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In The Studio with Mario Gonzalez, Jr.

Zore, Zore Sixtyfour, Mario–he has many names. And depending on the time zone or space, you may get a different persona which often leads to a different body of work. But no matter which version of Mario Gonzalez, Jr. or series of work you find yourself encountered by, there is undoubtedly a common thread found throughout that can be traced back to a family of artists, awareness of early pioneers of graffiti and an inextinguishable desire to carry on a tradition while refining the craft. Just before his show opened at Maxwell Colette Gallery, I visited Mario’s studio to talk about everything from his journey from being a kid growing up around artists in Pilsen to globetrotting for the sake of discovering new contexts and forms for his art.

Mario Gonzalez, Jr. in his studio, 2013. (Image credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

Tempestt Hazel: What is the story of how you went from first being introduced to art to doing everything that you’re doing now, like having shows simultaneously at a gallery, two museums and traveling the world to do your work?

Mario Gonzalez, Jr.: Introduction to arts in my life came young. I would say it started when I became aware of the New York subway riders. And, for me, it was my father, my mom, you know, my family. Pilsen and the murals—specifically the ones on 16th street [when I was growing up], which ironically are the buzz. But that’s our wall. That’s my daddy’s wall and all his homies and all the artists from the late 60’s and early 70’s. The 16th, it was like a community wall. Not just a wall to paint, but a wall where all the people met up like on the weekend and just kicked back with a cooler of beer. And seeing those walls as a little shorty formulated my politics, my culture, my ethnicity, my sense of hood and being a Chicano. I didn’t know that this was a tradition of Mexican muralism that dates back to damn near the turn of the century, but I later found out. So, for me, the entry was more Chicano, low rider muralism than hip hop or graffiti.

Hip hop and New York graffiti came years later in the 80’s. I saw Lee and Futura, Phase 2, and all these guys [and thought,] “Oh snap! This is another graffiti.” It wasn’t Chicano, it wasn’t gang banging. My dad makes fun of it. He calls it bubble gum pop. He was more into the street stuff because he was more of a street artist and I was more of a subway rider. I was trying to be as good as my dad. I was seeking his approval and acceptance. That was my drive to get better, always to get better.

TH: Going from seeing your family and the people you grew up with doing that type of art, how did you move forward from there? How did you land at the School at the Art Institute and then in gallery or museum shows, for instance?

MGJ: As an older teenager I started realizing I could do anything I wanted with art. I found myself in book stores or museums searching for more history of graffiti and checking out who was having shows. When I was about 16, I knew about these galleries and museums. Graffiti itself made me aware of the art world because of the guys that were showing at that time. Otherwise I would have never known about the art world.

[My friends and I] were having gallery shows when I was 16 and 17 years old. Peter Mars Gallery, the Spertus Museum on Michigan Avenue, Randolph Street Gallery, the Peace Museum and Erie Street Gallery—these were major to me. These were the people that I worked with when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I was on top of my game at the age of 21 and doing whatever I wanted. Before it was like a search. Before we just wanted to be accepted. But really I was just trying to be a good son, go to school, graduate and become somebody. I wanted to be taken seriously.

I abandoned the art world for fifteen years because it was completely overwhelming and I didn’t feel that I was a master and I wanted to come back as a master. 100% confidence, not ego. Humble, confident, the ability to execute exactly or pretty damn close to what I seek to execute. I live my life with goals now, serious goals that are achieved on a regular basis. They’re no longer wishes and dreams and wants. I know exactly what I’m going to do and exactly what it takes to get there. It’s really math and science.

Now the murals and the Cultural Center and the Mexican Museum to me that was a whole different thing – that was like museums and culture. I would never see myself as some conceptual, minimal, abstract, urban graffiti expressionist. I thought I was just a muralist from the hood trying to make a dollar.

TH: From what you’re saying it seems like you have always moved in and out of doing work in public spaces and doing work in conventional exhibition spaces rather than starting off with public work and adapting it to a studio practice, which is more geared towards traditional spaces. Have you always kind of teetered both sides of that?

Mario’s work in the Centerline exhibition at Zhou B Art Center, Nov. 2013. (Photo credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

MGJ: Oh yeah.

TH: Are there ways in which you do adapt your practice? Other mediums?

MGJ: When given an opportunity I feel that I can go in any direction. Like, if you put me in a room full of video cameras and editing equipment I believe that six months later I could have a badass movie. A lot of people don’t know that I have done videos and I have done movies. I have experimented with music and sound. If you put a bass in my hand I play it like a drum. I didn’t know these things until I was surrounded by artists. My family is all artists and musicians, so I grew up with a drum set and my dad’s congas. To this day he has congas in the living room and the grandkids all sit there and play with the maracas and the congas – they’re toys, they’re entertainment.

