Come At Me: The Art Of An Inner City Expressionist

In an unexpected turn of events, Artparasites sits down and talks graffiti with Mario Gonzalez Jr.—also known as ZORE—in his studio in Chicago, located inside Zhou B. Art Center (sound familiar?). A graffiti writer, Gonzalez opens up about his roots as an aerosol artist as well as the culture behind the ubiquitous urban art form that makes itself available for viewing whether you like it or not.

APs: How did you start getting into graffiti?

Mario Gonzalez Jr.: My parents and my family—like graffiti is a very old, American, ghetto, Chicago thing. My dad did graffiti, my mom, my uncles and aunts. It’s a thing inner city kids did. I was just, you know, influenced mostly by my neighborhood and my family—my dad, specifically. There were no graffiti artists at that time. There were just kids that did graffiti. Everyone in the neighborhood does graffiti. Everybody practices their name. Certain people, it’s about politics. Certain people, it’s about gangs. It’s very rare that it has anything to do with art. It’s more of an expression—inner city expression.

"ZRE," Mixed Media on Wood, looms over Mario Gonzalez Jr. Photo: Silvia Inés Gonzalez

APs: Do you have certain criteria that determines if something is art, graffiti, or vandalism? How do you categorize things?

MG: No, it’s either good or it’s bad. I don’t really concern myself with categories whatsoever. But the only category that I’ll say is that it’s graffiti. Graffiti is the category, so I don’t dissect it like a lot of people do. You don’t dissect painting or sculpting or cooking. Well, actually people do. You know what I’m saying? You could be the greatest chef, but sometimes you just want a hot dog. You don’t have to be a chef when you’re making a hot dog or breakfast. You just want to eat, you know?

APs: How do you make murals on subways?

MG: Graffiti is definitely a derivative of the subways as much as it is the street styles. But the evolution comes from the subway. Like the evolution of my generation of writers all comes from the subway. We call ourselves subway artists or, really, we call ourselves writers, ‘cause that’s what we are—we write. We write on the subways; we write on anything. Even if you look at my paintings, it’s all writing. It has to do with writing; with texture and layers. I’m an inner city expressionist. Those are the initials of my crew from when I was a kid—I.C.E. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I incorporate it. I’m in a crew called S.B., which consists of a bunch of “subway bombers,” but it really stands for “Spray Brigade.” But it’s a coincidence that the spray brigade are subway bombers.

APs: Regarding the culture that existed when graffiti was just starting to get big—was there a type of competitive mentality?

MG: For me, I just wanted to be good. I wanted to be a real graffiti writer—that’s all.

APs: What constitutes good graffiti or bad graffiti?

MG: Style.

"Zore_Freestyle" by Brain Killer.

APs: Does it have to be uniquely yours?

MG: It doesn’t have to be unique. It just has to be executed well like craftsmanship; the best ability, under the pressure of being spotted by the cops, the amount of paint; it’s a best-case scenario is what it is. So, you never know how it’s going to look. You never know anything until you come back the next day.

APs: What’s your crowning moment? What’s the best part of it all?

MG: The best thing is to stand back and see what you just did ‘cause you never stand back until you’re done. Unlike a lot of artists who stand in their studio and check out their work while they’re doing it. When you’re painting [graffiti], you’re like this close. Sometimes, you don’t see your work until it [the subway train] pulls out of the yard. When the train pulls out of the yard, and you see it roll into the station—that is my “crowning moment,” literally. That is every graffiti artist’s crowning moment. There’s no way to explain the feeling.

APs: Do you think people are going to start commissioning graffiti art on subways?

MG: Oh my God! Commissioned subways? You know what? That’s a crazy notion, but it’s happening already—in Brazil and Italy. There are a lot of countries that are commissioning graffiti writers to paint subways. They stole all our ideas too. Like if you look at the subway trains, they have those advertisements—that’s from us. They’re making money off of us.

APs: Do you see Phase 2 as your role model? Were you inspired by his style?

MG: Phase 2 is the style master. He invented style. He invented style as we know it—not just Wild Style, every style. Like bubble letters. He evolved, he didn’t invent. But my mentor is Lee Quiñones. He’s one of the old school subway, whole-car kings. I am definitely a follower or a practitioner of that tradition. I don’t care about being original; I don’t care about inventing anything, any of these bourgeois notions. I’m a student and a scholar. You gotta learn and you gotta pass it down, otherwise it will die. I’m somebody who passes things. I’m the in-between from the old to the new because – I can guarantee you – if I was never born, there would be a generation of kids, literally, who would not have experienced some of my teachings or some of my experiences. I taught a lot of people back in the days—a lot—people in my neighborhood; people on the subways. I’ve taught people not knowing it.

ZORE, the teacher of a generation of graffiti writers. Photo: Silvia Inés Gonzalez

Twenty years later, people come to my studio or one of my shows, telling me, “Damn dude, when I was a kid, I saw a ZORE piece over here and that inspired me to do graffiti.” I could’ve abandoned it and it would be dead. I mean, it’s pretty dead now, but it would be different. Not everyone could say that their life is somewhat significant to a movement. Sometimes it takes something to die in order for it to come back. To be honest, all of us were jaded. We had these stupid ass rules of graffiti. And the new kids, they don’t have that. So, I wish I was them ‘cause they can do anything they want. We can’t ‘cause we came up with these dumb ass hip-hop rules in the ‘80s. That’s not revolutionary. To me, some of the most conservative people I ever met in my life are graffiti writers. We like these stupid rules and the can and can’ts. It’s worse than church sometimes. It’s very suffocating. Trust me; I’m probably one of those rule-makers that have suffocated people’s ideologies. I regret that, and I try to live free now.

Article by Maggie Wong

"ZORE" Mario Gonzalez Jr. [Price range of works: $1,500 – $20,000]