Schoolteacher-turned-artist rises in Austin street art scene

Sometimes as you whiz past the work of artist Mike “Truth” Johnston on Austin streets, you can’t help but chuckle. Other times, his images deliver an encouraging message when you might need it the most.

Street artists, who create everything from sticker and stencil art to street installations, challenge one another to keep the city’s streetscape alive with thought-provoking style. Johnston’s clever wheat paste art — which features his drawings on posters put up with a flour-based adhesive — adds a unique dynamic to Austin’s vibrant street art culture.

From hip-hop icon homages to caricatures of friendly furry beasts, Johnston’s wheat paste art has captured the attention of some major clients, including South by Southwest and the Alamo Drafthouse. As Johnston’s work continues to gain visibility, here are 10 things you should know about the rising artist to watch.

1. Living in Asia and the Middle East fueled his passion for art.

Johnston, 36, remembers drawing as a kid and studying art in college, but it wasn’t until he spent four years living overseas in China and Kuwait that painting really became a passion for him. When Johnston and his wife, Erin, moved abroad for international teaching jobs and navigated new experiences, painting became something familiar and comfortable for him. Soon, the walls of the schools where he taught became his canvases. With his schools’ support, he created some of his first large-scale murals while living abroad.

When he moved to Austin five years ago, the city’s burgeoning street art scene immediately captivated him. Creating street art meant he could stretch his artistic muscles and express himself in a new way.

2. After spending more than a decade as a schoolteacher, Johnston dedicated himself to art professionally.

Johnston comes from a family of teachers. When he decided to leave teaching after 12 years “to be this starving artist,” he says he wasn’t sure what to expect.

But Johnston’s relatives saw the move as inevitable. While teaching in Pflugerville, he had been gradually immersing himself in Austin’s street art scene through the collective of street artists, muralists and creatives called SprATX.

As he began painting more, learning new techniques and gaining interest for commissioned pieces, he says he realized that “even though I enjoyed teaching, I felt like my passion had already moved on to my art.”

3. He was among the first artists to join the SprATX collective.

In 2013, when SprATX co-founders Molly Maroney and local street artist known as Mouf launched the collective, they invited a small group of artists to join. Johnston remembers being at an initial meeting at Home Slice Pizza as the group hatched plans for what was originally envisioned as a book or magazine featuring local street artists’ work. SprATX now connects artists with organizations, events and individuals interested in artwork.

4. Sometimes painting murals is a family affair.

Johnston has been known to team up with his brother-in-law and fellow SprATX artist Lucas Aoki for mural projects. Aoki, who is from Argentina, brings his own impressive style to the mix. Seen the giant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mural outside Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane? Johnston and Aoki painted it for an art program called the Premiere Project, which transforms an exterior wall facing MoPac Boulevard into a giant canvas.

5. Johnston connected to Austin through the community of street artists.

When Johnston moved to Austin after living overseas, the camaraderie he found within SprATX made him feel at home. “It’s nice to feel like I belonged somewhere and was a part of something,” he says. Being embraced by the city’s street artists meant that he got to know the city through the people who painted it everyday.

“(SprATX) has played a big role because I really felt pushed to improve. I’ve learned a lot of techniques and skills from watching people in the collective.”

6. He’s behind several popular murals and art pieces around Austin.

Have you checked out the astronaut with the floating pizza mural on Red River Street? Johnston, along with members of the artist collective Pow! Wow! of Hawaii created that during South by Southwest.

In 2014, Johnston designed the artwork for the Austin City Limits Music Festival poster as well as the South by Southwest Film tote bag. And if you’ve seen Google Fiber Austin vans driving around town, Johnston created the artwork for those, too.

7. Creating wheat paste art nourishes his creative spirit.

Although Johnston’s paintings and murals keep him busy, he says he feels something is missing when he isn’t wheat pasting. “There’s a lot more freedom in street art,” he says. “It’s more like, I like this image so I’m going to make it and share it with people. If it’s received well, cool. If it’s not, it doesn’t really matter.”

8. His street art isn’t just for the streets.

Sometimes you can find Johnston’s art in unexpected places. Several fans of Johnston’s wheat paste art posters have requested some of his street art to decorate inside their homes. Most recently, he created a “Back to the Future” DeLorean time machine poster for a boy’s bedroom.

9. You can’t get the teacher out of him.

When Johnston was new to street art, he sought out other artists whose work he admired. He picked their brains, learned about the craft and soaked up all he could about their best practices and techniques. Although Johnston continues to grow as an artist, he’s started to share his knowledge with a younger generation of aspiring artists who now contact him for advice.

10. Johnston’s art stretches beyond Austin.

It’s been part of Johnston’s dream to be hired to travel and create his artwork across the country and internationally. In October, he’s heading to India to paint murals at a school and give lessons to the students.

“I was hoping it would happen one day,” Johnston says. “And it’s happening sooner than I thought.”

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