For years, Miguel and Carlos Cevallos made a living painting posters for neighborhood nightclubs, taco trucks and restaurants in Queens, painting in businesses’ basements or on their tables and attracting customers by word of mouth.
Now trendy ice cream shops in Brooklyn and retro diners in Manhattan are waiting their turn to get one of the brothers’ colorful signs. They are sought after in music stores in San Francisco, national chain restaurants, bars in Belgium and bakeries in South Korea.
Never mind that the brothers are over 80 years old or that the two, born in Ecuador and raised in Colombia, speak limited English. They’ve embraced their new clients and paint all day in the Manhattan apartment they’ve shared for nearly 20 years.
“Destiny is like that. Sometimes you become successful later in life,” Carlos Cevallos said recently as he sipped tea in an empty Manhattan diner. Dressed in suits and ties as they do every day, the brothers treated each other to a muffin.
Recent commissions have come from a bagel shop in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood, a newsstand in Manhattan’s West Village, an Oregon-based restaurant chain and a veggie burger pop-up shop in Los Angeles. NYCgo, the city’s official guide for tourists and New Yorkers, recently asked the brothers to paint Queens’ iconic Unisphere, the giant metal globe built for the 1964 World’s Fair.
“They have a special touch, they’re so pretty and colorful,” said Marina Cortes, manager of La Bonbonniere in the West Village. The brothers’ “Breakfast All Day!” sign is posted on the restaurant’s terrace.
“Life without anything good is bad” reads a poster the brothers painted for Van Leeuwen Ice Cream. “Daily special. Choose any two sandwiches and pay for both!” reads another they did for Regina’s grocery store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Made with acrylic paints, the playful, children’s posters of the Cevallos brothers have large letters and a nostalgic look. Miguel paints and Carlos colors, and together they produce about six posters a week.
The brothers send out five to 20 requests a week for their work.
The family moved from Ecuador to Colombia to follow an uncle who was a Catholic priest working in Bogotá. Used to drawing since childhood, Carlos, Miguel and their oldest brother Victor opened an art studio and poster shop in the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogotá.
Victor moved to New York in 1969 and Carlos joined him in 1974. For years they worked in a studio in Times Square until a rent increase forced a move to Queens.
In the 1980s, they painted posters announcing shows at a Queens club called La Esmeralda.
“They would pay so little per poster. It was sad,” Carlos said. The posters featured artists such as Mexican singer Armando Manzanero and Chilean Lucho Gatica.
Meanwhile, Miguel took care of their mother until she died at the age of 101. He moved to New York in 2005 to join his siblings. Victor, a mentor to his younger brothers, died in 2012.
Eventually, Aviram Cohen, who builds and installs audiovisual art in museums, saw the brothers’ posters in Queens and tracked them down to request one for his wife’s new yoga studio. In 2018, he opened their Instagram account, @cevallos_bros, which became a lifeline for the brothers after the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“I did it out of admiration for their work, and after meeting them, I knew it was all going to go away.” Most businesses would have thrown the posters away,” said Cohen, 42. “I felt strongly that different types of people and subcultures could enjoy their art.”
He was right. The account now has more than 25,000 followers and has become an archive of their work as well as a source of orders.
“I just love their story,” said Happy David, who runs the Instagram accounts for La Bonbonniere and Casa Magazines, a Manhattan newsstand for which she also commissioned the brothers’ work. It reminds her of signs seen in her native Philippines.
In the digital world, “a lot of people are going back to the craft,” David said. “We want to connect and we want to feel that there were hands that made this.”
When asked if they plan to retire soon, the Cevallos brothers quickly say no.
Where do they get their energy from?
“We eat healthy,” they answer with a smile.
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