Interview with NATHAN “SLOKE” NORDSTROM
Interviewed by ZUZU
Tonight’s show, From the Ground Up is an incredibly special gallery showing at SprATX. We’ve partnered with local legend, Sloke One, to bring to life a photographic timeline of the Austin graffiti scene from the 1980’s until today. In honor of this exhibition, we took time to ask Sloke some important questions to get a deeper insight into the history.
SprATX :: When did first you start creating art and how did you get into it?
Sloke :: I started drawing as a child. I come from a long line of artists in my family. I first started drawing things like Star Wars and replicating whatever my dad created. In 1990 when I was a junior in high school I began painting graffiti. I had seen graffiti back in the mid 80’s in Austin and I was always fascinated by it. I always wondered how do they do that? What’s that all about?
SprATX :: What struggles have you encountered as a graffiti artist?
Sloke :: Run ins with the law, doing jail time, having guns pointed at me by A.P.D., rival crews, public heroes, angry train workers and continuing to do an art form that I love with the public’s perception of it being criminal. That’s how I grew up with graffiti in Austin.
SprATX :: Are there any epic stories that you would like to share from any of those experiences?
Sloke :: I have a lot of chase stories, one time the crew and I were out painting freights in between San Marcos and New Braunfels, we were all painting and having a good time when all of a sudden the train cops rolled up on us. We called these guys “bulls”. We all took off in different directions into the pitch black night. When we all met back at the car we realized we were missing one guy. We waited and waited until hours later he came out of this cow pasture with a split lip.
We later found out that he got chased by a real bull. As he was running away from the bull he ended up running into a barb wired fence. That’s how he ended up with the split lip. At least he didn’t get caught. That’s just one of the many crazy stories of painting in and around Austin.
SprATX :: Tell us about your art and how it’s evolved over time.
Sloke :: I write my name ‘Sloke” in many different styles. My medium of choice is spray paint. I like many types of art, but it took a long time to learn how to use spray paint. Once I started to get the hang of it, it became an extension of my hand. I liked the effects that it produced, much like airbrushing. I see spray paint as a relative of the airbrush.
In the beginning my style was East Coast based because that’s what I was schooled on. Books such as “Subway Art” and “Spraycan Art”. In the early 90’s I traveled to San Francisco and I was exposed to West Coast styles. I had never seen “wild styles” like that before. When I returned to Texas in 1994, I began painting and developing my own style which was a hybrid of both East and West coast styles.
My style is always evolving. It went from traditional graffiti letters to wild style. I went to Europe in 2012 and everything changed. My style became chunkier and more flowing with new techniques.
The truth is that I’m rarely satisfied. That’s what keeps me wanting to paint the next piece. I’m always trying to “out piece myself”. You could say I’m on a style quest!
SprATX :: Describe your art in three words?
Sloke :: Clean, Classic, and Evolving.
SprATX :: Does Sloke have a meaning?
Sloke :: When I started spray painting in 1990, I liked the fluidity of the letter “S”. It has a lot of movement and I looked up to guys like Seen and Skeme who all had S’s in their name. I played around with a lot of different names, some of them were really cheesy but it takes what it takes to get to a name that you’re comfortable with. I would take letters that I liked and I would write them out and see what words I could create it with them.
I always liked the word Loc. Back then the rapper Tone Loc was big. He spells it L-O-C, so if I put an S in front of it, it would read “Sloc” and it didn’t sound right. Instead I changed it to Loke so it would read “Sloke”. It rhymed with cloak, like cloak and dagger. I used to read that comic book when I was younger. I pictured myself like a ninja going out on recon missions to get up. So that’s what I started to do.
I thought I made the word Sloke up, but apparently I should’ve checked the dictionary because it’s actually a type of algae. I literally means pond scum. (laughs). Which I think is funny because back in my skateboarding days we had a team called Team Scum that we would write all over town.
So I guess the name Sloke has come full circle.
