"Piecing It Together" Gives Credit to Austin's First Graffiti Artists

The Mexican American Cultural Center exhibition captures the lore and legends of the local graffiti scene early on

ATX Mural, mid-Nineties

"Piecing It Together: Austin Graffiti Art 1984-2004" opens Jan. 24 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. In stark contrast to the venue, the artists featured in the show have short names: Sae, Rage, Reks, Jibs, Wake. But those names loom large when you talk about graffiti in Austin. Painted over and over again in seemingly endless variations of color and form, the names established this form of public visual expression in our city. They started back in the Eighties, when the movies Wild Style, Beat Street, and Breakin' struck diverse chords in young people, as did the emergence of skateboarding, punk posters, and gangs in popular culture. Those inspirations got the artists in this exhibit working. Their high-pressure aerosol art was made and disappeared rapidly. Its ephemeral nature lends itself to lore and checkered oral histories, which are explored in "Piecing It Together." On Feb. 15, exhibit curators Nathan Nordstrom and Chale Nafus will lead a panel discussion with many of the showcased artists. Their stories highlight the legacies of hip-hop culture in Austin. Theirs are passionate stories about Austin neighborhoods and our creative culture.

Untitled by Mez (Photo by Sloke (Nathan Nordstrom))
“The vibrant mural scene we now have was built by many, many people. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due.” – Nathan “Sloke” Nordstrom, co-curator of “Piecing It Together”

That's clear just by asking them to talk about their names. In an email, Jibs wrote, "My name Jibs was given to me by a NBK (No Boundaries Krew) member named Worm. My previous name was Temper. After traveling to the Bay Area and meeting a OG (Original Gangster) writer named Temp. I moved on." Some names are more vibe based, as Reks notes: "Since about 1993, I've been writing Reks, also known as Rezareks or Rez. I was kind of reckless growing up, always breaking or spraining something, so it kind of made sense. Plus I really liked those letters and their flow for painting. I am usually the one who falls off the scaffolding and breaks a leg or sprains an ankle. I tried a few other names but nothing stuck." Some have endured. Rage wrote, "I've had my allius [sic] for 30 yrs. It's also my street name or nickname." Sae started out ambitiously in sixth grade as GrandMaster, then wrote Skem. He says, "There was a writer in New York putting up SAY. I thought that was cool – only three letters. I really liked drawing the letters 'S' and 'A' but didn't want to be a biter. So I changed the 'Y' to an 'E' [and] came up with SAE. After that I went full throttle with the Art of Graffiti!"

Every artist can tell you how they got started in graffiti. Sae – now a graphic designer and a successful commercial artist who has wrapped marine vessels with cool designs – remembers specific influences from Austin's early graffiti scene. "Skam, Rage, Rab, Nave come to mind," he says. "I met Nave in sixth grade. That is who introduced me to Austin Graffiti. His parents moved him from the East side to far North where I was at. Nave was associated with the 'TOPS' crew."

Reks came to graffiti via skateboarding. He says, "In the 80s I remember a full production that showed up one day on the back of a grocery store by my house by Animal and Tutor that really inspired me. I began painting ditches that we skateboarded. Skateboarding and Graffiti were my creative outlets of expression growing up in Austin. I can't say it always kept me out of trouble but [it] did keep me busy and often paid well. Painting to me is self-medicating and relaxing. Society either loved it or hated it growing up, but now [graffiti] tends to be a little more accepted. Graffiti gifted me with a Krew of 25 years (No Bounds [Boundaries] Krew) who are all like family!"

Oreo painting on the Eastside, 1991 (Photo by Mark Prellop)

Similarly Wake writes, "The NBK crew really paved the way for me as an artist. I met them through skateboarding after seeing their art, when Blondies skateshop would have skate demos and DJ sets and all the local skaters would come and chill. Jib, Reks, and Worm were the first few that I painted with, in 1998. I met Sloke later on through graffiti and First Thursdays, when we used to do live painting and sell canvases on South Congress in the early 2000s. Sloke has always been a mentor for me. I think he really represents Austin on the graffiti art front and is a very talented artist."

Sloke – the art name of exhibit co-curator Nathan Nordstrom – says, "The vibrant mural scene we now have was built by many, many people. You've got to give credit where credit is due." These artists have a lot of respect for the pioneers of graffiti in Austin. The exhibit has a wall of photos dedicated to the memory of Skam. Alfred "Skam" Martinez was by all accounts a mentor and the best at doing masterpieces. His large colorful letters and stylish characters are still visible on Pleasant Valley Road near Lakeshore Drive. He and Robert "Seks" Kane Herrera expressed the culture of Austin and continue to influence generations. These days, Herrera is restoring some of the graffiti and murals that survive through the group Arte Texas.

Skam at the drainage ditch behind Crockett High School, known as the Graffiti Art Gallery of the late Eighties, 1987 (Photo by Charlie Nafus)

Art has transformative qualities. It's a personal challenge, as Reks says: "I'm constantly learning and trying different things. It never is the same, even though I am writing the same letters, but I always try and come correct." Wake writes, "It benefits the community by providing a visibly positive outreach, making neighborhoods and city areas more inviting. But also showing the youth there can be a future in art." I agree that art matters. As Rage says, "Graffiti influences my life to paint the world beautiful and to spread the movement. Graffiti also saved my life."

“Piecing It Together: Austin Graffiti Art 1984-2004” opens Fri., Jan. 24, 7-10pm, and will be on view through March 28 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St. For more information, visit www.austintexas.gov/esbmacc.

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Austin graffiti, Nathan Nordstrom, Sloke, Reks, Seks, Rage, Wake, Sae, Jibs, Skam, Chale Nafus, No Boundaries Krew, Alfred Martinez, Robert Kane Herrera, Arte Texas

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