Graffiti artist redefines the true meaning of art

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Gonzo 247 gathers spray paint inside Mill Studio in downtown Center City, a building known for its legal graffiti art. Photo by Donald Salvador

By Chaez Miller

Dressed in a paint splattered coat with the scent of aerosol spray paint lingering in the air, the Houston native paints colorful abstract images that brighten up an alley way in Philadelphia’s Center City area.

As bystanders walk through this busy neighborhood on a cold afternoon, they can’t help but to stop and watch him work while drawing conclusions on the meaning behind his latest untitled mural featuring historic landmarks in Philadelphia.

Mario Figueroa, 27, known by his artist name “Gonzo 247,” said he started using graffiti as a therapeutic way to attract inner city youth that have a love for creating art by using a specific technique that some deem as an eye sore. Figueroa strives to tell the world about the trials and tribulations of growing up in a poverty stricken neighborhood while displaying the culture of the cities he paints as a graffiti artist.

Figueroa mixes the next set of colors to add to his painting as the wind picks up, sending a chill through him as he tries to focus on his work. Paint streams from his can and begins to spew everywhere, landing on the walls and on his clothes. Figueroa then starts to fill in images he has previously stenciled on the wall making the pictures pop like 3D imagery.

During this session, as colors start to drip from the spray can onto his fingers, bystanders around him start asking him about how he got started with graffiti.

“My brother is one of the reasons why I decided to add graffiti into my life,” Figueroa explains. “When I was 8 years old, my older brother was killed and to this day my family has no clue who did it.”

Through the pain of losing a person that he once considered his mentor in art, he decided that it was time to showcase his work for the world to see. Starting out as a rebellious way to cope with his brother’s death, he often used techniques of tagging and even drew portraits of people that he aspired to be like.

“When I first started painting around my neighborhood my work was constantly judged and painted over at one point because people didn’t get my vision,” Figueroa says. “Looking back over my life, I see how important this art form of graffiti really is because it saved me.”

Throughout his artistic career, Figueroa has showcased his art work all over the world, recently painting for expositions like Art Basel in Miami, Fla. By using this popular form of art in different ways, fans say Figueroa gives graffiti a new look by advocating people to protect the life of graffiti art through his organization Aerosol Warfare.

Lisa Avant, 23, a student at Temple University, says, “I have been following Gonzo’s work for a couple of years now and I’ve never seen a graffiti artist express themselves in a polished creative way like he does making the city beautiful.”

Some of the recent received for his painting include awards from the Houston Urban Experience. He also received the key to his hometown of Houston, Texas for creating nostalgic murals.

Although Figueroa said he’s grateful for all of the accomplishments that he has achieved for the duration of his career as a graffiti artist he states that his real mission is to be a voice to young artists who grow up in negative environments.

As Figueroa finishes his painting, he uses the emotions from the small crowd to fuel him to creating something special. After countless hours of standing out in the cold committing himself to this body of work, he finally completes his work by revealing a mural of Philadelphia. He becomes startled after receiving a round of applause from the bystanders that stayed and watched him work.

Figueroa hopes that one day people will finally understand that graffiti can be used to tell stories and save this art form from being erased from pop culture.

“My dream for graffiti is for people to stop and think instead of judging something they may not be educated on,” Figueroa said. “I want my work to cause people to start conversations and even share their own memories through their pass like I have done”.

Contact Chaez Miller at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu