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Q&A with GONZO247: The Mastermind Behind Houston’s First Mural Festival

Street art has always challenged the notion of authority and control. But in recent years, the stigma associated with the medium has waned.

For Mario Enrique Figueroa Jr., aka GONZO247, the threat of being fined or arrested for doing what he loves is no longer a concern. These days, he can work in the middle of the afternoon without being hassled for spray painting the side of an old building, or livening up a vacant lot in a less than desirable part of town.

Back in the 1980s, he had no idea that one day there would actually be a positive and legal approach to graffiti art. Today, he is leading the way for street and graffiti artists in Houston, Texas, as well as around the globe. He has spent the majority of his career supporting and creating street art in the city. It’s a career that was set into motion by means of inspiration. As a child, he remembers passing by Chicano muralist Leo Tanguma’s iconic work from 1973, The Rebirth of Our Nationality, located on Canal Street in the East End.

This was the first art of any kind that he had been exposed to in Houston, and it completely changed his life.

“That wall is the reason I became an artist.”

GONZO247 is the founder of the renowned video magazine Aerosol Warfare, as well as the producer and founder of Houston’s week-long HUE Mural Festival.

From October 17-14, GONZO247, along with dozens of other artists, transformed 20,000 square feet of wall space throughout the city with vibrant, awe-inspiring murals. The event was free and open to the public to observe the empty lots and walls that were transformed into a 17-mile roundtrip outdoor gallery.

Although its the streets themselves that have always been the genuine museums for graffiti art, in January 2016, the first of its kind, and the only museum in the US dedicated solely to graffiti and street art will open in Houston. The Graffiti and Street Art Museum of Texas will be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization where once ephemeral works of art will be housed.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with GONZO247 and discuss what it’s like to be at the forefront of such an amazing revolution for street art. Here’s what he had to say.

Describe the experience of unveiling Houston’s first mural festival? What are some memorable moments that stand out?

GONZO247: Unveiling Houston’s first mural festival was an incredible experience. It was great to see months of planning manifest into beautiful works of art on the city streets. Some memorable moments that stand out to me are the social mixers where artists had opportunities to meet and greet each other as well as interact with the general public building camaraderie and synergy. By far, the most memorable moment for me was getting a call from the Mayor’s office and being told that our Mayor, Annise Parker, wanted me to give her a personal tour of the completed murals!

Tell me a little bit about the Graffiti and Street Art Museum of Texas that is currently in the works.

The Graffiti and Street Art Museum of Texas (GASAM) is our opportunity to document and preserve the graffiti and street art culture. The GASAM is scheduled to open January of 2016 on the East side of Houston. In the works are Street Art Tours, Workshops, Video Installations, Traveling Exhibitions, the GASAM Permanent Collection, and more! We are excited to have a space dedicated to this art form and look forward to sharing the museum with everyone.

How has the city of Houston influenced your art?

The diversity of Houston has influenced my art. Houston is full of many colorful people & cultures. I love using bright, bold colors throughout my work and various visual patterns that are inspired by my daily interactions with my city.

What does your creative process look like? What inspires/motivates you to create?

Depending on what I’m about to produce, my creative process can vary. Usually, I start off with a general sketch (on paper) of what I want to paint and I go from there. Other times, I jump right into the artwork with no real plan and let the moment take me. Either way, I enjoy the process of layering colors, elements & textures. Being a happy person motivates me to create.

Greatest struggles as a self-taught artist, especially since your focus is graffiti?

Growing up, I was always artistically inclined, but didn’t have a focus until I discovered graffiti in the mid 1980’s. I didn’t have much formal training and graffiti wasn’t something you could go to school to learn, so I had to figure out a lot of things through trial and error. I know when you go to school/ college a lot of what you learn is drilled into you… I think one of my greatest struggles as a self-taught graffiti artist is not always remembering all the ‘Rules of Design’, or at least having to make sure I think of them as I paint.

Greatest achievements so far?

I am happy with all of my achievements. I am not sure which I would consider the greatest but opening the new GASAM, establishing the HUE mural festival, creating an iconic mural for the city of Houston… those bubble up to the top. But, I also value personal achievements like being a husband and father.

Most relevant childhood memory related to street art?

My earliest childhood memories of street art are driving past Leo Tanguma’s iconic mural, “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” on Canal street in the East End. It was the first art of any kind that I was exposed to on the streets of Houston. That wall is the reason I became an artist. Later, in my early teens, I got my first glimpse of graffiti through the various hip hop record and tape covers.

What kind of impact do you hope your art is making on society?

I consider myself to be a happy, colorful person. When I paint, I envision myself ‘embedding’ my happiness and positive energy into the artwork. I hope the kind of impact my art is making on society is that when people see my work, the happiness and positive energy bounces off and reflects back into the person viewing it.

Do you remember one of the first murals you ever worked on?

Yes, the very first (sanctioned) mural I painted was in 1990, on the side of a local electronics store. I had this idea of painting a “Welcome to Texas” mural during the week of the Economic Summit that was being held in Houston at the time. It was the first time I thought to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I just go up and ask the owner if I could paint his wall?”… and to my surprise, it was just that easy! I showed the owner a sketch and he gave me permission! I had never painted on a wall of that size (at the time), so it was a great challenge for me. The owner ended up liking the mural so much, he handed me a check for $400 when I was done. I was freaking out because that was the first time I had gotten paid for my art. Looking back, I probably spent more money on the supplies (ha), but it was a great experience nonetheless!

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