To Preserve Or To Persevere? – Interview w/ Graffiti Artist Sloke

*written by A’Damaged Pro for Electronica Life

Art and music have gone hand-in-hand since their creation. Subtle nuances in one have influenced the other. There is a symbiotic relationship here. It should follow that changes in one will bring about changes in the other. The worlds of hip-hop and EDM have collided in the past and now there is a fusion in play. You can isolate the specific genres that represent these styles coming together, but bigger things are at work. I try to illuminate what changes are happening in the world of graffiti because of this new “alliance.”

The art and music communities are experiencing some definite changes. Technology and digital capabilities are taking things to levels that were previously thought unachievable. How should we view this evolution? Should it be viewed as an “inevitable progression?” What does this mean for “The Underground,” specifically, in regards to, the world of graffiti? Are we saying goodbye to the era of spray paint and overpasses and ushering in the era of laser “brushes” and projected white-screens? Will the acceptance of the latter eradicate the prior? I sat down with one of the most established artists on the Austin scene, Sloke, to get his personal take on these issues and more.

I grew up in Austin. I’m like a 2nd generation graffiti-writer, maybe third tops, but that’s debatable. When I started, graffiti was kind of dead. Graffiti had already had its heyday. Most people that were into graffiti were dropping out to be into gangbanging and stuff. I didn’t care about being in a gang. I just wanted a place to paint. There’s two sides to that…I had more places to paint. I had less people to paint with, so it was more trial and error.” – Sloke

A’Damaged Pro – How did you get into becoming a writer?

Sloke – My first exposure into graffiti was the movie “Beat Street” in 1984. When I saw the graffiti in that movie, it just grabbed my attention and I was like, “that shit is dope.” I had been drawing since I was a kid, but that graffiti caught my eye. I wanted to learn. Back then, graffiti in Austin was really underground. It was hard to get into. In 1990, I linked up with SKAM. Skateboarding was a big part of it, too.

A’Damaged Pro – How old were you when you started tagging?

Sloke – I was 13.

A’Damaged Pro – What were your inspirations for your first characters and tags?

Sloke – The graffiti books “Subway Art” and “Spray Can Art”

A’Damaged Pro – Did you have, like, a mentor?

Sloke – I did have a mentor. He wrote SKAM. He taught me the basics of making a graffiti piece. He showed me once and then said, “now you’re on your own.” He was doing a lot of commission work and stuff, you know. He was slowing down on the streets. Me being the novice, I had to start from the bottom up…doing all the grunt work. That’s how I started to get a little bit of experience. It basically all comes down to hard work and practice. I credit him with getting my foot in the door. Unfortunately, he was murdered in 94’ but his work carries on through me and many other people. He’s kind of a legend in the hood down here. I think it really boils down to history. You have to know your history. Everything I’ve done has been done before. I’m just adding onto it. By the time I came around the foundation had already been laid. Going back to the pioneers in New York in the subway scene.

A’Damaged Pro – Most information that I’ve come across has included that getting arrested is definitely a possibility and a concern, given the mainstream social views on graffiti.

Sloke – Yeah, that’s definitely a concern. You have to be aware that it can happen and it should be avoided at all costs. It all started with a tag. I kind of look at graffiti as the bastard child of hip hop. Most people just don’t get graffiti. It’s like a code. What does it mean? What does it say? If people don’t understand something they don’t catch onto it.

A’Damaged Pro – If that looks like a Rubic’s cube, I’m going to need someone to explain it to me.

Sloke – Graffiti started out on the streets and it continues to be built on new innovations to this day. New tips, paints, and low-pressure cans have changed the landscape. I grew up on Krylon and Rustoleum. It’s a pretty interesting time in the craft. I think the packaging is what is controversial. It needs to be marketable. Hip hop is marketable. Electronic music is marketable. What you need more than technology is skill. If I wanted to learn how to DJ, I would use Serato. If I wanted to learn how to do graffiti, I would get on youtube. Things are packaged. You need skill, especially if you’re planning on being competitive. You will get called out and you have to practice.

A’Damaged Pro – People address the need for self-esteem in society…things are sometimes made easier to allow the lay-person to “master” a skill.

Sloke – The technology is there. I understand. I use the fancy paint. I have more options and a wider color palette without having to mix them, like I used to. You still have to bring it. A big thing in graffiti is using all these photoshop techniques, with flairs and effects, on basic letters. If you take away all of the effects, what are you left with? Just the letters, so the letters have to be strong. It’s pretty. It’s smoke and mirrors if you don’t have your foundation laid down right.

I remember when I was living in San Francisco, back in the 90s, and the electronic scene was taking off. Those Djs had skills. You had to work 4 or 5 times as hard because the technology wasn’t there. I think it really helped the artist because they had stronger foundations. You can’t take a shortcut on building your skills. I still paint every fucking week because I have so much to learn. I’m always continuing to build my style. There’s no shortcuts. Regardless of how good the technology is you can’t substitute for the skills. You have to put in the work. Period.

