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Lessons in finding your voice and following your dreams

gon-zo /’gänzō/
- adjective wild or crazy
- noun, gonzos a wild or crazy person
- word origin & history: 1972, Hunter S. Thompson, American author, said he got it from editor Bill Cardosa, and explained it as “some Boston word for weird, bizarre.”

After looking up the definition of the word gonzo, it makes perfect sense that artist Mario Enrique Figueroa, Jr. nom de can is GONZO247. His art and personality reflect a wild or craziness combined with an unwavering positive attitude and impeccable manners. He is an artist with a mission. Nothing will get in the way of realizing all of his goals and aspirations of bringing a level of respect and recognition to his chosen craft, spray paint-based artwork: Graffiti. His public and private commission work can be seen on the exterior walls of buildings, inside restaurants, bars and grocery stores throughout the city of Houston. He is the co-founder of Aerosol Warfare Gallery/Studio and defines himself as an artist, art collector, curator, collaborator, public figure and community member. Additionally, Gonzo is committed to teaching his medium through Aerosol Warfare’s CKC StART Street and Urban Arts program. Gonzo, a self-taught artist, was born and raised in Houston.

How did you get the name Gonzo247?
I have been going by Gonzo247 for more than half my life. When I was in junior high, probably sixth grade, my friends would call me Gonzo because they said I looked like the Muppet. When I got into Graffiti Art and had to come up with what I call the nom de can or your pseudo name, I decided to stick with it. The definition of gonzo really described me as a person and it described the art that I was making so it fit perfectly. The numbers that are attached to my name is more of a traditional graffiti name. I didn’t want to be just Gonzo1 because there were too many 1’s out there. I came up with the 247. Originally it was for 24/7 which is for twenty four hours, seven days a week because that is how graffiti was in my life. It was constant, non-stop, continually flowing through me. When I heard Wal-Mart associated with 24/7 I was really disappointed. I dropped it for a while but then I felt something was missing. Later on I changed it to 247.

How did you get started?
A lot of graffiti artists had begun having exhibitions in New York by 1990. I was going to the library and digging for information. I stumbled across the periodicals, Art in America and Art News bound in book form. I found 1980 and started flipping through it. There was one page with an ad for an upcoming exhibition back in 1980-something featuring this artist. I pulled every copy from 1980 to 1989 and went through every page. Every time I found something I would write down the information. Then I would go home, handwrite a letter, put a stamp on it, put it in the mailbox and wait. That was the hardest thing. Through persistence, I slowly would get a response here and there. It was fun because it was like notes in a bottle in the ocean and every now and then one would float back. Whether or not it had something that Icould use, the fact that I made that connection was almost more important. There’s life out there! Then two more things helped. I found this other book - the Bible of graffiti writers. It’s called Subway Art written by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper. This book was the first photo essay book that was specifically about the subway car graffiti art scene in New York during the 1980’s. Flipping through those pages and being able to see this vast collection of styles, vast collection of artists in one book was very inspirational. I only had access to what I could get locally. Once I had this book, I had access to New York. The last thing is a friend of mine who is a skateboarder had this magazine. He thought I would like it. It was about graffiti artists in a New York magazine called Flashbacks. I felt like finally I had a direct line. I called the publisher and talked to this guy. He told me he didn’t know there was even anything happening in Houston. And so we bonded. I think because of all that hustling and developing that pen pal system, I started to really connect with a lot of graffiti writers. We would write letters and send photos back and forth. I started to hone in my vision and things started to become clear.
I finally met the right person at the right time and we had Houston’s first Graffiti Art exhibition in 1993. On opening night, the show had the biggest crowd ever. That night inspired me to really focus on putting events together, working with other artists, collaborating with organizations, and bringing people to see what this is all about. Once that one was under my belt, it was a lot easier. I also learned that I couldn’t demand or expect things. I learned to call ahead, to set an appointment, to have a portfolio and then you may get some good results. I started having and hosting exhibitions and to develop my personal art. At that point, it all started to float along the river and navigating is what I have been doing ever since.

What do consider have been challenges and obstacles both professionally and personally?
A lot has happened in the street art scene that has changed people’s perspectives but there is still opposition that says it doesn’t matter if it is selling at auctions or museums, the root of it is still vandalism or mischief. Trying to overcome or change that perception is definitely a constant challenge. It is something that I always have to address every time I work on a project. Having to sacrifice time at home is a challenge. What’s the point in working if you can’t turn around and be able to spend quality time with your family and loved ones? Managing a personal life, social life and a work life when they are all the same is a challenge. I go out for work but it also crosses into my social time and is also a part of my family time. Managing all of those entities is the most challenging part of what I do.

