A nicer home the in North University neighborhood of Austin may be an usual setting for some welcomed graffiti, but that’s what the current exhibition at Testsite gives us. FATCAPPED is the first one-man exhibition by the local graffiti artist Nathan Nordstrom, aka “SLOKE.” An Austin native, SLOKE has been working as a graffiti artist since the 1990s and professionally for companies including Redbull, Nike, Apple and the American Heart Association. Well known and respected by the Austin graffiti counterculture as well as the mainstream, he challenged himself with this show by wanting to bring the outside inside.
Normally, graffiti appears on the side of buildings, bridges, railcars, mailboxes, dumpsters, and other various public locations. It is bold, and not just in its placement. Often, either using highly charged social and political imagery or a rich kaleidoscopic pallet, graffiti is designed to grab our attention and compete with all of the other imagery that surrounds us daily. But, it also conforms to its environment. The size of a graffiti piece is partially controlled by the surface it’s painted on, and being mostly illegal, it’s regularly buffed away or painted over. This spirit of adaption makes itself felt in FATCAPPED. Not so much in that SLOKE’s pieces are in danger of being painted over, but in the way the artworks translate into the gallery setting. Not being able to paint directly on the walls, SLOKE rendered his pieces on panel boards and faux bricks, and installed them like traditional paintings. This creates a visual tension between the graffiti’s abstract and gestural imagery and their white-walled context. The pieces’ organic flow of color and gesture are cut off by the hard edges of their supports. The works feel contained, and this heightens their overall energy. They become the visual metaphor of the hustle and bustle of city compartmentalized and put on display on a sterile wall. Like a restless child, they struggle against the gallery’s parental supervision.
FATCAPPED also brings to attention graffiti’s recent commodification. Becoming recognized as a legitimate form of art, graffiti has blossomed into a mainstream industry in recent years. Here, we have the graffiti-as-fine-art scenario, potentially drained of its taboo and reconfigured as a luxury object and spectacle. But SLOKE’s pieces stay clear of triviality. During his artist talk, when posed with the question of how mainstream validation changed graffiti, SLOKE made it clear that while the genre has become a commodity, it cannot loose its roots including: graffiti writers respecting each other, learning the craft by doing it, and evolving one’s own personal letter style in an original way. This strong fidelity to tradition is respected by the counterculture, and many of the other graffiti writers who were there applauded his comments such as this.
With FATCAPPED, those of us outside of graffiti get a selective view into a world we may often take for granted, or simply disregard. The genre is energetic and honest, and SLOKE delivers both in unassuming and professional heart-felt way.