A’Damaged Pro – Are there any obvious difficulties besides the talent requirements?

Sloke – I would have to say the law…law enforcement…rival graffiti crews, and being ostrisiced by society at large.

A’Damaged Pro – Society at large?

Sloke – Why are you writing on things? You should have a job. You should be in college. You should be married with kids. Funny thing is that graffiti writers fit all three of those categories. Everything I’m answering, I’m answering only how it has related to me. Everything took time. My mom is so happy that I’m painting for a living now but that wasn’t always the case.

A’Damaged Pro – With graff having been a fixture in the hip hop world, where do you see it going in this electro-centric world we live in now?

Sloke – I see it being all fused together. I’ve done live painting at raves before, even back in 94. People want to have a good time and see a good show. Music and art go hand in hand.

A’Damaged Pro – What’s the scene like in Austin? What cities, in your experience, are receptive to the plight of the graff artist?

Sloke– Austin has always had a small graffiti art community. Established artists, like myself, spend a large amount of their time on walls and murals. They have some young bucks that like to just bomb things…tag it up and move on unless they’re defending their territory. Cities that I have found tolerant to graffiti are: Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, and Miami, which has a show called Art Basel.

A’Damaged Pro – Do you feel there is a distinction between “capitalizing” and “selling out?

Sloke – Well, that’s a tough one. Sometimes both of those can be the same thing. I make a living doing my art. Sometimes I get paid to do my style of graffiti. Sometimes I get paid to do commercial murals. I like to call what I do for a living “professional.” I’m grateful that I can make money doing what I love to do. I paid my time on the streets. I went to jail three times. The streets never paid my bills. To me “selling out” is going against your own set of values. Capitalizing on your skills to make a living…that’s called being professional.

A’Damaged Pro – There comes that quasi-grey area where you get people on both sides of the fence. Shepard Ferry, of OBEY, for instance.

Sloke – I’m not a fan of his work but I respect his hustle. He’s probably one of the most hated-on guys on the streets. He’s built an empire with his art. Those motherfuckers crossing him out probably work at McD’s. He’s withstood the test of time. I can’t fault him for that. To each their own. I know a lot of artists that have moved from the streets to galleries. One of the main reasons I moved “above ground,” is that jail sucks. You’re not making money in jail. The state’s making money. Plus, they get your freedom. If you have a gift and you’re not using it then you’re the one to blame. It’s part of being an artist.

A’Damaged Pro – How have your contemporaries affected your style?

Sloke – I’m not going to lie. I’m influenced by any good graffiti around me. If you’re going to use an influence you have to add your own flavor. Everybody is influenced by those around them but you have to bring your own style. Whenever I travel, my brain is like a sponge and I just soak it all up.

A’Damaged Pro – Do you feel a responsibility to seek out new talent to keep the progression moving forward?

Sloke – Absolutely. You have to pass the torch. If you don’t the culture will die. I mentor kids. I teach them what I can. Some of them stick with it. Some of them realize that it’s difficult. If I can get through to one kid, I feel that I did my job. Some of the younger kids are really hungry and I like that. Less politics. Haha. I thank God that SKAM took the time out to show me how to do a piece.

A’Damaged Pro – With technology’s presence everywhere, what is being done to preserve aspects of the “underground” instead of it being wholly assimilated by the mainstream?

Sloke – Everything is being fused together but there are still people trying to keep elements “underground” and stick to the roots.

A’Damaged Pro – Would that make someone a “purist” if they stuck to the basics? Are they letting themselves down and inherently shrinking the spectrum of possibilities for their art by not accepting the innovations of technology?

Sloke – I know what you’re saying. I used to be a purist but then I realized I was being closed-minded. I didn’t start using this fancy paint until 08’ because Krylon changed their valve system and it was watered-down. What I mean by people staying close to the roots is people wanting to preserve the culture and the legacy. As time moved on, I recognized that there were a whole set of tools that were available that could help take my craft to the next level. If you don’t like something, you don’t have to use it. You also don’t have to make a stink about it for other people. Things should evolve otherwise it’s going to die. Just don’t bite people and claim it to be yours. That’s a dangerous game.

A’Damaged Pro – What has been your greatest personal (or even commercial) success that has occurred in your career?

Sloke – I would say, up until this point, recently I did a show MTN Gallery in Barcelona. That was a really big deal for me. It’s always been a dream for me to show my art in Europe and it actually happened.

In terms of commercial, my co-worker and I, we painted an entire building for an ad firm, Reagan National Outdoor Advertising.

A’Damaged Pro – So their entire building is cloaked in a tapestry?

Sloke – Yeah yeah, we painted the entire building here in Austin.

My philosophy is that if it works, do it.” – Sloke

Connect with Sloke: slokeone.com