Nathan Nordstrom watched $20,000 worth of work disappear in two days. The graffiti artist, known by his moniker ‘Sloke One,’ had gigs lined up through May, but with the cancellation of SXSW and the stay-at-home order issued in Austin, nearly everything was put on hold.
“I fell into a depression,” Sloke says. “I was having a really hard time being creative.”
Being creative has been a part of Sloke’s life since he was a kid. He got into graffiti in the 80’s, when he was in his early 20’s. Back then, the Austin graffiti scene was small and underground. Sloke was mainly tagging public buildings or the old graffiti park at Castle Hill.
“It felt like I was this renegade secret artist, like I was out in the middle of the night expressing myself with my art,” Sloke says.
The idea of street art wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous or celebrated as it is now, and Sloke’s graffiti landed him in trouble more than a few times. After his third arrest, he decided he needed to find a better way to continue making art.
“It was just like, I’m tired of going to jail for graffiti, and I can’t stop painting graffiti,” Sloke says. “And that’s really where the change started to happen. Instead of painting people’s walls without their permission, I started to ask permission.”
Since then, Sloke has traveled all over the world painting murals for companies like Apple and Google. He’s curated art exhibits and appeared in a documentary about street art. He loves painting, which is why he gladly accepted a call from the HOPE campaign about painting the plywood boards that downtown bars and restaurants used to cover their windows when pandemic restrictions forced them to close.
It was the day before shelter-in-place, and Sloke and two other artists, Niz and Mez, were assigned the window at Toulousse, a bar on East Sixth Street, where they painted the words “We will overcome.”
“It was an eerie, kind of depressing, grim feeling downtown,” Sloke says of the day they painted the piece. “There was a lot of fear and uncertainty. And so I think that by painting those boards, it felt like it brought a little bit of positivity to the situation.”
Then the owner of Antone’s, one of the city’s most historic music venues, called and asked if Sloke could paint a mural of Muddy Waters, the famous blues musician, over the boarded-up windows of the club. Sloke asked his friend Chris Rogers to help, and the result was a larger-than-life smiling blues man opening his arms to the city — just as the storied nightclub closed.
WATCH: Sloke paints his name
For the next month, Sloke had no work, and no idea what would happen next. On top of the pandemic, he was also dealing with the loss of six friends in the span of a few months — one from COVID-19, and the others from natural causes or drug overdoses.
“At first, there was a shock, right? And then there was the anger. And then there was the grieving. I’m grieving the loss of my career, my income, my friends. And it really just put a lot of things into perspective. So, I kind of came to a place of gratitude for what I do have.”
And he started to paint again. He reached out to friends and family. He rode his bike across the city. And he counted his blessings.
“I started thinking about other people,” Sloke says. “I started reaching out and seeing how other people were doing and do you need anything? You want me to go get your groceries? How can I help you? And by doing that, that helped a lot.”
Sloke tries to paint at least once a week, just for himself, either on public walls around the city, sometimes on canvas, or the concrete wall in his backyard.
“Painting for me is a good escape because it clears my head. It’s like my form of meditation, like nothing else really matters but creating this piece and seeing how it’s going to turn out in the end.”
Paid work is slowly coming back for Sloke. He has one job lined up in Dripping Springs, and he’s received a few additional requests.
He wants to go visit his uncle and mom in California, but he knows it isn’t safe yet.
Recently, while walking through downtown Austin, he spotted another mural he hadn’t seen before, of a giant dove with wings spread across the plywood canvas, painted over the boarded-up window of a restaurant.
“That’s really good,” he said, admiring the artist’s work. He still appreciates what art means to the city, and what it means to himself. “It sort of reminds me that, you know, there’s still hope.”