Mario DeLeon, 24, had bounced around quite a bit by the time he hit his last year of high school.
He moved from Texas to Spokane, where his family owns DeLeon Foods on East Francis Avenue, at age 19 and enrolled at Mt. Spokane High School. After a four-year stint at The Art Institute of New York City, he’s now back in Spokane and doing what he loves: painting.
“I call it illustration or pop art,” DeLeon said, stepping back from a recently completed painting at Mead High School. “Kings Blues” shows a figure sitting on top of a pile of worldly possessions including a TV, a fancy car wheel, jewelry and money – yet the king doesn’t look happy.
“It’s about how the king wants everything, but even when he has it he’s still not happy,” DeLeon said.
A hummingbird is perched in one part of the painting; Mount Spokane looms in the background and in the lower right corner a figure is peeking out from behind prison bars.
“That’s my uncle who’s incarcerated,” DeLeon said.
A panther – the mascot of Mead High School – rests at the center of the painting.
The huge and mostly blue painting will be hung in the school’s commons, and that’s also where it was painted.
“It was very cool working there,” said DeLeon, who spent two months on the painting.
Students would stop and chat as he worked, some would bring their own artwork to show him or just watch as he painted.
“Teachers liked it and students liked it,” said Doug Edmonson, assistant principal at Mead High School. “We are hoping to have other artists come in and paint, maybe on a monthly basis.”
DeLeon said students were surprised at how many times he started over or repainted something before he got it just right.
“The panther’s face was just this white spot for a long time,” DeLeon said. “The students didn’t get that.”
It was an older stepbrother who got DeLeon started on drawing.
“He was just so good at drawing and I wanted him to draw something for me,” DeLeon said. “He wouldn’t. He told me to draw my own stuff and that’s how it all started.”
Edmondson said having visiting painters work at the school is a way to showcase visual art.
DeLeon said he studied graphic design at the Art Institute but didn’t like it.
“I guess you could say I was very stubborn with my professors,” he said.
He doesn’t want to use the term graffiti about his painting style.
“People don’t like that word,” DeLeon said.
To him there’s a difference between graffiti and tagging.
“Graffiti can be art where you strive to do better and better,” DeLeon said. “Tagging is just spewing out the same thing over and over again. That’s not art.”
He was part of a group that put together a hip-hop and graffiti show at the MAC last year, and he’s hoping to do that again this year.
In the meantime, he’s looking for mural and illustration work around town.
“It’s great,” he said, “I get to do what I love.”