As the saying goes, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” But what if that talent works hard? Most people with talent reach for the stars immediately to put their talent on display. Some pan out, but others are “microwavable talent,” and don’t last long.
Mike Norice and the people around him realized his talent for the arts at a young age, and life decided to steer him in that direction, although he did not make any conscious decisions about this path.
Norice was born in the ‘80s in a crime-filled Watts area that usually gave young Black men two options when it came to growing up: either join a gang or be the enemy. There was no in-between.
“It was really tough, we were homeless, sleeping out of my mom’s car. Poverty was bad for us, but things got worse once my dad went to jail when I was six.” Norice said. “I grew up on 113th street near Nickerson Gardens. I used to collect cans and bring them to the recycle center station on Imperial and Central to turn them in and collect money for food. But after being homeless for so long and crime starting to rise, my mom decided that moving up north to Fresno would be best for us.”
Norice’s mom wanted better for her kids and decided that moving to Fresno to live with their grandmother would give them the best chance at a better life. This move came with positive and negative reactions. He quickly realized that the streets and crimes in Watts were the least of his worries.
“It was horrible, it’s like being out of the fire and jumping into the frying pan, because of the culture shock I experienced,” Norice said. “I went from dealing with poverty in Black neighborhoods to dealing with prejudices in White neighborhoods. There was a low percentage of Black people in my area, so I stood out.”
Once school began, Norice noticed how being Black put his safety in jeopardy every day.
“I remember when we first moved there, and I saw the Ku Klux Klan for the first time and asked my mom who they were and what they were doing,” Norice said. “I went to a prejudiced school, so I didn’t have any friends, but I would spend a lot of my time around my teacher, Mr. Bennett. I would sit in his classroom during recess and draw cartoon characters with him as he was my first real art teacher.”
The people around Norice started to take notice of his ability to draw at a high level at the age of five.
“It came so naturally that I thought everybody could draw,” Norice said. “It wasn’t until I was in kindergarten that I knew I had the skill to be an artist. I didn’t meet a teacher that could help me advance my skills until around third grade, which led me to start taking art classes.”
Bennett was an early mentor, and Norice dealt with a lot of his troubles by escaping through his art.
“Art was and still is a way for me to escape reality and cope with some of the issues and frustrations that occurred in my life,” he said. “Art is my haven, and it made many of the troubles I had to deal with as a child easier to cope with.”
“More Black and Latino kids started migrating to Fresno, and I started making friends with the Latinos, so I wasn’t getting bullied as much anymore, but school life was still kind of hard,” Norice said. “Third and fourth grade was tough because, in the entire school, there was only one other Black person, and she was from England, so it was still hard finding the cultural connection within my school.”
Norice learned how to draw fine art from a teacher in high school.
“Mr. Crow started teaching me fine art when I was 13, because he saw I had a knack for drawing human antimony and creating human figures on paper. He also placed me into a special college prep course in high school to accelerate my drawing talents.” Norice said. “It was only me and two other people that were selected for the art program. This course introduced me to painting portraits, color theory, and various other techniques and styles.”
Norice was still grateful for the education while living in Fresno because he felt he would have turned out completely different if he remained in LA.
“I maintained it because ultimately, I knew I was given a better opportunity and education than I would have gotten,” he said. “I had to bite the bullet with the racism and bullying so I could get a better chance at life.”
Norice knew his talents were going to take him far once a high school teacher paid him to paint a mural for her house. That opened up the money flow.
“My Spanish teacher commissioned me to paint an art piece for her house, and once I finished, she loved it,” Norice remembered. “From there, my friend’s mom paid me $500 to paint a mural for her daycare. After that, I knew I was ready to start a business.”
Norice stood tall in the face of adversity, graduated high school and college, and opened up his first business with the help of his grandmother, called BYN Customs.
“My grandmother worked for Bank of America. She started educating me on finances when I was 14,” he said. “I learned the importance of credit, money management, loans, and how to open my first bank account. She was the model of business and finance stability within the family. She helped me get my first credit card, taught me about business and bills, and how to take care of the whole family.”
BYN Customs was an art and clothing store that helped Norice show off his artistic talents while making money.
“It allowed me to show off my skill level with my art and expand upon my second love, which was fashion,” Norice said. “I was always a fashionable person since I was young, I won best dressed in my school a few times, and this led to me getting a master’s degree at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in 2002, and from there I created this idea of connecting my art with my fashion skills.”
BYN Customs was the first custom shoe store that wasn’t using airbrushes. Norice had two locations, one on Manchester Avenue and Gramercy Boulevard and the second on Manchester Avenue and Main Street. Norice then opened a warehouse that supplied two stores on Melrose, before he opened his own store on Melrose in 2008. In 2020 he closed it to go into a different business direction.
Most recently, Norice created a non-profit organization, Artfully United.
“I wanted to get out of the fashion life because I was not interested in the business side of fashion, and I wanted to promote myself as an artist, and in the fashion world, I was placed in a box,” he said. “I took my character Powerful Paw, which I created in 2008, and decided to paint a mural on a building to promote him.”
This led to the ‘Forgiveness’ mural on Slauson Avenue and Hoover Street. With the help of his wife, Norice has created several murals on buildings varying in size and place, but the messages for each were the same. They all include positive, uplifting, empowering words for communities in South L.A.
“People wanted more positive messaging for the communities, which gave me the idea to start a mural tour in South L.A. by doing 20 murals in my old stomping grounds,” he said.
Artfully United also offers art therapy classes in the community as a way for residents to express themselves and cope with their current situation. The artist hopes the classes help students in the same way it helped him.
Norice has a lot of big plans.
“I eventually want to open an academy in L.A. to teach kids about the different kinds of art — like visual and musicals, to name a few. Once that gets established in L.A. I would like to do the same thing in different places like The Bay, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and other places to expand Artfully United and help other Black communities through art.”
To learn about Artfully United and see more of Norice’s murals, visit https://tinyurl.com/53nr5mpp.
Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.
This article is a part of a series of articles for Our Weekly’s #StopTheHate campaign and is supported in whole or part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library.