Immigrant brothers created the hand-drawn posters of New York for decades

Hand-drawn posters kept catching Aviram Cohen’s eye as he strolled through his neighborhood in Queens, NY

These were colorful, nostalgic advertisements with a distinct style that hung outside several stores and restaurants. Cohen – who builds and installs exhibits in museums and galleries – was eager to find out who was behind the posters. It was not easy.

“I found them by going from restaurant to restaurant until someone had their phone number,” said Cohen, 42, adding that he hoped to order a sign for the yoga and Pilates studio in his wife, 2nd Story Pilates + Yoga in Jackson Heights.

When artists Carlos and Miguel Cevallos met him at his wife’s studio to discuss potential designs for a poster that day in 2018, Cohen was stunned to see “two charming brothers in suits show up “, did he declare.

As it turns out, the Cevallos brothers are immigrant bachelors in their 80s who for decades spent their days in their shared Manhattan apartment hand-crafting advertising posters. They make it a point to wear a suit and tie whenever they leave their Upper East Side home.

They had long relied on word of mouth to bring in new customers, and that was enough to keep them busy.

Then Cohen suggested they take to social media to curate and archive their work. Maybe it could also bring them new business.

“It should be documented so it doesn’t go away,” Cohen said. “I admired their art and thought other people would appreciate it too.”

Cohen offered to create an Instagram account for the brothers, who were born in Ecuador and raised in Colombia. They agreed with the idea.

Little did the brothers know this encounter would lead to booming business, and then their art becoming a fixture in popular restaurants, food trucks and bars across the five boroughs.

“It’s almost like a second act,” Cohen said of the brothers’ recent string of hits.

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Their Instagram account has over 27,000 followers and new commissions are pouring in every week through their direct messages.

They were featured in the New Yorker and also in Eater New York, which wrote that commissioning the brothers’ art is “something of a rite of passage for restaurant and bar owners” and described their work as “charming for its cheeky detail, nostalgic lettering and general lack of interest in perfection.

After this first meeting between Cohen and the Cevallos brothers, the men forged a close bond. Cohen said he wanted to know more about their history and their shared love of art. The brothers speak limited English and have corresponded with The Washington Post via email.

Throughout their childhood, “we always made art and discovered artists,” said Carlos, 84, who spoke on behalf of himself and his brother.

The siblings, along with their older brother, Victor, opened a sign shop in Bogotá in 1966. Victor – who first came to attention in the early 1960s while traveling through the Central America by drawing caricatures of guests in hotel lobbies – taught his younger brothers everything he knew about art.

“We learned everything from Victor,” Carlos explained. “He inspired us to be artists.”

In addition to making signs, “we had exhibits everywhere,” he added.

After Victor moved to New York in 1969, his brothers eventually followed him. Carlos arrived first in 1974 and produced posters with Victor in a small art studio in Times Square, then in Queens.

Miguel, 81, stayed in Bogotá to care for their mother, who died at 101. In 2005, he moved to New York to reunite with his brothers.

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The three Cevallos siblings worked side by side, using acrylic paint and Sharpies to create posters for various businesses, primarily in the Corona and Jackson Heights neighborhoods of Queens. They have also placed their works in exhibitions across New York, including El Museo del Barrio and MoMA PS1.

After Victor’s death in 2012, Miguel and Carlos carried on their brother’s legacy by continuing to create custom posters. Miguel describes the letters and images, and Carlos is the colorist.

“That’s how Victor and I work, so we keep it that way,” Carlos said. “Miguel was watching and learning how Victor made the letters and designed the poster. Later he created his own style.

For many years business remained steady, but as the hospitality industry suffered from the pandemic, so too did the Cevallos brothers, whose regular customers could no longer afford to order their work. It was then that the Instagram account became essential.

Commission requests from trendy restaurants and bars – first in New York, then around the world – have started arriving in their inboxes, with companies aiming to attract customers after the pandemic shutdown and also support local creators. The brothers, Cohen said, were thrilled with the new attention.

“They had success exhibiting their artwork in the ’80s, and it’s like a rebirth,” Cohen said.

Recently, New York establishments – such as La Bonbonnière, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, Baz Bagel and Lucia Pizza of Avenue X – commissioned posters. The brothers have also received inquiries from potential clients across the United States, as well as overseas — from Spain, South Korea, Europe and elsewhere, they said.

Salvatore Carlino, owner of Lucia Pizza on Avenue X in Brooklyn, came across the Cevallos brothers’ artwork on Instagram, and “I just fell in love with the style,” he said. “To me, that screams New York signage.”

Carlino became even more interested in having them create a poster for his restaurant, he said, once he found out about the men who made the art.

“There’s the appeal that they have of being these two older gentlemen, and they’ve been doing that for so many years,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

Happy David, who manages social media and partnerships for La Bonbonnière – a restaurant in the West Village – felt the same way about the brothers’ work.

“You can still see the brush strokes behind. It’s a person, it’s not graphic design,” said David, who also manages Casa Magazines’ Instagram account and commissioned the brothers to do a sign for the famous newsstand. “It’s not perfect; it’s fun and homemade, and I think that’s what draws me to their work.

The brothers also produced posters for barbershops, art suppliers, music stores, and even law firms. They designed custom pieces and make merchandise, such as t-shirts and sweatshirts.

The price of posters varies greatly depending on the nature of the client and the project, and the time spent on each piece varies considerably. Usually they work on about six posters a week.

Cohen meets regularly with the brothers to sift through new commission requests and manage the account. His relationship with the Cevallos brothers is family, Cohen said, adding that he wasn’t paid to help them — and he didn’t want to.

“We meet and hang out. We go to museums and have lunch,” said Cohen, who described the brothers as “very old-fashioned, very modest, and very dedicated to their family.”

The sibling duo – who, in addition to art, are passionate about opera – have no plans to part with their pens and brushes anytime soon. They intend to make art indefinitely.

“Fate is like that,” Carlos told The Associated Press. “Sometimes you find success later in life.”

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