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Aerosol artist strengthens spray can art, teaches new generation of artists

By Nancy Flores - American-Statesman Staff



It’s been painted over so many times that the 40-foot-long cinder block wall has accumulated thick, colorful layers of paint, visible along the wall’s corner edges. Whenever he’s inspired to create, aerosol artist Nathan Nordstrom, better known as “Sloke One,” paints pieces here, on his South Austin backyard wall. It’s his space, away from the public eye, to practice an art form he’s been perfecting for more than two decades.

From curating street walls to educating the next generation of artists, Nordstrom, 40, is strengthening the spray can art scene in Austin one wall at a time. The veteran muralist’s work, which has been featured in museums, galleries and documentaries, stretches beyond Austin with global reach as far as Europe.

While Austin’s dynamic street art scene, which may incorporate methods such as wheat pasting, sticker or stencil art, has been shining in recent years, Nordstrom’s work represents the harder-edged tradition of graffiti culture where spray paint is the main medium. For Nordstrom, street art has a wider appeal and can be clever and soft while “graffiti is like a punch to the jaw.”

A native Austinite, Nordstrom has witnessed local graffiti culture evolve and neighborhoods transform. He, along with a collective of artists, seeks out walls to paint on with permission from building owners throughout the city. By curating so-called permission walls — inviting artists to display their work there — he’s seeking to bridge the gap between businesses, neighbors and spray can artists trying to co-exist in a changing Austin.

Nordstrom’s style has also evolved since his days tagging in ditches and in hidden corners of the city as a teenager. He’s been drawing since he was a kid, but it wasn’t until he watched the 1984 film “Beat Street,” which highlighted New York’s emerging hip-hop culture, that he developed a fascination for graffiti. In Austin, Nordstrom found the same rebelliousness, rawness and intensity in skateboarding. Breaking into the local graffiti scene wasn’t so easy, though.

Graffiti writers couldn’t relate to Nordstrom’s biracial Mexican and Swedish heritage. He grew up on the edge of the city’s west side, which turned off other graffiti writers. They didn’t realize that Nordstrom’s family lived in UT student housing with modest means. “It was no Tarrytown.”

In 1992, Nordstrom moved to the Bay Area with plans to attend art school. Once he got there, though, the desire to learn more about aerosol art was too strong to ignore. Exposed to West Coast techniques, Nordstrom immersed himself in a new world with a vast array of sophisticated spray can art. He studied the different styles, photographed inspiring work, drew in his sketch book and practiced.

He returned to Austin two years later, motivated to make his mark. He, along with artist “Saint,” formed the No Boundaries graffiti crew, and together they painted rooftops, street walls, highways and freight trains. But not without consequences. Nordstrom was arrested three times for graffiti.

He stood at a crossroads.

“I knew that I couldn’t stop painting,” Nordstrom says. “Graffiti gave me an outlet to let out all this intense energy I was born with. To me, graffiti is everything.”

But he had no desire to return to jail, either. “I just wanted to paint.”

Nordstrom decided to go “above ground” and make a living out of his passion. “I don’t know what else to do because I love it,” he says.

Nordstrom’s work still breathes life into Austin streets, except these days Nordstrom approaches building owners for permission to paint and curate their walls. It starts as an interview of sorts, where he shows art portfolios to building owners. No money is exchanged, which means that artists maintain creative control, unlike Nordstrom’s commissioned pieces, where clients hire him for specific projects. Artwork on these permission walls typically changes every three to six months.

Some of the collective’s most awe-inspiring spray can art is at Austin Metal & Iron Co. on East Fourth Street, a permission wall where invited artists have been painting since 2008. Curating the wall keeps the quality level high while maintaining respect for the neighborhood. “We appreciate neighborhoods for allowing us to paint,” Nordstrom says. “We think about who lives there and who has to see it everyday. We try to leave a positive impact behind.”

At times neighbors have spotted them painting and come over to chat or feed them homemade treats. But some walls are harder to get than others, he says. There’s been a lot of rejection over the years from business owners. “But we continue to ask because we believe in it, and it makes us happy,” Nordstrom says.

As Nordstrom’s work began receiving more attention in the U.S. and abroad, learning how to accept his success didn’t come easy. “I felt the universe gave me gift, and I was scared about what to do with it,” Nordstrom says. “You can only do the best you can and try to help someone.”

Mentoring a new generation of artists has become his way of helping. He’s taught spray can art at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center as well as the Dougherty Arts Center and also works with aspiring aerosol artists one-on-one.“I don’t think we do enough of encouraging the youth to work for their dreams,” he says. “For the most part I’m self-taught, but the truth is that many people have helped me.”

One of those people was Al “Skam” Martinez, who was part of Austin’s first wave of graffiti writers. Martinez taught Nordstrom the basics of creating a graffiti piece with some tough love.

On a canvas in Nordstrom’s backyard, the letters D-A-M-E are written. It’s the name Sarah LaBianca, 20, chose for herself with Nordstrom’s help. LaBianca, a University of Texas student studying biomedical engineering, enjoys the challenge and compares it to how she feels when she break dances.

Aside from can control and painting basics, LaBianca says Nordstrom has shown her Austin’s longtime murals, taught her graffiti history and recommended must-see documentaries like the 1983 film “Style Wars,” which influenced a generation of artists.

It takes LaBianca an hour by bus to get to Nordstrom’s house, where spray paint cans fill dozens of crates in the corner of his dining room, and antique spray paint cans fill the shelves of his home studio. LaBianca says she sometimes learns the most by watching Nordstrom paint.

“He’s famous for a reason,” she says. “But he’s a humble guy who is always willing to teach. If you have a resource as good as Sloke here, there’s no reason not to learn from him.”

Nordstrom says Austin spray can artists right now are trying to find their own voice.

“I hope that the traditions carry on,” he says. “All I can do as an older artist in the community is pass it on to those who are interested.”


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