artist of the Month

Artist of the Month

Interview of Rajiv Raman by Valeria Amato
Photography by Jaclyn Tyler,  see full series on Rajiv here

Rajiv Raman is a graphic designer, sculptor, user-experience engineer, and dad. He has lived in Somerville for a total of ten years, over three different decades (don't ask). Be advised: he has an unhealthy obsession with maps.
What’s a brief overview of what you do? (Feel free to give a few examples.)
I create graphic designs that resemble subway maps. I tell a story through each map, one that isn't immediately obvious at first glance. I call them “Mapuccino's”.
My maps fall into two categories: edition prints and custom commissions. My edition prints cover various timely themes, from politics to the environment. For example, I created a subway map to document the massive flow of Syrian refugees across the globe.
My custom commissions are based on people's lives. I consider them “interactive artwork”. Clients provide me with the raw ingredients: key moments and places from their lives. Then I create a compelling subway-themed design out of them. No surprise, I get a lot of wedding and anniversary commissions.
Are there some past projects you’d like to mention in more detail?
I had a lot of fun doing interactive public art installations at a few Artbeat festivals. One year, in line with the theme “Migration”, I created a subway map of migration paths to the city of Somerville. (Three out of ten Somerville residents were born outside the U.S.!) Visitors came by to sign their names (and doodle) where they or their ancestors came from. It was great to see the project grow and to hear everyone's stories about how they came to be Villens.
Another year, in line with the theme “Micro”, I created a subway map of cells in the human brain. Each stop represented a brain function (like “Balance” or “Humor”) that is served by billions of neurons firing away. I invited visitors to think of experiences in their lives that triggered these brain functions and describe them on the map. The responses ran the gamut from funny to serious, childish to cheeky.
Is there anything new you’re working on, or an event that’s coming up? (This is where you get to plug your new stuff!)
I continue to produce new edition prints. I just finished one about the city of Medford. I love working on city- and town-based themes because I get to learn a little about each place. Did you know that Amelia Earhardt's house still stands there? Or did you hear the story about the first gypsy moths that were accidentally released? Or that both “Jingle Bells” and “Over the River and Through the Wood” have their roots here? New England is a special place because of its cities and towns. I don't think people from here always realize that until they venture out into Suburbia-land, USA.
Long term, I would love to map out a subway for every small town in America. That is the “great white whale to my Ahab” though. Short term, I am sure the aftermath of the election will provide plenty of fodder for new maps. (I already created a subway map of Trump's numerous business failures.) Something positive and cathartic I hope.
Why do you do what you do? What’s something you get out of it?
Plain and simple, I love maps. I get to be a city planner in my head. I believe in doing what you love. Life pulls you in so many different directions: the daily grind, creative endeavors, house work, kids. But that's what makes life interesting. Art keeps me sane. Actually, it keeps me happily insane. That's something I'd like to pass on to my kids: live life to its fullest, whatever that means to you. Art is also a great way to stay plugged into our community. I've met so many wonderful people through it.
What got you involved in doing what you do? Is there someone or something that was important in getting you on your way? (A big break you got, or a mentor who helped you, etc.)
No surprise, art is not an easy thing to juggle or justify, per my previous answer. There were many positive influences along the way: supportive family and friends. But there were also negative influences too. Back when I was a consultant, before I made the leap to make art a priority in my life, there was a sales guy who said to me, “So, you're gonna be an artist. My brother-in-law's an artist. Real dirtbag.” I think about that now and laugh. He's a great guy, don't get me wrong. But I feel sorry for him. I don't doubt that he loves being a sales guy. But instead of focusing on himself, he felt the need to knock what others do in their own lives. That's what you have to do as an artist. You have to take positive influences, negative influences, and use them both as fuel to drive what you love to do.
Any thoughts on the local Somerville, or Boston-area creative scene? (No need to be a Somerville booster here.)
The Somerville scene is hurting. There are million-dollar condos being built on one side of me. There's a 25-unit development planned right behind me. I can guarantee they're not going to draw any artists. I've lived all over the East Coast and places like Somerville, that special mix of dense residential with mixed-use, are one-in-a-million. Cities are rarely built this way anymore. The Boston area has long been transforming into a bio- and high-tech capital. Honestly, I don't think these newcomers care enough about art ...yet. But they do seem to care about local restaurants. We need to take what restaurants have done and apply it to other venues like galleries so that a true “locavore” supports all things local. And if the newcomers don't become art advocates, well, then “Somerville” (the artist community, not the city) will move elsewhere and hopefully spring up anew. Maybe Medford's next. (I was recently joking that my new Medford subway map is an ode to all of the artists moving there.) I hope not though. I design maps, so a sense of place is obviously important to me. Somerville is my home and I love this place to death.