UP6: Sloke One - An Austin, TX Original

Written by T.K. Mills

This Story is featured in UP’s yearly print – Issue 6: Graffiti. Order a copy here to see it in print alongside stories on 1UP Crew, Martha Cooper, PichiAvo, Danny Cortes, and more!

While in Austin, I knew for my roster of interviews there was one artist for certain I had to track down: SlokeOne. Even before coming across his work, everyone I spoke to held him in the highest regard as a down-to-earth, no-bullshit, legendary writer.

I caught up with the Texan native as he was painting a collaborative wall with UP Issue 5 alumni RISK. The two were piecing a colorful project for the Museum of Graffiti, as they put together an activation for Austin’s SXSW festival. While on his break, Sloke took the time to sit down in the shade with me and let me know the facts about his life and the local scene.

This interview has been edited for concision & clarity

T.K. Mills: When did you first start exploring your creativity?

SlokeOne: I started exploring my creativity when I was a kid, started drawing. And it just morphed into painting and then eventually into piecing about 1990.

T.K. Mills: How old were you when you started getting into graffiti?

SlokeOne: I started in skateboarding, and I would have been about 15. I always wanted to learn how to piece, but back then the scene was really underground and if you wanted to get in that circle, good luck.

Austin was pretty separated back then, with lot of the gangs going on at the time. I came in around ’90, which is considered second generation Austin. I always wanted to learn how to piece, and I finally met my mentor… well, the person who opened the door for me.

Man’s name is SKAM, Supreme King Al Martinez who’s considered the godfather of Austin graffiti. And he showed me how to do a piece once and then he said you’re on your own. At that time, he was slowing down on the streets and doing more commission work, so me and my buddy were like his helpers. It was an honor, man – to be schooled and brought along to help with projects and which had nothing to do with money. Had to do with the art form, it had to do with the culture. I come from the school of paying your dues in skill.

“It was an honor, man – to be schooled and brought along to help with projects and which had nothing to do with money. Had to do with the art form, it had to do with the culture. I come from the school of paying your dues in skill.”

T.K. Mills: How did you pick up the name SlokeOne?

SlokeOne: I started experimenting with a lot of different names when I started and I always loved the letter S. Sak was already taken, SKAM was already taken, but I like Ss an Ks and Es. SKEY was already taken and so I started just playing around and I took the letters that I liked and I experimented with them and then I came up with Sloke.

Part of that was, back in those days the word ‘Loc’ was really popular but that’s Loc and so instead of Loc it would have been Sloc. Sounds weird. I changed Loc to Loke and came up with Sloke. I never really thought to look it up in the dictionary but later I found out it really is a word. Basically it’s like seaweed, like algae, it’s like the algae that grows on top of like a pond for instance, sort of a pond scum. Which is funny, because back in the day we had a thing with our skateboarding crew – team scum.

T.K. Mills: What’s the relationship between the skateboarding and graff community here in Austin?

SlokeOne: Hand in hand. A lot of these bombers are skaters. It’s interesting, what I’ve noticed is when it comes to the street art a lot of them come from art schools. It’s two different worlds and at times they merge. But I don’t really know any riders here that are doing street art.

T.K. Mills: Could you give me a quick education on Austin’s graff history and what the scene is like today?

SlokeOne: First of all, the scene here has always been small. First generation, you know, you got your older established writers who maybe do legal walls, and when they’re out of town do illegal walls or trains. I’m talking about cats that can hold it down on all fronts. They can paint styles, productions, pieces, anything. And then you got your bombers, the kids that are just starting and who are just wrecking shit, and then you got your street artists.

The thing is, man, it’s important is to know your history and know where things come from. Street art came from graffiti. When I was coming up here, if you were painting with a spray can, you were looked down upon. ‘It’s not art, you’re a vandal.’ Fast forward to now it’s cool, it’s trendy. A lot of that comes from street art, you know, Banksy and Shepard Fairey and all those cats made it cool to pick up a spray can and paint something.

The perception shifted and there’s a lot of reasons for that, but I think the biggest one is money. Money changes things. People started to realize, ‘wait a second, man, this is cool.’ With social media, suddenly, it’s ‘hey, this mural on my business has people taking and now my business is doing better.’

To answer your question, the scene today in Austin is mainly street art. I stay out of the politics, man, I just stay out of it. But what I would like people to know is that Austin has a history that dates back. This whole street art thing in Austin is pretty new, like probably the last 10-12 years really. Graffiti, there’s deep history.

“I stay out of the politics, man, I just stay out of it. But what I would like people to know is that Austin has a history that dates back. This whole street art thing in Austin is pretty new, like probably the last 10-12 years really. Graffiti, there’s deep history.”

T.K. Mills: In my view, a big part of the reason street art in particularly has proliferated so quickly is because of Instagram, and visual social media.

SlokeOne: It’s all visual, man, it ain’t even about the process anymore, it’s about the video, the photograph – and photographs can lie. It used to be, your work had to look better in person than in photographs but a lot of people don’t go exploring anymore, Instagram is convenient.

I’m not going to lie, I’ve benefited a little bit from social media. I mean I was doing art before all that, art jobs, but see that’s what I’m getting at. You got art and you got art jobs. But for me it’s two different worlds. With all that being said, things change. It’s not about taking it back to the old school or any of that shit.

It’s about building off the last layer, and the foundations of the art form. A lot of these younger artists, man, they hustle. My hats off to them. They’re making it work. And they’re the ones that are going to carry the torch so I think it’s important as an older writer to pass it down to the younger generation. Now of course a lot of the younger cats don’t want to hear it but at the same time it’s about skills, not about hype. You better be able to back up what you can.