TH: Your influences are largely rooted in your family, the environment that you grew up in and eventually being exposed to what was going on with other artists who you were interested in throughout the country. And at a certain point you developed your own signature style. How did that happen?

MGJ: That’s more recent.

TH: Really?

MGJ: Yeah. My style in graffiti is a traditionalist even though I simply emulated my particular neighborhood styles and crew styles. If you’re from 26th street you have a way of tagging that is different than if you’re from 18th street, 47th street or if you were raised on the north side – totally different onda. The color choices are also derivative of our neighborhoods. In the 80’s you couldn’t use certain colors and certain pieces in different blocks. People say that doesn’t matter, but it kind of does.

Style, tradition, my own work comes from my family, my neighborhood, my subway line and ultimately myself. It’s a history—I bring everything in. I assume that other artists do that too, but you can’t assume that. Not everybody’s telling a story or not everybody is even historically a part of something. I’m very fortunate to be a part of a movement and to be a major influence in that movement, so there’s a sense of responsibility of telling the true story with my paintings and my art. In a sense it’s kind of selfish: never self-righteous but always true to my heart. If it ain’t dope, it’s wack. That’s what determines what leaves this studio. I ain’t about to put wack shit out there.

Work in the studio. (Photo credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

This is cheesy, but somebody said there’s two ways to make it in this art game: either do what everybody else is doing or do the opposite. I noticed a trend in San Francisco that it was all about illustration and this kaleidoscope rainbow art, these cheesy [child-like] drawings with sophisticated color palettes. That’s not me. I’m all about hard hittin’ styles. I’m all about my calligraphy, my styles, my marks. I’m not going to do cartoon characters because I’m not a comic book artist. That was never my forte. The colorful thing would mean doing wild styles on a canvas and I could have done that a long time ago. When I got a studio here at Zhou B, I locked myself in and I was like I don’t care what anybody says. I’m going to lock myself in the closet and just destroy everything I find. I’m just going to write and layer it. I started noticing that the one thing that’s missing in the art world after 30 years of graffiti writers coming in and out was the fact that nobody did graffiti as art. They’re staying away from graffiti. They’re hiding graffiti like graffiti is a dark secret or a sex toy in your closet with a key that nobody knows about. Like it’s a taboo thing and I was like, “What?” Everybody who was a cartoon artist, street artist or painter eventually said, “I don’t do that anymore.” So I was like, “Fuck that. I do graffiti and I’m going to keep doing graffiti until the day I die.”

TH: You talked about some of the work that’s about to be in the show at Maxwell Colette Gallery and how they are over paintings and break the rules of graffiti with how you are using other people’s work along with your work to reference buffing in a way. Can you talk a little about that?

MGJ: Never fall in love with your own art, because one day it will sell or something will fall and break. Nothing’s precious. It’s just canvas, paint, wood, and ink. You can do it over and over and over and over. I started getting bold and going over beautiful work on purpose. If it’s too pretty or beautiful I have to go over it. This is a graffiti mentality. I started developing this art of war for myself. I would do a perfect style then come back the next day not even thinking that it needs some [additional] work and start going over it. People would say, “What are you doing!? Wait! Wait!”

TH: So is that the direction your work is going—these over paintings?

An over-painting in the studio, Nov. 2013. (Photo credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

MGJ: No, it’s just another series. It’s like the black on black or if you notice [how in] every show I still have a wall with the color pieces, but in a different manor. I still have dreams from when I was a youth. When I was a kid, I was like one day I’m going to have a dope ass wild style hanging in a museum or gallery, so I honor my inner child. As a man I often look back to the kid and say, “what would you do, or what did you want to do?” Forget what these people are telling you, what do you wanna do? The painting over [other people’s work] thing is not picking a fight with anybody. It’s actually me getting bored with going over myself. I believe that I lose the spontaneity if I have preconceived notions of what I’m going to do from the beginning. Unfortunately, I’m developing a formula in my own strokes and going over. I’ve developed a going over technique that is so predictable that I invite artists to give me paintings. Since I don’t want to collaborate with anybody, I say give me your trash, give me your paintings, give me a billboard.

