What Do Hip-Hop and Visual Arts Have in Common? The Story of One of Houston's Most Notable Muralists
Mario E. Figueroa, Jr. better known as GONZO247 is an accomplished and self-taught artist born and raised in Houston, Texas. He lives and works in East End Houston where he has been inspired to create some of the most notable murals in the city. His artistic talent that combines hip-hop culture and visual arts has given him a reputation within the local art community. This is his story.
How and when did you decide to be an artist? Can you briefly describe your journey to where you are now?
Since early childhood, I regularly doodled, drew pictures, and engaged in creative school activities. Groups that needed creative flair sought my talent. As I grew more creatively, works and murals like the one by Leo Tanguma on Canal Street inspired and challenged me. Then as a teenager, the hip-hop culture awakened my inner child, and I gravitated toward its visual art component, Graffiti. Throughout high school, I practiced “can control” using spray paint as a creative tool. Yet as high school graduation neared, I had no next steps in place. With no plan, the immediate future appeared uncertain and uncomfortable. Fortunately, the commencement speaker for the Class of 1990 doubled as a motivational speaker. That single speech inspired me to pursue my passion: Graffiti art. From that point, it was full steam ahead.
How did you discover your artistic talent?
Passion! Drawing, sketching and doodling consumed my free time as a child. Even at age five or six, I recall asking my mother for permission to paint my bedroom wall.
Some of my earliest art-related memories include the only public art in my neighborhood, “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” by Leo Tanguma. The mural was started in 1972, the year I was born, and completed in 1973. Seeing that stunning piece every day connected with my soul. As a child, comprehending the content was beyond my ability, but the scale impressed me! I wanted to paint something that large and extraordinary one day.
From 1st through 5th grade, Encyclopedia Britannica served as my source of inspiration. As a self-taught artist, I flipped through the pages and drew the “cool” photos. But, Graffiti, the visual language of hip-hop, was my true calling to the art world. The bold lines and vibrant colors spoke to me. Even more, I knew this was for me when I saw the creators were KIDS my age with my skin tone.
What are some of the most notable challenges you have faced in your journey?
My biggest challenge was pursuing a career in graffiti. At the time, this art form was not only underappreciated but also considered a gang-related activity. The second challenge involved learning how to change people’s perceptions and remove the stigma behind the spray can. The third challenge was convincing my parents that I was pursuing a credible art career and could support myself.
Can you list your top art projects?
I have enjoyed working on every project regardless of size. Picking any top 5 is difficult. The most memorable include: “Houston is Inspired” mural in Market Square sponsored by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau; “Hola Houston” murals with Houston First, painted in various cities throughout Mexico; the repainting of “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” for Harris County; producing “The HUE (Houston Urban Experience)” Mural Festival; “Murals” for the Houston Zoo in Galveston Texas and a parking garage “Mural Installation” for The Houston Public Library – Downtown.
You recently worked on restoring a mural in the East End, can you share how you got this job and did it have a special meaning for you?
Leo Tanguma’s original piece, “The Rebirth of Our Nationality,” was damaged beyond repair. Repainting the mural on a fresh canvas was the only way to restore it. Harris County purchased the building on the 5900 block of Canal Street and issued a request for proposal (RFP) to identify a qualified artist. I submitted a proposal. After undergoing the standard selection process, I was honored the commission awarded me the project. I would be repainting the mural that inspired me to become an artist: I had gone full circle. Working on this project with Leo Tanguma as an advisor offered me an amazing experience.
Who has inspired you and supported you received to be where you are now?
My wife, family, friends, clients, fellow artists, community members, and network beyond Houston.
What is the key to your success?
Passion. Persistence. Perseverance.
Learn more about GONZO247 by visiting his website www.aerosolwarfare.com.
This story is funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance.