Navajo artist Nate Begay tells traditional stories with paint

Old school stories, cutting edge style

Navajo artist Nate Begay tells traditional Navajo stories infused with bold colors and a modern graffiti style. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

Navajo artist Nate Begay tells traditional Navajo stories infused with bold colors and a modern graffiti style. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Nate Begay has spent years developing his signature style, beginning as a graffiti artist and branching out into many different mediums, including photography and even tattooing.

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A painting by Nate Begay, also known as Nate B., portrays the role of men in the matriarchal Navajo society. The painting depicts storytellers, warriors and planters. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

Painting, though, has always been his focus.

Like many artists, Begay said he got started by emulating the works of his brother more than 30 years ago. Eventually his brother left the profession, but Begay continued in the art world, branching out as he went.

"When I first started painting, I got into graffiti art — the colors and the bright, bold stuff," he said. "After reading a book, I decided to start teaching with my art.”

Begay went to the stories he learned as a child and began telling them with his artwork, putting important Navajo figures and animals into artwork he displayed at shows. The result was a beautiful study in contrast —traditional Navajo stories and symbolism infused with the bright, carefree colors and strokes of graffiti.

“It’s a mixture of new style with old school images and symbols,” he said. “I’m bringing in modern techniques and styles and mixing them with the old school stories.”

Outside of his studio, Begay works with a wide variety of customer-focused mediums: he does videography, photography, commissioned murals and tattoos, lending his creative talents to others’ ideas. But painting is something all his own.

“I have absolute free reign and that’s where I do all my storytelling,” Begay said.

Begay likes to vary his subjects, rarely painting the same thing twice. He often paints different animals, such as sheep, butterflies or elk, but his favorite subjects are the human figures from Navajo stories. He also tells many stories about the Hogan and the tribe’s holy people.

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A painting in Begay's signature style portrays one of the Navajo tribe's holy people releasing a hummingbird from the north in a story Begay grew up with as a child. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

One of his most colorful works represents one of the holy women of the north, who sent the hummingbird to the Navajo. Another tells the story of men’s role in the tribe, which is a matriarchal society based around the women.

“I took it upon myself to paint the man’s role in the tribe, from the storyteller to the warrior to the planter,” he said.

Begay is open to trying new techniques in his artwork, and has recently been incorporating spray paint markers into his works, giving them more of an old school graffiti edge.

Originally from Klagetoh, just south of Ganado, Begay now lives and works in Flagstaff. He presents his work at several shows around the region and nationally, and his art circle includes several well-known Native American artists, including Bahe Whitethorne.

If you’re looking for Begay on the web or social media, however, you won’t find him. He prefers to work via word of mouth and art shows, describing himself as a member of the “old school” when it comes to getting his name out there.

“I work shows with the old school artists, and they don’t believe in social media and things like that,” he said. “So I kind of adopted that. A lot of their stuff is word of mouth and going to every show they’re able to, and they’re doing just fine. I support that and follow it.”

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