Mark Garcia keeps the two giant boilers running at PS 376 in Brooklyn. But even the youngest students know that "Mr. Mark" is not just the school's custodian. He transforms classrooms into fantasy worlds, painting murals inspired by children's books and his own imagination.
Garcia once hoped to make art his career. Growing up in Park Slope, he drew comics, tagged trains with graffiti and attended the selective Art and Design High School in Manhattan.
"The exposure there was photography, architecture and other things, so it worked out great," Garcia said.
He earned an associate's degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology while working part time on school custodial staffs to get by.
"And then I was offered more hours at work, so I stayed working. Met my wife, had a kid, and then responsibility kicked in and I was like, 'Stick with the job,'" he said.
But even while sweeping floors and eventually fixing boilers, he kept creating.
“Whenever they had Black History Month or Spanish History Month, I put displays out in the hallways, and then it evolved to where they were like, 'Why don’t you, if you've got time, could you help us out with some rooms?'" Garcia said.
Garcia paints the murals over the summer when the custodial work slows down. Then, he looks forward to September, when the students return.
"Anybody who creates something and is able to share it there’s something about that feeling of seeing people’s smiles and their faces light up," he said. "But yeah, money can't buy everything."
Garcia is an artist outside of school, too, selling paintings and drawings, creating murals for local community groups and inking customers at the Sunset Park Tattoo Studio.
"I'm from the old school, so I believe in community," he said. "So if you have a talent and you can share it, and the kids can be exposed to it, that not everybody has to have a suit and tie for them to, like, look up to you in a little way that hopefully inspires them."
"He makes me feel like I should be able to do it," said one student. "He inspires me to try even harder to draw."
Garcia's adult children are artists, too: his son, a painter, and his daughter the after-school art teacher here at PS 376.
This is not how Garcia envisioned his life.
"You have dreams of grandeur," he said. "You hope to be known as an artist, solely. But in growing, you learn that success comes in different ways, and for me, happiness is success, and you know, I'm good right now."