What I’m trying to get at is that times have shifted, it’s not so much about culture anymore, it’s about commerce. And that’s cool, man, whatever. But to me two different worlds, man.

What someone wants to do with their art is their business. I’m not an anti-street art, man. If you ask me, street art’s really what’s popular. I have a saying, if you’re doing graffiti in Austin it’s because you love it. It’s not for the money or the shine or any of that, it’s because you fucking love it.

T.K. Mills: On that note, how do you approach a commission versus a street piece?

SlokeOne: For me, if there’s money involved it changes everything, mentally. I’m providing a service to a client.

Back in the day, I started out painting on the streets and every now and then I’d get a commission job. But it really wasn’t what I was into, I was young, I wanted to get up, sneak in the middle of the night, dress like a ninja, you know, it was fun. And then you get older, and I ran into trouble with the law numerous times.

I had to make a decision like – because I knew I wasn’t going to stop painting. Around 2005 was really when I made the decision to go fulltime and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. But I always say if you’re getting into this for the money, find another career. You got to have the heart for the art. It’s going to be good times, bad times and all-around times but I do it because I love it. I love it and it’s personal to me. And that’s why when money gets involved it changes the dynamics.

“You got to have the heart for the art. It’s going to be good times, bad times and all-around times but I do it because I love it. I love it and it’s personal to me. And that’s why when money gets involved it changes the dynamics.”

T.K. Mills: Do you have a piece you’ve done that you consider your best, or a favorite?

SlokeOne: My philosophy has always been just keep your nose to the grindstone, stay humble and keep producing. I’m only as good as my last piece. Yeah, I got some favorites but it’s my progress and growth that make it special. It’s interesting how art and humanity are hand in hand about progressing.

Back in ’09 my wild styles and then in 2016 when I came back from Europe, I was doing more graphic design style pieces and those two were big moments in my art career. Really made me go in a different direction after Europe. Rocked my world, man. I’d never seen graffiti like that. That’s the cool thing about graffiti, is its global. And it was started by intercity youth, and it’s transcended all races, backgrounds, socioeconomics, whatever. It’s about creating whether it’s a tag, or something else, pieces come from tags.

T.K. Mills: In the way LA has billboards & NYC has subways, are there any unique environments where writers get up?

SlokeOne: What comes to my mind is probably under the bridges and the tunnels. Later on we did freights and everything else, but I would say under the bridges. A lot of that is because for one, there’s really not a lot of places to paint legally and two, it’s hot as hell down here, man, and we like the shade. There’s a lot of cool bridge spots, and urban exploring as they call it. With writers around here, people don’t care as much if their art gets seen, it’s more about the adventure they experience. So I would say when it comes to Austin, it’s under the bridges and the tunnels.

T.K. Mills: What advice would you give to younger writers who are first getting up? Or what tips would you give your younger self?

SlokeOne: I would say learn your history, learn to paint, learn draw. Drawing will save you a lot of time. And know your place at the table. Man, you ain’t the first, and neither am I. I just keep producing and stay out of the politics. Don’t be relying on these collectives or whatever to make your name, do it yourself.

Study letters. Graffiti is about letters. The characters and all that stuff that’s popular these days, all of those were used to accent the pieces, you know, characters, portraits, backgrounds, all that stuff. Lettering is key.

I met this kid the other day, he hit me up on IG, super polite but he got nervous and shit. And because we talked on the phone and I just said, man, can you just come over dude, I’ll show you some basics.

So I’ll pass it on to and hopefully he’ll do the same and that’s what keeps it going. So to all these youngsters, man, keep running, man, keep trudging, keep moving forward because they’re the ones that are going to carry it on. You know, whether street art or graffiti or both, it’s all art because at the end of the day this really what it comes down to.

For me, that’s the way I look at it, whether I’m drawing in a black book or painting a piece or doing a mural or a canvas I need to be painting. At the end of the day it’s about creating.

“So to all these youngsters, man, keep running, man, keep trudging, keep moving forward because they’re the ones that are going to carry it on.”

T.K. Mills: Final question – anything you want readers to know about yourself or Austin?

SlokeOne: For me, I’m always in a competition with myself. That goes beyond just graffiti, but at the same time I like having fun and I love it and that’s why I do it.

I want to give a shout out to my crews, my mother crew, NBK, No Boundaries Krew. Started in ’94 and probably one of the oldest crews in Austin they’re still active. And I want to give a shout out to Lord’s crew, CBS crew, Creatures crew… You know and I can go on and on man, ha! Basically, I’m grateful to still being alive and still painting. So, a big thanks to the universe and a big thanks to anybody and everybody that’s ever supported me or not supported me.

Austin’s my home and it’s a little city with big city problems. Don’t believe the hype, it’s hot as hell down here but it’s a good city. As we say around town, just shut up and paint.

This Story is featured in UP’s yearly print – Issue 6: Graffiti. Order a copy here to see it in print alongside stories on 1UP Crew, Martha Cooper, PichiAvo, Danny Cortes, and more!

T.K. Mills is the Editor-in-Chief of UP Magazine, a street art publication based in New York City. After receiving a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs, he discovered a love for graffiti while backpacking through Cuba and pursued life as a writer. Outside of UP,  T.K. enjoys writing poetry, personal travel essays, and occasionally short stories. His work has been published in The Smart SetThe Vignette ReviewGenre Urban Arts, and Eternal Remedy among others. Beyond art, T.K. loves reading and traveling.

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