Experts will tell you that it isn’t possible to discuss Chicago music without acknowledging legends like Muddy Waters.  In the same way, it’s also not possible to discuss Chicago street art without acknowledging legends like Mario Gonzalez, Jr. I was happy to have an opportunity to grab a bite to eat with Mario and talk about his work and how the Chicago graffiti and street art scene has evolved over the last few decades, especially since he turns down a lot of interview requests.  

Also known as Zore64, Mario grew up in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood during an era before it was a tourist destination.  While Lincoln Park is known for its trendy restaurants and upscale shops today, it was a very different place in the 1970s. Back then, it was home to working class families who often lived in overcrowded houses and struggled to pay their bills.  It was there that Mario developed a deep respect for music, art and street culture. And while he may not have realized it at the time, it was also where he started what would eventually turn out to be a long and influential career.

Mario did most of his early work anonymously because being a graffiti writer in the 70s and 80s wasn’t glorified the way it is today.  As a teenager, he spent his nights writing on the sides of houses, but that changed one morning when he was riding the bus to school and saw an old man scrubbing paint off of his garage.  He felt terrible about being responsible and decided to never paint another private house again. Over the next several years, he began to use trains and subway stations as canvases and continued to refine his style.  He developed unique methods of forming letters with shading and texture. It wasn’t long before other artists started to mimic his style. His talent also earned him a full scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

As the subway culture of the 70s morphed into spray can culture in the 80s and 90s, Mario began to paint underpasses and bus stops. This allowed larger audiences to see his work and helped to make him one of the most well known graffiti writers in Chicago.  His work has had a lasting impact, and while he’s moved on from graffiti writing, his influence and style can still be seen in the work of today’s artists.

Over the last couple decades, public perception of street art and graffiti has changed.  The internet and social media have helped to increase overall acceptance and some artists have even become famous enough to have their own fan clubs and groupies.  While this trend has been positive overall, one of its side effects has been a rise in the number of faux street artists who enter the scene only for profit. Many of these artists claim to be from the streets, but actually grew up in wealthy suburban neighborhoods and simply taught themselves to mimic the style of traditional graffiti artists.  

By contrast, Mario grew up during a time when being a graffiti writer wasn’t something to brag about.  He didn’t show off his early work or try to profit off of it. He simply painted everywhere he could because he was passionate about challenging himself to push his limits and become a better artist.  As the stigma associated with being a graffiti writer began to fade, the authenticity of his work became increasingly evident.

Mario’s passion and persistance paid off over time. During the last several years, he’s traveled the world, receiving invitations to paint, teach and show works in galleries and museums as far away as Bangkok, South Korea and Italy.  He’s also been sponsored by the US Consulate to represent Chicago at the International Meeting of Styles in Wiesbaden, Germany and helped to curate the street art exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Today, Mario owns a gallery at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport and his paintings are collected by some of the wealthiest people in the world. His work can also be found at a variety of other places, including the Dorothea Thiel Gallery of South Suburban College, 33 Contemporary Gallery and the Torres Gallery of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.