SprATX :: What crews are you affiliated with?
Sloke :: My mother crew is NBK “No Boundaries Krew.” It was a crew that Saint and I started in 1994 here in Austin. Other crews are CBS, RWS, GTO, OTM, CREATURES, LORDS, AND LAWS.
SprATX :: What has the Austin graffiti like in the 1980’s?
Sloke :: The first generation of graffiti in Austin was in the 80’s with writers like Skam, Sek, Rage and Tanner. There are others that came up under them like Keno, Skemo, Krom, Ske and Sae to name a few.
I grew up looking at Skam, Rage, Tanner, Rab and Sek’s work. The two writers that really stood out to me were Skam and Sek.
Skam was definitely one of the best if not the best writer in Austin. Some people will dispute that, but that’s graffiti for you. A lot of what I saw growing up in Austin during that time was centered around roof tops, walls, ditches, and tunnels mostly on the East and South Side of town.
It was a very classic style which was East coast influenced. Skam originally came from Jersey and he brought that style with him. Around the late 80’s a writer by the name of Rab came to Austin and his style had an influence on Skam and Sek. You could see that effect on their pieces. Especially on the Pleasant Valley walls where the Selena and the Don’t Drink and Drive pieces still are today. That’s classic Austin graffiti art.
SprATX :: How about the 1990’s scene?
Sloke :: By the time I got into graffiti in 1990, graffiti in Austin was dead. Everybody seemed to be gang banging.
Austin was covered in graffiti but it was mainly gang tags. This was the time when the movie “Colors” came out and Gangsta Rap was becoming popular. The Hip-Hop culture went from being positive to more rugged and rough. It had an influence in Austin, which is why the tags were so prominent.
I never wanted to be in a gang, I just wanted to paint graffiti. When I met Skam a lot of the first generation artists had already started to slow down. Many had completely quit and transitioned into other things. Skam and Sek were occasionally doing commissioned work. Rage and Tanner were still doing some as well, but graffiti wasn’t what it was like in the mid 80’s.
I started painting with an old friend who wrote Dice. We grew up on the edge of West Austin. We were the first writers to come out of the West Side. No one at that time was doing graffiti because it wasn’t a thing anymore.
It meant we had more places to paint but less people to paint with. Skam showed me the basics of how to create a graffiti piece once but I was really on my own. It was an exciting time. I painted all over Austin. It’s not to say that people still didn’t paint but I didn’t see pieces, just gang tags.
In 92’ I left to San Francisco and when I came back in 1994 a kid named Exes introduced me to Saint. He just moved here from Albuquerque, NM. Saint’s mentor was Agree who also mentored Mike Giant. We started hanging out and started hitting the streets together. We met Renk who had a tagging crew called TWK, “Together We Kill” or “Together We Krush”. That kid was tagging all up and down Congress, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing Renk and TWK. Those kids didn’t really piece. I talked to Saint about starting up a graffiti crew that would go all city.
I kept telling Saint, “we don’t have a scene here, we are the scene”. In the summer of 1994 we went around Austin trying to recruit potential members for our crew. The original crew consisted of Saint, Reks, Sloke, Temper, Worm, Maze, Repo, Soe ,Shock, Short, Sumit, Omen, and Broke. In my opinion, this was the second generation or the second wave of graffiti in Austin. Our goal was to start a crew and crush…. and that’s what we did.
What made our crew different from other crews was that everyone had their own style, a lot of us were just getting our feet wet and evolving. Our styles were growing together. We did illegals/legals, trains, rooftops, highways, art jobs, art shows, and murals.
We did the whole spectrum of art, not just illegals, even though that’s where our roots our from — the streets.
At the same time we would travel. We went to Houston in 95’ and they flipped out on us. There wasn’t much quality graffiti in Houston at that time. I would say the biggest scene outside of Austin at that time was in El Paso and maybe Dallas. Dallas and El Paso has a history dating back to the 80’s. Graffiti was evolving in Texas and I feel like NBK really put Austin on the graffiti map. Especially on a national level. Everyone had this stereotype of what people in Texas did, like riding horses, tipping cows, etc. I am proud of that contribution that NBK made to Austin and Texas graffiti.