TH: What have you seen change from the climate of Chicago in the 80’s and early 90′s when things were super strict with Daley doing his thing to now? I feel like in recent years there has been a widespread embracing of something that was once taboo. Does that feel strange? Does that feel new? Does that feel like the institution is now trying to bring in the thing that they couldn’t control in the first place? I guess at the heart of that is the question of how has it changed from a time where Chicago was a terrible place to be a graffiti artist to now where it’s actually a place where you can get a show at the Chicago Cultural Center?

MGJ: Without changing our names and without changing our art…

TH: Exactly.

MGJ: It’s a few things. [There’s a] new young generation of curators, directors and artists who are working selflessly to build a movement. There’s a group of people who are putting a lot of this talk into action. People have been saying for years that there should be more art or there should be more graff [in these spaces]. And there should be more awareness. Now, there’s a generation of people who know that they wouldn’t have their jobs if it wasn’t for these movements. There’s a renaissance of passionate, considerate individuals. But maybe we’ve taken over, we’ve landed, we’re here.

There’s nothing you can do about it. As far as the [recent] shows are concerned, I call it a retribution act. Those are our retribution shows. Those are the shows that they owed us. These are the shows that we should’ve gotten twenty years ago, but couldn’t have because the powers that be. It’s no coincidence that a certain people no longer control the city and [then] all of a sudden everything changed. This is 2013, this is not 1968. If you’re stuck with that 50’s or 60’s notion you might as well dig your own grave and lay asleep in there because this is the new century. This is the new way. It’s a new age of enlightenment. I feel it. I think anybody that’s living and that’s alive feels it too.

Mario’s work (Left) at the National Museum of Mexican Art’s Outside In Exhibition, 2013. (Photo credit: Tempestt Hazel)

TH: Let’s get back to this show you have at Maxwell Colette. Tell me about that.

MGJ: Maxwell Colette in a sense was organized as my bon voyage to Chicago. I’ve been doing a lot of work here. My goal was to help in Chicago. I had opportunities to do work in Mexico, Europe, and the west coast, but I wasn’t feeling that at the time. I love Europe, Mexico, and the west coast, but I came back and I saw that there was so much going on here that I was like “DAAAAAAMN, I’m not going to miss out on this renaissance.” This is a whole new thing. I would be stupid to walk away from it completely, so I just embraced it. There’s so much happening. The whole conservative Chicago is dying and the new avant garde is alive and well. I don’t believe in movements anymore, I believe in individuality and I see a lot of individuals doing a lot of work that deserve a lot of respect, and I’m not the only one. That’s what’s happening here. It’s the age of the real McCoys and I love that. I love that 75 year old ladies know about real shit. They know wassup, because only 40 years ago, they were 30 – they saw it. You gotta put it in perspective. It’s like a young art student thinking that they’re the first artist to ever do something. It’s embarrassing. It’s like “shhhh… don’t say that!”

Installation shot of “Sidewalk Scholar” exhibition at Maxwell Colette Gallery. (Image courtesy of Maxwell Colette Gallery.)

TH: After Chicago, then what?

MGJ: Well I’ll always keep my studio at Zhou B. I feel like there are a lot of things that I still haven’t accomplished here, but it’s not about Chicago. For me it was never about Chicago. It was always about my place in the world and I just don’t want to get comfortable. I don’t want to be a big fish in a small pond. That doesn’t satisfy my urge. So, my next move is simply to take my work, my concepts and I don’t know… do what I’ve always done, travel. Have shows everywhere. The next level [for my work can be seen] if you go to the Cultural Center [for the Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art show]. You will see four other pieces that I did that were part of the concept to blend in with the wall. I called them wall flowers—it’s a joke, three different jokes. Basically these are sketches for sculptures and those pieces are prototypes for the actual work that I am already in the process of getting made.

I’m the luckiest person in the world maybe? I get to do what I want. I’m having fun. I love it. Other people love it. What’s not good about that? The next level is more! Bigger, better. Actually it would really be nice to have a comfortable bed and bath tub and like a healthy environment to live a healthier life now. I would say ultimately to live a little bit longer and see more. That’s what this is all about. And the fear of dying and leaving something behind.


To see more of Mario Gonzales, Jr.’s work, visit “Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art” at Chicago Cultural Center (open through Jan. 12, 2014), “Outside In” at the National Museum of Mexican Art (open through Dec. 22, 2013) or “Sidewalk Scholar” at Maxwell Colette Gallery (open through Dec. 22nd).  Or you can visit his website at

This interview has been edited for length and content with transcription help from Jessica Martinez.

Top image: Detail of a painting by Zore Gonzalez, Jr. in his studio, November 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Tempestt Hazel.) 

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