HOUSTON — Growing up in Houston’s East End, Mario Enrique Figueroa Jr. loved Leo Tanguma’s mural “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” with the passion of a young boy.
The Houston Chronicle reports born the year Tanguma started the piece at 5900 Canal Street, Figueroa was too young to understand then what it meant — how Tanguma gave Mexican-Americans a reason to hold their heads high, with an epic reminder of the oppression their ancestors had been dealt over centuries, and proof that their cultural history and identity mattered.
The young Figueroa would look at the mural from the back seat of his parents’ car as the family drove to Sunday mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church or gatherings at his grandmother’s house. He was most awed by the sheer size of the painting that consumed a facade of the Continental Can Company factory.
He wondered how anyone would start making something that big and colorful, much less how someone like him could become an artist.
Now, Figuero — better known as the aerosol artist Gonzo247 and widely lauded for his cheerful “Houston is Inspired” mural downtown — is tasked with repainting Tanguma’s masterpiece.
Gonzo, who recently turned 45, is tackling the most significant wall of his life. The curious thing about it is that, if all goes well, in a few years no one will know he did it. He is just going to be Tanguma’s “hands,” he said.
That is not typically an urban artist’s M.O.
Nor is the figurative style with which Tanguma painted “The Rebirth of Our Nationality.” It depicted a struggling parade of people, leaning as if they were wind-blown, toward a central couple who emerge like Adam and Eve from a red flower.
Tanguma’s original mural was significant for many reasons — and not just because that central image of the flower is oft-copied. He was a favorite student of the legendary muralist John Biggers, who introduced him to Mexican masters. Most importantly, the mural has been a powerful symbol of identity to generations of Houstonians of Mexican-American heritage.
But in recent decades, the mural had faded into something that looked more like an ancient, crumbling archaeological find. The original was deemed unsalvageable some time ago by a museum conservator because it was deteriorating from the inside, Gonzo said. He has been involved with community efforts to restore the mural for about 20 years.
Harris County bought the Canal Street property in 2013 and has spent $8 million to convert the building to a records storage facility and the Precinct 6 constable’s station. County officials dedicated $70,000 to recreating the mural, which County Engineer John Blount said will be the “crowning achievement” of the whole project.
The county wanted Tanguma to execute it.
The artist was thrilled with the idea, but he left Houston years ago. Tanguma has lived near Denver for decades; and at 75, he finds it hard to climb towering scaffolds and scissor lifts. Still, he signed on to the project with the condition that someone else would recreate the painting, with his guidance.
Gonzo loved to draw but as a child he only had access to pencils and paper. In grade school and junior high, he learned about the kind of art in museums — classical Grecian urns or Renaissance European paintings of grapes and landscapes that had nothing to do with his life, made by people who didn’t look like him.
A different world opened up in the early 1980s, the early days of hip-hop.
Figueroa was 11 or 12 when he began hearing the then-new wave of hip-hop music and discovered its full culture, including the visual language of graffiti.
“When I saw kids that looked like me, that were my age, that were painting masterpieces on the side of subway trains in full, in-your-face color, that’s the first time I realized, wow, I could do that,” he said. “That’s when I was motivated to do something with art.”
Soon, the young tagger was venturing into the plentiful lay-ups — the massive rail yards of his heavily industrial neighborhood — to write his signature on trains. All the better if they were moving, and he had to jump on while he sprayed.
“It’s amazing that I’m still alive,” Gonzo said.
By his 30s, he was leading the Houston charge to make his style of art more acceptable and legal. His commissions include major public works such as the huge mural in the Houston Public Library’s underground parking garage (a wall slightly larger than Tanguma’s); and he’s had considerable success with commercial branding projects for international companies, including Sony. Gonzo recently co-founded a nonprofit organization, the Graffiti & Street Art Museum of Texas, which he hopes will someday have a permanent home and exhibitions.
He also looks every bit the savvy entrepreneur that he is, a smart dresser whose only concession to art — assuming one doesn’t notice the small bits of paint on his hands, and his fingernails — is the necklaces he wears. He has made them since 1990, binding aerosol can spray nozzles with string, and tries hard not to sell them. They have a soul, he says: They’re his personal talisman, a weighty reminder to be grateful for all he has achieved.
Even as an adolescent, Gonzo did his homework. He spent time in libraries, reading about graffiti legends in New York and elsewhere, and he sent letters to those he admired.
He learned about Tanguma when he volunteered with an earlier community effort to restore the “Rebirth” mural, and he flew to Colorado on his own dime to meet the elder artist.
They clicked immediately.
“He speaks Spanish, and he’s a real decent and honest guy,” Tanguma said.
He’s also impressed with Gonzo’s use of traditional mural-recreation techniques. Gonzo documented every inch of Tanguma’s original with photographs, then created a 1-inch-by-1-foot grid so he could redraw the imagery on an 18-by-240-inch paper study.
Soon, Gonzo and his staff will transfer the grid to the primed wall, paint the lines of the figures and then, finally, fill in the color. The process will take several months, weather depending. Safety is a priority, Gonzo said; they won’t work when the heat index hovers around 100.
Gonzo knows the community will be watching.
Some area residents were alarmed when Tanguma’s original recently disappeared under several coats of whitewash and primer. They apparently had not been informed about the repainting process.
Latino art consultant Ralph Garcia, who had hoped to work on the project, was livid.
“We restore art of the Egyptians, the Mayans,” he said. “How could we not have restored this?”
Aside from that issue, Gonzo’s own brash and often sun-shiny palette looks nothing like the fading mural the most recent generations of East End residents loved.
But Gonzo and Taguma say they agree on color.
“If you look at Leo’s other work, everything he does is so full of color. The only reason this wasn’t is because he didn’t have the materials,” Gonzo said. “His color palette is really the same as mine.”
He created the mural during a year and a half, using 100 gallons of donated house paint and whatever else he could find under the kitchen sink. He didn’t get to choose what colors he was given. And with a mile of wall to fill, he made the background by mixing the blue, gray and white paints he had in abundance.
“It’s almost like he’s getting a second chance,” Gonzo said. “In the best-case scenario, how would he have gone through this process? That’s some of the conversations we’re having.”
Gonzo said he is still in awe that the Tanguma project is happening.
“I’m excited that the community is going to get their mural back. That’s my driving force, that Leo gets to see this mural in its full glory once again.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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