Flint, MI–Just a few weeks before he died, Ryon Gonzalez finished painting the mural along the fence at the old Mega Coney Island.
Funky yellow, blue, pink and purple block letters spelled out “TIME FOR LOVE.”
Gonzalez, 33, moved onto the front wall of the building next door, painting over the red bricks with a bright lime green. His niece and three of his nephews were playing in the parking lot while his younger sister, Brittany, kept an eye on them.
Melanie, 5, and Tristan, 6, plopped their stomachs on skateboards and propelled themselves around the lot, pushing off with their hands and kicking with their feet. Beckham, 3, ran around holding a cardboard box, occasionally wearing it like a hat and bursting into fits of giggles. When he ran and clutched the leg of his uncle, who was holding a wet paintbrush, surrounded by paint and tools, Gonzalez just smiled and carried on painting.
“Welcome to Flint,” the mural read.
He used nine gallons of paint, at least ten different colors and three styles of fonts. He worked free-hand. No stencils or projections. Just him.
It was almost finished–just needed some more puffy pink clouds around the sides, and this mural would be another in his collection of art around the city.
He had countless murals, graffiti and tags all over. This mural was big, though. It would be the mural people saw as they drove along Martin Luther King Jr. Ave, into downtown Flint, and his most high visibility project to date.
He spent weeks getting up bright and early to go paint, usually sporting his red hat and “Teck” hoodie.
Teck was his gang name. He still used the name, but he left that life behind in the last year in pursuit of his passion for art.
After years of struggle and darkness, he was spending every day doing what he loved most: painting.
A “funny boy”
Gonzalez was born in Mexican town in Detroit and has two brothers and two sisters. His mother, Cyndi Delmage, had all five kids by the time she was 23.
She called Ryon her “funny boy.”
One time all the kids got in trouble so Delmage sent them to their room and had them line up to get a spanking. It was little Ryon who started the whole thing, so his spanking was going to be “on his bare ass.”
“Turn around. Bend over. Take off your pants,” she said to Ryon first.
He slowly peeled off his pants, only to reveal he was wearing another pair of pants underneath.
“Ryon Philip. Take off your pants,” she repeated.
So he pulled down those pants. There was yet another pair of pants underneath that pair.
“Ryon,” she said. “How many clothes do you got on?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably about six pairs of pants and 12 pairs of underwear,” he replied.
It was hard to stay mad at him. Even in trouble, he had a sense of humor. But the trouble got worse as he got older.
The family moved to Lapeer while Ryon was in middle school, and soon after that, his parents divorced and his father moved back to Detroit.
In Lapeer, Ryon got expelled for selling marijuana in middle school and had to go live with his dad and grandmother and attend school there.
It was then, when he was 13, that he started getting involved with gangs. He would stay out all night and then not be able to get up in the mornings to go to school.
He ended up dropping out in 9th grade.
His mom said she used to stay up late worrying she would get a phone call about something happening to him.
“When I finally stopped worrying, that’s when I got the call,” she said.
On Oct. 8, he was struck by a car and killed.
A new path
Ryon started drawing when he was a little kid. His mother and father both drew and painted, but it was his older brother Ricky’s taking to art that inspired him to try it too.
The two had art competitions where they would both draw a picture, show their mom, and have her declare the winner.
“I’m sorry, Ry, but Ricky’s is better,” Delmage would say every time, prompting Ryon to try again.
When she noticed Ryon starting to give up, they had another competition.
She recalled Ricky’s drawing being “probably ten times better,” but when the kids asked her who the winner was, she didn’t want Ryon to be discouraged.
“Ricky, I think he’s gotcha beat this time,” she told them. That didn’t go over well with Ricky, but Ryon was overjoyed.
By the time he was five, he was drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles perfectly.
Drawings led to painting, tattoos, graffiti and, most recently, murals.
His friends and family say it was just in the last year that he started turning his life around, and they believe it was because of his art.
“It was the only thing that made him happy,” said his friend and fellow artist Kyle Lawrence. “He said on multiple occasions that painting saved his life. It was all he wanted to do.”
