How is it that once being a career graffiti artist now qualifies me to be an astronaut teacher? An even better question is how can you pull off a similar feat? [Spoilers: At the end, I’m going to pitch YOU to become the astronaut teacher.]
First off, what happens when doing what you love stops being fun?
That’s what happened with me. After a career’s worth of time professionally doing graffiti — and hip-hopping, and skateboarding, and working on video games, etc. — it had all stopped being fun.
While forging on anyways, I gradually came to the realization that I had grown and changed so much over the course of doing what I loved best that one of the consequences was I no longer loved doing those things!
One saying I memorized long ago summed this up perfectly.
“A bud becomes a rose
when the pain of remaining the same
becomes greater than the fear of change.”
An object in motion tends to stay in motion. Changing that momentum is neither pretty or easy.
As one of the founders of the OBEY organization — along with graphic artist Shepard Fairey, video game designer Ryan Lesser, DJ Alfred Hawkins, and skateboarder Blaize Blouin — I get credit for helping to start a brand, an art movement and a graphic art phenomenon. I began “doing OBEY” in 1992 in Charleston, SC, where Shepard, Alfred and Blaize are all from. (It was called Andre the Giant Has A Posse when it started.) From then on, I “did” OBEY continuously non-stop until 2005.
I was in my 20s when I started working on OBEY; I was 40 when I stopped.
Between 1994–1995, I posted 100,000 stickers at Berkeley, in Oakland and in San Francisco. It was practically my kung-fu, my martial art.
And at the end of the day, I was “all city” in the Bay Area (with special commendation for owning Berkeley and Oakland).
Except I really didn’t own anything. There was no finish line, no victory that wasn’t just about “cred”. As years passed, each successive goal and victory felt less satisfying than the one that had come before.
It was the HOPE campaign in 2007 that changed all that. It’s no secret that the OBEY organization did HOPE, and that HOPE set the stage for the first presidential campaign for (not-yet) President Barack Obama. Barack Obama brought the fire, but HOPE was the wind that fueled the flame.
If anything, seeing the OBEY organization define the success of the HOPE campaign solidly confirmed my intuition that we could do better. The tangible success of the HOPE campaign was an epiphany. What I was doing as a graffiti artist and guerrilla marketer and messenge-maker could be actuated for something inspirational to the world. Even our very future.
Already gears were turning in my head that would lead to my transformation into an astronaut teacher.
Two years before HOPE, politics and power struggles within the OBEY organization gave me the excuse to quit OBEY. When I left, I quit it cold turkey. I returned to my island roots — Key West, FL — and with a real exercise of will power I put away the 20-years of stickering and wheatpasting and stenciling, and I picked up sailing, snorkeling, and kayaking.
That island-time segway was key. Doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing at all. What I had to find was something to do between what I was doing (graffiti artist), and what I would be doing (unbeknownst to me at the time, astronaut teacher).
It was in this spirit, as a beginning mate aboard a eco-charter boat called DANGER, I began taking people on day-long junkets out to the Florida National Wildlife Refuge. Subsequently, it was with DANGER where I began appreciating the joys of teaching.
Every few trips aboard the DANGER, there would be a distinctly enthusiastic young person. And on occasion a special experience would take place for this young person noticeable enough as to make everyone on board take note.
They would become hooked on science.
It would happen right before everyone’s eyes. Transformation.
Two things would trigger this reaction. One, something anecdotal — like experiencing a sea hare or bat fish for the first time, or having a bump-in with a curious dolphin, or even the breathtaking appearance of a nesting bald eagle (they are really big).
And two, my being on hand to illuminate what they were seeing and experiencing.
As the young person was transfixed by whatever cool thing was happening, it was like watching the flower bud blossom into a rose right before our eyes. Only that rose they were becoming was a potential marine biologist, ecologist, climatologist, or scientist. Or teacher.
Being the facilitator of these transformative moments, what was happening was I was revealing my favorite thing about the world — that is, that everything is awesome!—to young people who “got” it. I was suddenly cast into a role to constructively affect the outcome and direction of the future.
This all set the stage for The Astronaut Instruction Manual for Pre-teens.
At age 42, with a good head on my shoulders and one that was warming up to my non-graffiti artist-being future, I was crossing off potential career choices. One of my lifelong dreams, though clearly no longer in the cards, was to become an astronaut.
I mean, what grown-up amongst us did not dream of being an astronaut?
