Meet the artist behind the viral Los Angeles Lakers murals

The work of Los Angeles muralist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. has caught the attention of basketball fans the last two summers. (Alanis Thames/Yahoo Sports)
The work of Los Angeles muralist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. has caught the attention of basketball fans the last two summers. (Alanis Thames/Yahoo Sports)


VENICE, Calif. — Gustavo Zermeño Jr.’s five-hour shift at the Venice Beach Recreation Center finally ends.

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He packs his things in the tiny white office that’s adjacent to the basketball and tennis courts, and he heads over to the Venice Beach Boardwalk a couple of minutes away.

It’s two days before the start of 2019 NBA free agency, and Zermeño, a muralist and lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fan, is about to paint free agent Kawhi Leonard for Pizzaoki — a local delivery-only pizza restaurant.

Zermeño already knows what his newest project will look like thanks to the mock sketch he created on his iPad.

He likes to visualize his thoughts. He creates rough drafts on the drawing app “Procreate,” and he keeps a notebook by his desk filled with ideas just in case someone contacts him to paint a mural.

This is his first mural on the boardwalk in Venice, where he’s from, but he’s been doing this for a while.

He quit his job as a grocery stocker for Whole Foods in 2015 to become a muralist, but he’s been drawing since his mother brought home Prismacolor markers and colored pencils from her job at Paper Mate before he was even in high school.

Now, at the corner of Westminster Avenue and Ocean Front Walk, Zermeño climbs his metal ladder.

He puts in his earphones, turns on Apple Music — likely to either Kendrick Lamar or Mac Miller, his go-to artists the past six months — and starts priming the side of the building where he’ll paint Leonard in a Lakers jersey.

With $32 million in salary-cap space, L.A. has room to sign a 2019 free agent to a max deal.

First-tier guys like Kevin Durant (Brooklyn), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn), Jimmy Butler (Miami), Kemba Walker (Boston) and D’Angelo Russell (Golden State) have slipped out of the conversation one by one. And that leaves Leonard as virtually the Lakers’ last chance to sign a max-contract-caliber player.

Zermeño says he has been disappointed during free agency before, so maybe he would’ve waited to see who actually signs with the Lakers before painting a mural of him in a purple and gold jersey.

But Pizzaoki contacted him and requested the mural of Leonard as a pitch to get him to sign with the Lakers, Zermeño says. Besides, the mural is only temporary. It’ll be up until Leonard decides where he’ll go, and then they’ll switch the painting to something else.

Zermeno has been hoping Leonard signs with the Lakers. He’s admired the two-time Finals MVP since he played for the San Antonio Spurs, so it can’t hurt to speak it into existence.

“He just reminds me of Kobe [Bryant] kind of, just the silent killer,” Zermeño says. “He’s not too out there. He’s a baller, basically. He can take over a game. I think everyone likes Kawhi. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t.”

The painting grabs the attention of people on social media before Zermeño is even finished.

It takes him two days (12 hours) to complete the whole thing. When he’s done, an image of Leonard in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey holding a Larry O’Brien championship trophy is in front of him. The words “Kawhi Not?” are painted in purple blocked lettering above Leonard’s head.

Complex Sports, the Orange County Register and other media outlets have already posted stories about the mural on their sites. Sports Illustrated describes it as a gesture to “woo” Leonard ahead of his free agency decision.

And people are stopping by to gaze and snap pictures with it ahead of the highly anticipated news of what team will land Kawhi Leonard.

Zermeño is familiar with the attention his art is getting. This isn’t the first time the sports world has noticed his work.

The man behind the infamous LeBron James mural

Zermeño was at a Dodgers game last July when news broke that LeBron James signed a four-year, $154 million deal with the Lakers. He remembered the news broadcast all over Dodger Stadium.

“It was just like, ‘Oh, dope. Like, this is real,’” he said of his initial reaction. “We’re about to get some big players. It was exciting … because it was so many years that [the Lakers] just, we weren’t making the playoffs, we weren’t making the right moves. And every time it seemed like we were doing something right, it just failed.”

Zermeño was then contacted by Sportie LA, a local sneakers and apparel store, to create a mural welcoming James to Los Angeles.

He worked on the mural with three other people. It took them nearly a week — about 50 hours — to finish the painting of James wearing a gold jersey and looking up at former Lakers, including Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

“The first thing I thought is that I can’t really place [James] in there with them,” Zermeño said, “so it kind of had to be more like him looking up towards, not necessarily the actual players, but the organization in general to just show that the Lakers have been great.

