Artist Mario E. Figueroa Jr., better known as GONZO247, visited the San Jacinto College North Campus to share his story and inspire those who are walking in his footsteps.
"As a kid, when I would tell people I liked art, they would show me things I couldn't related to — bowls of fruit, landscapes, and architecture," Figueroa said. "I remember seeing a mural in my neighborhood that finally spoke to me."
The mural, "The Rebirth of Our Nationality," inspired Figueroa with its scale and vivid imagery. After discovering this style of art, he also found hip-hop culture, zeroing in on the graffiti art.
"I found out that what I was seeing in the background of my favorite rap videos was called graffiti," he said. "What really blew my mind was that it was being produced by kids my age that looked like me. Little kids from the ghetto were creating these masterpieces I loved in the middle of the night."
That broke down barriers for Figueroa, who previously thought art could be produced only by adults and in traditional media.
"I thought to make art you had to be educated and know about canvases and different styles," Figueroa said. "One thing I did know was that my dad had some spray paint in the garage and I grabbed some plywood and just started spraying. In that moment, I realized the power to manifest an idea and leave something of me behind."
Figueroa was determined to become an artist and started to consume information as fast as he could, writing letters and making phone calls to anyone who could give him insight into this world he was fascinated with.
"I would hustle all day just looking up whatever I could find about art, in encyclopedias, phone books, and whatever was available to me," he said. "I saved some of the phone bills that got me into trouble. They would have calls to Germany and Australia, but I was determined to know more."
Eventually, his journey for knowledge led him to the North Campus, where he met art professor Ken Luce.
"I remember Mario as being a very talented artist with a quick wit," Luce said. "He has done so much for this community, and I'm proud to have taught him. He truly figured out how to work within a system that wasn't initially accepting of him, and that's a skill."
In 1990, Figueroa painted his first public, self-funded, and unsanctioned mural to promote Texan pride, during the 16th annual G7 Economic Summit. Shortly after, he also established Houston's Wall of Fame, a legal wall to paint and the city's first art production of its kind. He's participated in over 300 exhibitions and projects while working with name-brand campaigns that speak to urban communities, including commissions for the J.W. Marriott Houston permanent collection and several pieces for the Saint Arnold Brewing Company.
Today, he is the owner and lead artist for Aerosol Warfare, a gallery and studio that supports, promotes, and exhibits graffiti and street art nationally. Typical projects for Aerosol Warfare includ eart productions, event collaborations, murals, video productions, and out-there installations.
"We like to bring in national and international talent to invite the local community to see what these people are doing," he said. "I think that Aerosol Warfare can boast that we've given a lot of Houston street artists their first show. We keep the doors open so that we can have this venue and so that I can create my art here."
Figueroa left art students with words of wisdom before touring the fine art classrooms and giving one-on-one feedback.
"I know so many people who go to a job they hate every day because it affords them
the lifestyle they want," Figueroa said. "The problem is that their things start owning
them. I struggled for so long and faced criticism about my choice to follow my passion.
The difference is that I have no regrets. Follow your passion, and happiness follows