“Wouldn’t it be nice,” asks Toronto visual artist Daniel Mazzone, “if the stories of our lives were embedded on our skin? So people could look at each other and see where we come from?"
Mazzone, as it happens, comes from the streets. Homeless as a teen – family life had gotten a “little bit rough” – he took sleep were he could: downtown Grange Park; a Scarborough movie theatre; a subway train; a mall restroom, with his head on a toilet.
So, he knows about judgment and face value. Now, he’s a pop-art success story, selling his vivid mosaic portraits of his musical, sports-world, artistic and historical heroes for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. He lives in a penthouse apartment (decorated with his representations of Prince and Picasso) and recently his standing in the art world went to Vatican level when he was invited to meet Pope Francis.
“He asked me, ‘Daniel, can you please pray for me?’”
It’s heady stuff for the 38-year-old Mazzone, who, after earning his high school degree at age 22, studied business at Ryerson University and worked as mortgage broker for years after that. “I had no money, and I was behind in life,” Mazzone says, speaking recently in his small top-floor home. "I thought maybe being rich would make me happy.“
The world of finance neither made him rich nor happy. He took up art – a long-abandoned fantasy of his as the son of an art-teacher mother. But as an adult trying his hand again at art, he was discouraged. Stick to business, friends and co-workers told him, something realistic.
He learned the sad reality that so many other adults come to know: As a child, you’re encouraged to follow your dreams. And, yet, when you’re older, people act offended if you so much as try.
Undeterred, Mazzone tried – and succeeded – with a style inspired by his mother, who worked in stained glass. He collects old newspapers, comic books and pop-culture ephemera, which he works into his intricate, eye-popping likenesses of everyone from George Washington to JFK, Audrey Hepburn to Frida Kahlo, Nat Turner to a mug shot of Mick Jagger. The mosaic snippets on their faces represent, in Mazzone’s words, “the stories of their lives.”
Mazzone’s fan base includes merchant banker and excitable television personality Michael Wekerle and extends to the art-collecting Tanenbaum family, current Toronto Blue Jay Marcus Stroman and the former bat-flipping maestro Jose Bautista. Because of his history as a homeless teen, Mazzone donates some of his pieces to charities, with a focus on youth causes including the Bautista Family Education Fund and Scholas Occurrentes. To the latter, Mazzone gave a Charlie Chaplin portrait, a donation that caught the attention of the current Pope.
“I was nervous,” said Mazzone, more of a karma enthusiast than a scriptures nerd, of meeting the Pontiff.
Mazzone also works in ceramic, in the form of an inspirational sculpture series based on a character of his own invention, Yume. It’s a representation of himself as a child, heavily disguised in rabbit-eared pajamas. In Japanese, “Yume” means “dream.” Mazzone’s paid off, and now he encourages the practice.
Know of an unsung arts and culture hero who deserves wider acclaim? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.