The ART of being Mario
To keep unsightly and possibly offensive graffiti from marring the scenery on a cinderblock wall in his neighborhood along Southeast 181st Avenue, Mario DeLeon chooses to fight fire with fire — or more accurately, spray paint with spray paint.
"This wall keeps getting tagged, and I got annoyed," he said during a break from painting on a recent cloudy afternoon. "I got permission from the owner of the wall. I have two daughters. They don't need to be seeing gang graffiti."
The striking horizontal mural the 30-year-old Rockwood resident has nearly completed near the intersection of 181st Avenue and Stark Street features larger-than-life likenesses of fallen rappers Nipsey Hussle, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls alongside the face of the Aztec calendar and characters Huey and Riley Freeman from "The Boondocks" comics series.
"Considering the area, I wanted to paint something that wasn't going to get tagged," DeLeon said, adding that he enjoys seeing similar wall murals around larger cities. "I'm seeing these beautiful paintings. I said, 'I want that in my neighborhood.' Especially with the (March 2019) passing of Nipsey Hussle, and being a big fan of music."
After dabbling in various lines of less-than-satisfying work, the Texas-born DeLeon — whose family first moved to Portland in 1989 — has settled into a self-made career as a muralist and digital artist. In the latter area, he's contributed to such online presences as American Top Team and Feed Me Fight Me Coffee & Apparel.
More visibly, DeLeon's whimsical, infinitely detailed mural and painting work can be found on walls inside and outside of area businesses like O'Malley Gym and Supplement Shop in Troutdale, Portland Burger, Killer Burger, Grant's Philly Cheesesteaks and "tons of small taco places."
"So many local businesses have kept me going," he said. "Forty hours a week plus painting — they understand the grind."
A mural the city of Gresham commissioned earlier this year now graces the side of Tire and Wheel Mart facing Northeast 190th Avenue near its intersection with Stark Street. Local residents have taken a shine to the luminous work, including longtime Rockwood neighborhood advocate Dina DiNucci.
"What he creates with his spray paint are faces that he believes the community will understand," she said. "He represents the diverse figures that kids grew up with and young adults identify with."
Ricki Ruiz, with the city of Gresham's office of governance & management, also spoke highly of DeLeon's creative beautification work.
"Mario has been an amazing asset to have in East County," he said. "His artistic skills and connection to the community really make him stand out ... I see a lot of people and families taking pictures of the new artwork."
DeLeon had a somewhat rootless upbringing, attending four high schools in the region including Reynolds in Troutdale. When his older brother Ivan first taught him to draw, it was a revelation.
"I was drawing 'Spider-Man,' 'Dragon Ball Z,'" he recalled. "I was like, 'Man, that's what I'm gonna do. I'll draw and paint the rest of my life.'"
To further his goals, DeLeon enrolled at the Art Institute of New York City in 2010. He studied "watercolors, inks, all that," he said. "All I did there was dedicate my time to drawing.
"It was beneficial. It was good," he added. "I learned how to never get hustled, but I dropped out just to keep painting."
Landing in tiny Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where his dad operated a restaurant, DeLeon was frustrated and out of his element.
"I went from seeing millions of people every day to a town of 2,500. It was culture shock — from one extreme to another," he said. "It was intense."
Drawing at a table during a break from washing dishes at the restaurant, DeLeon drew compliments from a local school principal. His confidence back on the upswing, the 21-year-old soon sold what he called his first "legitimate" painting.
When he moved back to Portland to work for his aunt, she asked him to paint a mural on one of the walls. That led to DeLeon getting hired by Killer Burger owners Mark and Rob McCrary to paint a 20-foot octopus on the ceiling.
Since that career boost, about the only thing keeping his brushes and paint bottles temporarily idle are his wife and two young children.
"They're just happy (art) is keeping me busy," he said. "It's a grind, but one that's worth it, thank God — or I wouldn't be doing it."
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