ST. MARTIN -- You won't see his work in a posh Ocean Springs art gallery. His paintings aren't used as decor in local coffee shops, and his canvases aren't yet for sale in any boutiques. Most of Nicholas Cook's artistry is for art's sake, because it's art he may never see again.
"My iconic stuff probably won't end up being in an art gallery because of the artwork that it is," he said. "It's still fun for me to do because I love it."
From the garage of the home he shares with his best friend, Brandin Brosh, Cook recently sat next to a cart full of spray paint in every color one could imagine. With the changing of a cap, a vigorous shake, and the flick of the wrist, Cook -- whose friends call him Niko -- created his own aesthetic.
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The garage's walls are his gallery.
Trips and tags
Cook, 29, is a graffiti artist, and his work spans two decades.
"In fourth grade, I knew I had a knack for it. I was just drawing tigers and stuff (from) looking at magazines," he said.
He would write and draw on anything he could find. He would repeat words and images over and over on paper.
The first piece he put on a wall came as a surprise to his mother, because it was out of sight in his bedroom.
"She knew that I liked to draw and stuff like that, but I never did anything on a wall. When she walked into my room, I was just drawing all over everything," he said.
Behind the door, his mother saw a large drawing of a Dragonball Z character.
"I'll never forget it. When I heard her say my name whenever your mom says your full name you know you're in deep s---," he said.
But his mother wasn't mad at him. She was impressed and proud, he said.
When Niko was in seventh grade, he discovered the art of tagging -- marking artwork with a unique brand -- with spray paint.
"I was riding with my mom to the mall, and I saw this big tag on an abandoned building in D'Iberville," he said. The tag was four letters: SIKE. He realized as they drove that SIKE's tags were on buildings around town.
"Some guy is going around spray-painting this and he's doing very well," he said.
Niko took to MySpace, and typed in Sike on a whim in the search engine. To his shock, he found his first mentor online.
Sike took Cook to his first train yard -- a popular tagging spot for up-and-coming graffiti artists.
Seventh-grader Niko began tagging with parental permission. His first tagged pieces were in the alleyway between his house and his best friend's house in St. Martin
"Instead of riding bikes, I would just spray the alley," he said. "It's a very addictive thing."
But he grew tired of spraying the same spot over and over again.
"Whenever you are into that stuff, you don't have a way of expressing yourself," he said. Graffiti, he said, isn't something taught in school. There aren't designated areas for kids and adults who enjoy graffiti to create their art.
He began tagging -- leaving his personal mark in train yards, at old concrete plants, on vacant buildings. He and other artists often sprayed and tagged at a dilapidated concrete plant on Beauvoir Road, and on a wall on a vacant lot in Biloxi near the shopping center that houses McAlister's Deli.
The spot, near some broken railroad tracks, was known as the All-Stars wall by Coast graffiti greats.
But the city tore it down.
"They completely bulldozed the whole entire place," Cook said. "It was one of the most sobering things to see."
He said his graffiti has netted him two or three vandalism charges.
"The cops came and got me from high school one day. Me and my friend were sitting and talking at break. And I saw the cops -- and the car was sitting out front. As soon as I got to class, they were like, 'Nicholas Cook, bring all your stuff to the office.'"
He said his name and his writing couldn't be denied -- it was all over his school supplies, as well.
"All it did was make me look like a bad-ass in front of everyone at school," he said.
But after a while, he said, getting in trouble for vandalism just seemed silly.
"Graffiti fades, even if you do it illegally," he said.
When they were going through photos of his tags, some police officers said they liked a lot of his work. One, he said, even had him design a banner for an event he was hosting. The only art he's ever been commissioned to do was a Mardi Gras float for his attorney as a form of payment, he said.
After a rocky relationship with the law, Cook gave up graffiti for some time.
He's never been paid for his artwork, but he does canvases for friends on occasion and has even done an art giveaway on social media. He sprayed a canvas, hid it, and posted photo clues to find it on social media. A friend of his found it quickly and kept it for his own collection.
He also created graffiti for Chase Taylor, back when Kress Live's windows were filled with local art work for the Art Can Change Everything movement in downtown Biloxi.
He works full-time as a bartender at Hard Rock Hotel Casino, and he said he loves his job. He has regular customers and enjoys meeting new people.
But the graffiti artist was always still there, even when he wasn't tagging.
"It's always going to be there. It's in every single thing that I do, no matter what it is," he said. "Anything I write on, I have graffiti handwriting," he said.
Getting back to spraying
But he would soon start painting again. His roommate, Brosh, told him he could spray the walls of their garage.
"It's real cool whenever you best friend says, 'Hey you can have these three giant walls to paint, have at it,'" he said. "Brandin can tell you I'm probably the happiest when I get lost in my own zone."
He broke out his spray-paint collection -- some of the cans were Christmas gifts from his mother -- and started creating a portrait of Christy Mack, his favorite porn star.
He worked on it when he had time -- often after work into the wee hours of the morning. For much of the time, he said, Brosh would sit in the garage and watch him and be there for support. She would sneak photos of him at work and post them on Facebook, which was a drive to finish his first portrait.
Happy with self-portrait
After that, he sprayed another woman's face on the wall. Then it was time for a self-portrait. His hair, curly and wild. His hands are cupped over his mouth. And when the lights are off, his portrait glows.
"I've always painted, and you are your biggest critic," he said. "Nothing's always perfect, but finally after I turned the light off, you could tell it's still my face. That's the only picture I'm content with."
He said he still has a whole wall to paint in the garage, and he has a special surprise for Brosh -- but he wouldn't say what it was or when he was planning to paint it.
Brosh, along with his mother, sister and friends, have inspired him to keep painting, he said.
"It's cool when you got a good support system," he said. "It really helps your art too. You're only as good what you can produce.
"I like to think I've evolved from just drawing the repetitive name over and over again."