“Maybe we’ve been on some hard times, but at the end of the day, the Lakers have still won 16 championships.”

The mural quickly became popular among Laker, and non-Laker, fans. It was up about 24 hours before Zermeño learned that someone had thrown paint on it, so he repaired it with the help of other Lakers fans.

“There were so many people out there,” he said, “that I actually just started giving people brushes and people just started helping me paint it.”

That one lasted about a week before it was vandalized again, Zermeño said. And he fixed it just one more time before deciding to take it down.

Having to undo hours of work didn’t upset him as much as disappointing the people who were traveling to the store to take pictures in front of the mural.

He’d met one Lakers fan who said he’d flown from Oakland to take a picture with it. Others had reached out to him telling him they were coming from Canada to see it.

“I had to tell them, ‘Hey man, someone tagged on it,’” Zermeño said. “So it’s things like that where, I can fix it. I don’t care. But for me, I feel bad for people that come down here to look at it just to find it destroyed basically.”

It did, however, feel good that his piece had that big of an effect on people.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that I like about doing murals,” he said, “is the way it makes people feel. It makes people happy. It makes me happy to see.

“I put a lot of my energy, and it’s my passion and I believe in what I do 100 percent, so to see people’s reactions like that, that’s a huge part of why I do it in the first place.”

‘Everyone loves Anthony Davis’

It took only 24 hours for Zermeño to get a mural up of Anthony Davis after the Lakers agreed to acquire the former New Orleans Pelican in June in exchange for Lonzo BallJosh HartBrandon Ingram, and three first-round picks.

He’d contacted Sportie LA right after the news broke to see if the store had any available wall space.

The store got back with him immediately, and he gathered his paint, his brushes and his ladder and headed back to Melrose Avenue to get started.

About four hours into the process, Zermeño had painted nearly Davis’ whole face.

“I’m just gonna bust an all-nighter and just go,” he remembered thinking. “Power through it.”

By the day after the trade, the image of Davis in a purple Lakers jersey with L.A. banners and retired jerseys in the background was making its rounds on social media.

“I always want to represent the Lakers as a whole … and I knew I wanted to get it up quick,” Zermeño said. “I felt like having it up really quick would be more impressive than the actual mural itself.”

Despite the controversy with his LeBron mural, Zermeño wasn’t worried anyone was going to mess with this one.

“Everyone likes Anthony Davis,” he said. “I think it was just more people don’t like LeBron. I wasn’t the biggest LeBron fan, and then as soon as he signed with the Lakers, welp, that’s my guy now.

“That’s just how sports are though.”

Sports are that way.

They’re fickle, but the uncertainty is intriguing. And even if things don’t play out the way fans hope, they’ll still find themselves wondering what happens next.

‘WELCOME HOME CHAMP’

Zermeño is scrolling through Instagram minutes after the news breaks.

Headlines saying “Kawhi Leonard will sign with the Los Angeles Clippers” clog his feed.

He and Lakers fans are disappointed.

Leonard signed a three-year, $103 million deal with the Clippers, and he’ll play alongside Paul Georgewho the Clippers acquired via trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Zermeño’s not surprised.

“I grew up watching sports, so for me, this is nothing new,” he says, “especially as a Lakers fan. This has been happening for the past … I don’t know how many years. I was already kind of ready for that decision.”

What surprises him are the negative messages he’s suddenly receiving on social media about his Kawhi mural.

“I really don’t understand why people are taking it so personal,” Zermeño says. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, you lost.’ It was never like a win-lose situation. It was just more like a pitch to try to get him over here.”

He heads back to Pizzaoki where the mural is still up, and he paints black over everything except Leonard’s face.

Instead of leaving the words “Kawhi Not,” he paints “WELCOME HOME CHAMP!” in red letters below the Southern California native’s head.

Over a week after the start of free agency, the Lakers have re-signed Rajon RondoKentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee.

They’ve also added DeMarcus CousinsDanny GreenAvery BradleyQuinn Cook and Jared Dudley to a team that’ll have LeBron James as its primary playmaker, Anthony Davis to share the workload and Kyle Kuzma as a third scoring option next season.

Though none of their new additions are Kawhi Leonard, the newly assembled lineup leaves Zermeño confident in what the future looks like for the Lakers.

“Regardless of us getting Kawhi or not,” he says, “our team is good enough for the playoffs … That’s always a real positive, especially after these past six-to-eight years.”

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