t’s not uncommon to walk through the streets of Austin and see a new work of art spray-painted across the side of a downtown building or bridge. Graffiti, once considered a hobby for delinquents and troublesome teenagers, is quickly becoming a respected – even sought after – form of artistic expression by true artists… especially if your name is Mike Johnston.
You may not recognize the name, but every Austinite is familiar with his work – it’s painted all around town, along with his easily identifiable tag name, Truth.
Raised in a military family, Johnston spent his childhood moving from place to place – a lifestyle that didn’t change once he got married. For four years, Johnston and his wife lived overseas, teaching in China and Kuwait – countries that, as he put it, have strong governments and don’t allow much freedom of expression. As a lifelong artist, the thought that people couldn’t express themselves publically was difficult for Johnston to accept.
Moving to Austin in 2010, Johnston got a job teaching art – something he had been doing at both the elementary and middle school level for 12 years – while doing some art of his own on the side. After spending the previous four years in places that denied self-expression, when Johnston saw some smatterings of graffiti art around Austin, it gave him the mental green light to try it out for himself.
The rest, as they say, is history. For the last year, Johnston has been doing street art full time. His style doesn’t match with what many would traditionally define as “graffiti art,” instead opting for strong black lines and ultimate precision. Johnston lists comic books as a major influencer of his style – upbeat, positive, sometimes comical, with many pop icons and figures.
Each piece, whether it’s a giant mural or pop art poster, can be identified by two signature xx’s and Johnston’s tag name, Truth – components that have developed great internal meaning for the artist. “The first year I was doing street art, I found myself saying the word ‘truth’ a lot because I liked its power and meaning,” Johnston said. “When I researched it and saw that no one else was using it as their name, I went for it. Sometimes I see it as bold or cocky, but more often I see it as something to try and live up to.”
And the xx’s? “It started as something I was doing in my sketchbook to add another layer; I thought it looked really cool visually,” Johnston said. “But now, it also plays to the idea that our mistakes are things that we live with and make us who we are, and that’s beautiful.”
By looking at the motivations that got Mike started in street art, as well as his tag name and motivations, it’s clear that his art is far more than a hobby; it’s a way of living. It’s a form of self-expression. And some big names in Austin are taking notice of Johnston’s very public creative side.
“That whole ‘Keep Austin Weird’ motto embraces the idea that people here can push themselves to be creative…and people on the whole are encouraging about it.”
Recently, the street artist has painted murals for the likes of Alamo Drafthouse, Freescale, RetailMeNot, and Ridescout. For him, this is a huge validation of who he is as an artist. “When you see art underneath a bridge and then that same artist has recognizable work on the side of the Alamo Drafthouse, other businesses see me as someone who is approachable and someone they can do business with,” Johnston says. Crossing over into the corporate world is helping to break down the barriers between artists and businesses, he says, and he’s proud to be a part of that effort.
Given the general acceptance of street art in Austin, Johnston doesn’t see an end to the expression anytime soon. If anything, he feels that the atmosphere in Austin creates an environment that encourages people with creative ideas to be out in the streets, experimenting.
“This city already has a great reputation for music. I know street art isn’t as big yet, but I see it getting bigger,” he says. “That whole ‘Keep Austin Weird’ motto embraces the idea that people here can push themselves to be creative… and people on the whole are encouraging about it.”
“As part of the SprATX collection, I get a lot of inspiration from those guys. Seeing pictures of the stuff they’re doing gets me fired up to try something new and test some new techniques. I’m also always researching artists online – Os Gemeos, Shepard Fairey, ARYZ, and Etam Cru all do really awesome work that’s pretty inspirational. And locally, I love the work of Lucas Aoki, Brad Maxfield, and Heath Speakman..”
Tips of the Trade
What are the top three places to check out street art in Austin?
1.“Delta Millworks. There’s a ton of clean pieces there.”
2.“Lamar Wall. You never know what you’ll see on any given day there.”
3.“Hope Outdoor Gallery. For an established artist, it can be a little disappointing to paint there because you spend a lot of time working on a piece and it could be gone within hours, but it’s great for practicing.”
Writing by: Rachael Genson – @rmgenson
Photography by: Lauren Ussery – @lauren.ussery, Adrienne Dever – @alannette
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