As Austin artists continue to produce buzz-worthy murals that pepper our social media feeds, a new exhibit takes us back to an influential era that helped shape today’s growing local street art scene.
“Piecing It Together: Austin Graffiti Art 1984-2004,” a graffiti art and photo exhibit that runs through March 28 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, focuses on the pivotal years when the first three generations of Austin graffiti artists began shaking up the public’s attitude toward the art form. The exhibit’s featured artists, including prominent graffiti artist and co-curator Nathan “Sloke One” Nordstrom, will discuss how graffiti changed Austin art forever from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 15.
“Austin graffiti didn’t start at Castle Hill (graffiti park),” Nordstrom says. “No out-of-towner came and brought it. Austin has it’s own history and what we see today is in large part due to these three generations.”
“Piecing It Together,” highlights archival photographs featuring some of the top graffiti art of the era, as well as new graffiti pieces on canvas by about a dozen artists who helped elevate the city’s art scene during that time. The exhibit, co-curated by Chale Nafus, also honors local graffiti art pioneer Alfredo “Skam” Martinez, a trailblazer who was among the first wave of Austin graffiti writers.
In 1994, Martinez was shot and killed during a robbery attempt while he was waiting in line at a Houston drive-thru restaurant. By then, the young artist had already established himself in the local art world, helping legitimize graffiti through his work with the Dougherty Arts Center and his murals at the now-decommissioned Holly Power Plant in East Austin. In the early 1990s, Martinez partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to create a graffiti-style mural that would resonate with youth. In 2016, East Austin artists gathered to restore that mural at the base of an electrical tower off of Pleasant Valley Road.
“My brother was one of the best (graffiti writers) on the street, and I’m grateful that Austin is able to keep his legacy alive,” says Martinez’s sister, Diane Perez, whose artwork is displayed alongside her brother’s pieces in the exhibit. Perez, who began painting after her brother’s death to help her with the grieving process, calls it “priceless” to know her late brother’s graffiti art now hangs in the cultural center’s art gallery.
For Robert “Kane” Herrera, who along with Martinez paved the way for Austin’s graffiti art scene, the exhibit offers a chance for a new generation to understand the art form’s history in the city. Herrera earned his first mural contract at 19 and worked on several murals including at Gillis Park and the “For la Raza” mural at the former Holly Power Plant. In 2018, he helped restore that mural as part of an effort to help save East Austin murals. “Graffiti goes beyond boundaries,” he said. “It's about expression in its truest form. It is saying, ‘Here I am. I exist.’”
While preparing for the exhibit, Nordstrom combed through thousands of archival photos from 1984-2004. “And yet there's still thousands of (photographs) that were never taken,” he says. Much of the history of the temporary art form, particularly its early days, now just lives through local graffiti artists who helped develop the scene here.
Nordstrom, who had been mentored by Martinez, remembers Austin’s second generation of graffiti artists rose between 1990-1998. Many of the first generation artists, he says, had moved on to more commissioned work or stopped painting. But Nordstrom, along with about a dozen other artists in that second generation, went on to form NBK, or No Boundaries Krew, an influential graffiti crew throughout the state and beyond.
“And then all of a sudden you got this crew that's going around town doing graffiti everywhere – graffiti murals, painting freight trains,” Nordstrom says. “It was almost like this revival of Austin graffiti.” Other graffiti crews also began launching at the time.
By the 2000s, the internet brought more ways to share and document graffiti styles, and a third generation of artists began to experiment with broader color palettes and low-pressure spray paint cans, Nordstrom says.
“(Today’s murals) didn’t just pop out of nowhere,” he says. “A lot of people have sacrificed a lot, including going to jail, because they love the art.”
Each generation, he says, adds a layer to the foundation.
“As this city continues to grow, its history is crucial,” Nordstrom says. “It’s good to know where you come from. It’s good to know those roots.”