The second generation was about taking it to the next level. We were a family, and we took care of each other. It was never about the public fame or the money. Graffiti just wasn’t one of those things that you told people you did. Especially when dealing with the public.
Sloke :: Tell us a little about the 2000’s up until today.
Sloke :: I look at each decade as the foundation to what came next. Then came the late 90’s and 2000’s, the third generation with artists like Kews,Pause,Spot, Gomer and Phiks to name a few. From 2000 up until today, the cycles have changed. I’ve never seen graffiti or street art as popular as it is now, which I see as a double edged blade. It’s great in a lot of ways but I fear the customs and traditions of the culture are getting lost among mass marketing, branding, and social media. It’s a really interesting time, what was considered an underground subculture is now mainstream. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
SprATX :: What do you think is going to happen in the future of graffiti and street art in Austin?
Sloke :: Hard to say, I think it depends on the economy. When the fad passes the ones with heart will continue. It’s happened before. There’s a lot of hype about street art these days. Street art came from graffiti. The way I was brought up in graffiti was that you earned your fame through the work that you produced. You didn’t earn your fame online, or with how many art jobs or how many walls you got or how many festivals you painted. Let’s be honest though, times have changed. It seems to be more about business these days. Why? because of money. You don’t have to be dead these days to make money off of your art.
Sometimes there is too many cooks and chefs in the kitchen, but that’s life. I’m not anti street art, but your heart has to be in it and you have to be willing to put in the work. You can’t stab people in the back to get to where you want to go. If you are in it for the minute and you just want to make money and get rich and famous, you’re in for a surprise. Nothing happens overnight.
Comparing the past to present, I always prefer to see people creating than fighting. The 90’s were violent at times and I’d rather see people creating art than destroying it.
SprATX :: What would you like to say about the show this weekend,
Sloke :: The show this Saturday May 7th from 7-10pm. It’s an incredibly important time to re-introduce this photographic collection of work to the public and to the young and emerging artist in Austin. The purpose of the exhibit is to show that we have a culture with a long history. The art form has come a long way. This isn’t something new.
There are many people who contributed to what the art form is today and the show aims to educate the public on the history of Austin graffiti art. It also serves as a reunion, a time to get together and enjoy each other’s company and connect with the Austin community.
SprATX :: If you could meet any artist past, present who would it be and why?
Sloke :: If I could meet any artist past or present I would’ve like to have met Dare (RIP) from Love Letters, TWS. He had a big influence on my style. I have read a lot about him and know people that have met him. His outlook on graffiti and the fact that he made a career of writing his name is pretty remarkable. I feel like he never strayed from his roots and I really respect that. Granted he did other mediums but they always said Dare.
SprATX :: Tell me about your dream project?
Sloke :: My dream project would be traveling the world painting murals with the local artists in the community, especially in war torn areas.
SprATX :: I know you’ve travelled quite a bit. Have you had any opportunities to work with any kids?
Sloke :: I do travel a lot. Traveling has been the best way for me to network and develop new painting skills. I worked with a group of kids at the ‘Meeting of Styles’ in France. They had never used spray cans before. They were painting on everything around them! It was a great experience.
SprATX :: If you can tell the world one thing what would it be?
Sloke :: Shut up and go paint something. There is too much negativity these days.
SprATX :: Anything else you want to add?
Sloke :: I want to give a shout out to my crews, OTM, CBS, GTO, RWS, LAWS, CREATURES, LORDS, and NBK, all the people in my life that have had my back, The Universe for giving me the gift of art, and a shout out to the up and coming artists.
Stay true and stay humble. Do it for you and do it for the community, peace!
Photos Courtesy of Nathan Nordstrom
Video by Drazah