By Neal Pollack

Mario Chamizo started painting about ten years ago, when he lived in Florida. His wife Martha was having a garage sale, and for no reason in particular Chamizo sat down with some watercolors and did a picture of a horse at the racetrack. A woman at the sale offered him $50 for it. She said she liked it so much she wanted him to do three more.

“Well,” he thought, “this is good.”

Chamizo is a barber. He’s been cutting hair for 35 years. He’s worked at the Palmer House and has owned shops at Sawyer and Milwaukee and on Estes in Rogers Park. He’s also cut hair in New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Saint Petersburg, Florida. He tried to move to Hawaii a few years ago–also to cut hair–but didn’t like it and left after two weeks. He currently owns a shop called Mario International, just south of Lincoln Square at 46231/2 N. Lincoln, which also functions as a gallery for his ever-growing oeuvre of watercolors and acrylic paintings.

Some of the larger ones, Chamizo says, took him more than two years to complete. Others look like he shot them off in about two minutes. They depict many of the interests Chamizo has accumulated in his 61 years: baseball, Cuban music, Latin-American history, and the movie Casablanca, which he’s seen more than 100 times. Some are portraits of his friends and business neighbors. Quite a few feature colorful quotes he’s heard while listening to sports talk shows on the Score.

Paintings currently on display include Sun-Times sports columnist Jay Mariotti dressed as a cowboy and drinking a Budweiser, an alien with an extended eye coming out of his chin and draped with a banner reading “Chicago Man–Year 2,000,” and Jesus Christ pointing at Moses and saying, “Moses, where are my Cuban Peoples?” with Moses responding, “They are all in Miami Beach, God.” There is also a “wild woman” emerging from a jungle setting surrounded by an entourage of male concubines, an epic sprawl about the Spanish coming to North America, a recent work paying tribute to Tito Puente and the band El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Geronimo holding a bloody scalp, and Zorro running through an enemy with a sword. More than a few feature some sort of alien being.

“I saw a couple of these flying saucers once,” Chamizo says. “Twice. It was in the middle of the night. The last time I saw one I was driving down there on the turnpike at about three in the morning. I was going down to Miami, in the Palm Beach area. Saw this object, bluish, going in a horizontal direction, and then it sped up and disappeared. It was going smooth and then–pfffft. Listen, you have to believe in that. When you see something that is different from everything you’ve seen before, you have to believe in something. They’ve got good aliens and they’ve got bad aliens. The good aliens came to help us, and the bad ones, you have to be careful. They’re the ones that look like animals. But they’ve got aliens that look like humanoids. And I bet you they are already among us.”

Harry Caray is a frequent subject. There are currently two paintings of Caray on display: one has him leading a group of aliens in a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and the other is of him riding a motorcycle naked. In fact, Chamizo specializes in portraits of his customers riding motorcycles naked. Customers simply demand naked motorcycle paintings.

“I sold a lot of paintings that way,” he says.

Chamizo is broad-shouldered and potbellied with sleepy-looking eyes, a drooping mustache, and an extremely casual demeanor. His family moved to Cuba from Seville when he was 12, but he remains proud of his Spanish roots; he says he’s descended from the Sevillian painter Murillo on his father’s side. When he opened his barbershop on Estes in 1990, his wife told him he should call himself “the Barber of Seville.”

“You’ll get more customers,” she said.

The idea had never occurred to him before. He used the name for several years, but gave it up after he moved from Rogers Park. Lincoln Square is a German neighborhood, and he says he doesn’t want to antagonize his new landlords with Spanish nationalism.

At the Rogers Park shop, Chamizo once used a hand-painted sign of Mike Ditka to draw customers. He dressed Ditka in a Bears T-shirt and hat. One day Ditka himself was driving with a friend down Sheridan. He saw Chamizo’s sign and decided to stop by.

“He was having an argument with the other guy about what kind of haircut he was supposed to have,” Chamizo says. “He went there to ask me what kind of haircut would fit him better. So I tell him, ‘You look better with a flattop.’ The Bears were supposed to play Dallas. In those days Jimmy Johnson was the coach. He says, ‘If we beat Dallas, I get a flattop.’ But they lost. I never see him anymore.”

Nonetheless, Chamizo continues to paint Ditka. Recent works include Ditka flipping the bird and saying, “Don’t give me any crap,” and Ditka riding a motorcycle naked.

Chamizo’s shop is full of trinkets and other objects of interest besides paintings. These include a Cabbage Patch Kid in blackface wearing a 1980s vintage White Sox uniform, various puppets from the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a photo of Jose Canseco, maracas, antique pistols and knives, a thermometer shaped like a guitar, several Garfield drinking glasses, a plastic rooster, wooden cutouts of He-Man and Saint Michael, a stuffed Tasmanian Devil in a biker jacket, seashells, Kitty Kelley’s biography of Frank Sinatra, and a souvenir leather drinking pouch from a Sigma Delta Chi “Lost in the Woods” pledge party.

In the front window of the shop are several pieces of turquoise and obsidian jewelry and other decorative ornaments that Chamizo collects and sells along with his paintings. From time to time he’ll bring new pieces to Gene Roberts, an antique dealer who has the storefront next door. Roberts has purchased at least ten of Chamizo’s paintings, including one of a rival antique dealer from down the street squatting on a toilet and looking miserable. Occasionally Roberts will buy a piece of jewelry from Chamizo, but most of the time he just suggests suitable prices. Chamizo never tells him where he gets the jewelry.

“Good dealers never give out their sources,” says Roberts.

Chamizo paints in the evenings and on Mondays, when his shop is closed. Most of the time he paints at home, because he doesn’t want to mess up his barber chairs and sinks. The paintings range in price from $25 for watercolor sketches to $400 for more thoughtful acrylic jobs. Chamizo says he’s not interested in selling his work to a dealer, since, he says, they take 80 percent of the money. He says he’s too old to be owned by someone else and will sell his own paintings as long as he makes them.

“I’m gonna keep looking around until I find something. Till I find the pot of gold, huh? Everybody wants to be famous. What the heck. That’s the end of the movie. The bottom line. You don’t wanna work for peanuts all your life….I lost four paintings about three or four weeks ago. I was so stupid. I took six of these new paintings I made to this woman; she wanted to see them. So she bought two. And I was supposed to take four back. I put ’em on top of my van, and I forgot. About an hour later, I said, ‘Oh shit.’ All of my work, blown to pieces.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Lloyd DeGrane: Mario Chamizo; various artworks.