Director of Placemaking Kady Yellow, who booked him for the “Welcome to Flint” mural, said she couldn’t give Gonzalez enough to paint.
“He just wanted projects,” she said. “He worked so fast, I couldn’t give him enough art to make.”
Gonzalez, who was notorious all his life for sleeping in late and being impossible to wake up, spent the last two months getting up at 9 a.m. every day to paint.
“When I first met him a year ago, I could only be around him for short periods of time because he had all this anger,” Lawrence said. “But it slowly started melting away, when he would find something to paint every day.”
The subject matter of his art was always positive.
He painted an astronaut holding a flower on South Saginaw and Atherton. He did a series of elephants, which signify good luck, by Asbury Church. He was working on a canvas painting of an orchestra of 12 penguins all playing different instruments, with an octopus behind them.
“That was an example of him being Ryon…he loved doing animals because animals are nonviolent. They make you smile,” Lawrence said. “Because of his past, he hated anything that had any negative connotation. He always wanted to do the positive shit.”
He spread positivity through more than just his art.
If you were feeling down, he’d say “get your smile back, Jack” or “don’t trip, potato chip,” or “it’s your world, squirrel.”
He’d tell you to look in the mirror and say you love yourself.
“He had it in his heart that he wanted to do right,” Lawrence said. “People assume the worst about him because of his past, and that couldn’t have been more inaccurate for who he really was.”
He would give candy to kids on the North and East side of Flint, and break up fights between brothers. He loved his nieces and nephews, who called him “Uncle Skunky,” and his own kids, Jayden and Caleb.
One time, when he was waiting to be paid for a grant-funded mural project, he showed up at his boss’s house and had Caleb, 7, stand in front of the door and knock while he hid in the bushes.
When Yellow came to the door, she was surprised to see a little boy she had never met before pointing at her and saying “I want YOU!”
Gonzalez jumped out of the bushes, and introduced his son. Then the reason for their surprise visit was revealed.
“I want an electric scooter, Miss Kady,” Caleb said.
Yellow was in. She let him pick it out online and she ordered the $200 scooter for him right there, and that’s how Gonzalez got paid that day.
“I love that he did that,” Yellow said. “That was just a dope moment.”
His niece, Michaela, remembers Gonzalez taking her and her siblings to downtown Detroit to see the lights and ride the train. She said he made sure the chefs at CiCi’s Pizza made the pizza exactly how the kids wanted it.
The people who knew Gonzalez remember him for his intense generosity–the way he’d treat the whole bar to a drink, fill up your fridge, pick up the check for all his friends.
Lawrence recalls the time he ripped a double cheeseburger in half, handed it to another local artist and said “eat, my man!”
“That was him. If he had money, all his friends ate,” Lawrence said. “He had a heart of gold.”
Last Saturday, the people he loved showed their love in return.
On his mother’s birthday, two days after he died, more than 100 people came to the old Mega Coney Island for his vigil.
The ‘What’s Up Downtown?’ truck Gonzalez painted was pulled into the lot, marking its first time coming out of the garage since he finished it.
His older sister, Sharon Chapa, was perched on the truck’s stage passing out red candles with little Styrofoam cups to keep the flame from going out.
Chapa wore her brother’s straw fedora and Brittany wore his red cap. Several people wore red hoodies in his honor.
It was sad, but it was happy too.
The whole group sang “Happy Birthday” to a smiling Delmage, who had woken up that morning and said she never wanted another birthday ever again.
Local artist Krystal Cooke played guitar and sang on the truck’s stage. She told funny stories about Gonzalez, like how she realized he was a “softy” after watching him excitedly find a praying mantis and show it to everyone.
The kids played in the lot where he’d spent so many hours painting. They were running around, dancing, skateboarding, and laughing, just like they had done with him one month ago.
“I love that everybody loves my brother,” Brittany said. “Our family loved each other no matter what.”
When it came time to release the red heart and star-shaped balloons into the evening sky, Chapa announced from the stage that there was nothing else to say except, “I love you, Ryon!” Everyone screamed it together, a chorus of love. With their faces lit by the soft glow of the candles in their hands, they stared up into the night. The balloons slowly floated away, getting smaller and smaller, like red confetti dotting the sky.