What do you consider your major accomplishments?
 As I get older, what I consider a major accomplishment changes as I grow as a person and an artist. When I first got into what I am doing to me I thought if I could just paint a huge wall that would be a major accomplishment. Now, I think every time I can successfully complete a project that it is an accomplishment. Getting married is something I thought I would never do ever - but I did. That to me is super major. To get to the point where I realized the importance of having a significant other who supports you 100% percent and then wanting that - that definitely was a major accomplishment. Going from being a kid with this idea, this kind of paint, wanting to develop and flourish the graffiti art scene to seeing the city’s attitude progress, the scene develop and still exist, is an accomplishment. But it is hard to pinpoint one or the other that stand out as the ultimate. I think that is always going to change depending on the circumstances around me.

Tell me about Aerosol Warfare Gallery and Studios.
We started off Aerosol Warfare almost like a support system for artists.  As far as the studio/gallery, one of the goals for Aerosol Warfare has always been to showcase street urban art. We like to cater to bringing in national and international talent to invite the local community to see what these people are doing. 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.

What is the meaning of Aerosol Warfare?
The name, Aerosol Warfare, speaks on many different levels. Part of it was that graffiti, at that time, had such a negative connotation surrounding it. When you said you were a graffiti artist, people would step back. They assumed that you were a thug and didn’t want anything to do with you. Part of the name was trying to combat the negative connotations of spray paint. There was a constant warfare surrounding spray paint. Also, on the flip side, aerosol warfare was what graffiti is about. It was a way of being able to communicate on a broader level and a way for a voiceless people to be able to communicate. So graffiti is that warfare of communication via aerosol. We were fighting that battle from both ends. Like, this is what it is about, we have something to say so let’s meet in the middle and figure this out.  Along the way, my friends and I would videotape ourselves. In turn, we would get tapes back and that gave us more content to edit. We were told we should probably sell them. So we started a video magazine. It was called Aerosol Warfare.

What are your views on leadership, what kind of lessons have you learned and what is your truth about your leadership?
I think leadership is definitely a position not to be taken lightly. There definitely is a lot of responsibility that comes with the role of being the leader. You have to be really aware of what all that means and what all comes with that title. I think that being in that role you have to be able to work with people and be good at delegating.
In the past, I found that I was terrible at delegating and I just had the attitude of “I’ll just do it all”. It took me a while to be able to let go of some issues. To trust people that they are going to genuinely do the best of their ability to fulfill whatever task you give them. Being able to delegate is definitely a powerful tool and it’s very helpful to be able to do that.
As a leader, you have to figure out who needs to be on your team. I think a great leader surrounds themselves with great people. Make everyone feel like they are genuinely a part of whatever project is going on.

What is your strongest leadership quality?
I’ll tell you the worst before I tell you the best. The worst is my ability to listen. And that’s probably what’s going to be the best now, because I went down a long road of I could hear what you are saying but I really wasn’t listening to what you were saying. There’s a big difference between being able to hear a person tell you something versus listening to what they are actually saying. I think that was what one of my worst attributes because I would hear what I want to hear and produce what I assumed you wanted produced. And that’s the big lesson that I learned is you have to listen to other people. In return, that has turned out to be something that I value – to pay attention if someone is going to tell me something. Listening is the first step to make communication happen.

What are your visions and goals for the future as far as a leader in the arts?
For me it’s to see more color on Houston walls. I think that we’ve come a long way but if you just drive three blocks in any direction you see the same thing you know - brick, brown, gray. We have so much wall space in this city. We build these walls everywhere and these walls help to separate things. I feel like all these walls are platforms to bring color to people. It’s almost like urban camouflage.  You see this building and it can be a shade of gray, but when you address it with whatever artwork you want to put on it, you almost magically erase that wall. That wall doesn’t exist anymore. You see this piece of art. It takes your mind away from seeing a barrier. Now you see an image that can transport you anywhere or just break the monotony of driving block after block after block.  A great goal would be to have more property owners to open their walls for people to paint. Also, to have city management create more opportunities to let large scale productions, murals and installations happen in the city as well. Once that happens, I feel like it will benefit the city. We could definitely create a destination where you could just drive through the city and everywhere you go you would be surprised by something really cool and artistic that’s being displayed on every corner of every street. This might take some doing. Twenty-five years ago I never thought we would have the walls we have today. Now, I am not the only one because we have more people advocating. We have more artists acquiring their own legal wall spaces. I think collectively we are in a good spot and I think the momentum is growing. Maybe in the next 25 years we could have an arts district that has nothing but murals and installations. That would be cool. I would love to see that happen.

How do you want to be remembered or immortalized?
I think in the end I would like to be remembered as just this guy from Houston that had this vision to make something happen here. I’ll be happy if I can look back and I can see that the city has really changed to the point where this style of art is accepted, it’s embraced and promoted. That that there’s an active plan for the young generation, a route for them to follow, so that they can pursue the arts as a career path. That would be great.
Aside from that, if I can just make a living enough to support my family and not be in need of things and be comfortable with that, then that’s all I can really ask for. But I think that if you want to say a legacy, I would hope that people would remember me by the contributions that I created for Houston.