Coming back with DANGER after one fine day, I was thinking how I had done pretty much everything in my life I had ever wanted — except for the one thing I deeply desired. And that was become an astronaut.
Being a native Floridian, I grew up on space. And even though it was mainly comic books and science fiction authors that encouraged me to imagine I would eventually go to space, growing up believing that I did. My whole life, studying space and space science has always been as addictive to me as graffiti ever was. While I learned to love doing graffiti, I always loved space.
Considering this further, I arrived upon a quandary. “If I have the entire rest of my life left to live, and the one thing left unaccomplished is astronaut (which seems off-the-table any way I look at it), what then would be the next best thing to becoming an astronaut?”
It was at that very moment I realized. We are definitely going to space. Today’s kids are going to be tomorrow’s space professionals. Only, it dawned on me, they do not know it yet.
OMG, the realization hit me, I can become an Astronaut teacher!
What more, I knew the kind of astronaut teacher I was going to be was not going to be teaching kids how to become the retro kind of astronauts I grew up seeing, the ones wearing Apollo-era space suits and who were selected from the only very best among us.
I would teach young students how to become the next-generation of astronauts, astronauts who don’t just visit space but who go up to space to work, live, and play. Astronauts who move up and out to space!
The book writing followed immediately.
HUMANNAIRES! Mike Mongo’s Astronaut Instruction Manual for Pre-Teens spilled out of me (see below) like I had opened a floodgate. While being a HUMANNAIRE! and “one of the next-generation of space explorers from Planet Earth” was more than likely out of the question for myself, for young people growing up today it is reality.
My time on the eco-charter boat addressing passengers and discussing the marvels of natural science translated seamlessly into space educator. Slowly at first but then quite rapidly, I gained momentum in the role of astronaut teacher — until I am now an invited presenter at space conferences and I am regularly before student audiences in the US and abroad.
It has been almost 10 years since I set down being a graffiti artist, and over five years since I stepped up to becoming Mike Mongo, astronaut teacher. There was a period of several years in-between where I had no idea what I would be doing with the rest of my life. In hindsight, those years were some of the most important in getting to become who I am today.
Those years of “downtime” were busy for me. By being involved and engaged doing something (and doing something I enjoyed, at that), I was able to eventually gain the right amount of traction necessary to successfully move from the one career — graffiti artist — and on to the next — space educator and astronaut teacher.
And that is my point.
When our future is not how we had imagined it to be, we must stop doing what is taking us where we do not want to head. We must begin doing entirely something else, preferably something we enjoy. This may not be our dream job or ideal career but it must be something that isn’t or doesn’t contribute to the problem of a future we do not want. After that, let nature take its course. As long as your goal is a future you want to picture yourself in, then this is the way to go.
Remember, it isn’t easy breaking out of routine. It takes deep dissatisfaction, especially when that routine happens to have been doing something that once brought us pleasure, and it takes a consistent effort. But at the end of the day, the pleasure of working towards a future that inspires us and that makes a place for us is its own reward.
When it comes to our future, we can do no better than applying the words of sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout’s to our lives: “Is that good or what!” If the answer is “or what”, then don’t just do something. Stop, and change.
Ah yes, the Pitch.
Yes, I remembered. Here it is.
I am crowdfunding The Astronaut Instruction Manual for Pre-Teens.
It has been several years since I began my role as astronaut teacher. My initial goal has expanded from drawing the attention of young students to the reality of our space future to pointing the way to a fantastic and hopeful future.
Today’s young students are going to go to space. They are already training for it, practicing recycling and being smart with limited resources. They are already masters of sustainablity. As I share in my book, these are the skills of HUMANNAIRES!
I submit that in learning to live work and play in space that we will learn how to stay on Planet Earth.
If my story has connected with you, if you always wanted to be an astronaut (or still do) — or if you know a young student who does (and especially if they are your own daughter or son) — then I am going to ask you do the most radical thing I can imagine and support a book that may very well change the future and inspire your son or daughter or favorite student to become one the next-generation of astronaut, the HUMANNAIRES! from Planet Earth.*
My pitch: Please back The Astronaut Instruction Manual for Pre-Teens.
Thanks and keep up the good work!
*And when you get the book, give it to the geekiest kid you know. Tell them why you’re giving it to them — “I wanted to go to space but you’re actually going to get to!” — and, if they’re young enough, read it aloud with them.
And that is how you become the astronaut teacher.
UPDATE NOV 20, 2014: