Immigrant brothers crafted New York’s hand-drawn posters for decades

The hand-drawn posters kept catching Aviram Cohen’s eye as he walked around his neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.

They were colorful, nostalgic advertisements with a distinct style that hung outside several shops and restaurants. Cohen — who builds and installs exhibitions in museums and galleries — was eager to uncover who was behind the posters. It wasn’t easy.

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

When the 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,” he said.

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

They had long been relying on word of mouth to attract new clients, and that was enough to keep them busy.

Then Cohen suggested they get on social media to preserve and archive their work. Perhaps it could get them a little new business, too.

“It should be documented so it doesn’t vanish,” Cohen said. “I admired their art and thought other people would also enjoy it.”

Cohen offered to create an Instagram account for the brothers, who were born in Ecuador and grew up in Colombia. They were on board with the idea.

The brothers didn’t realize that this meeting would lead to booming business — and then to their art emerging as a staple at popular restaurants, food trucks and bars across the five boroughs.

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

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Their Instagram account has more than 27,000 followers, and new commissions pour in every week via their direct messages.

They’ve been 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 details, nostalgic lettering, and general lack of interest in perfection.”

After that initial meeting between Cohen and the Cevallos brothers, the men built a close bond. Cohen said he was keen to learn more about their history and shared love of art. The brothers speak limited English and corresponded with The Washington Post by email.

Throughout their childhood, “we were always making art and learning about 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 earned attention in the early 1960s as he traveled across Central America sketching caricatures of guests in hotel lobbies — taught his younger brothers all he knew about art.

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

Along with making signs, “we had exhibitions everywhere,” he added.

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

Miguel, 81, remained in Bogotá to look after their mother, who died at age 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 make posters for various businesses, mainly in the Corona and Jackson Heights neighborhoods of Queens. They also placed their artwork in exhibits across New York, including at 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 make custom posters. Miguel outlines the letters and images, and Carlos is the colorist.

“This is how Victor and I work, so we continue like this,” Carlos said. “Miguel would watch and learn how Victor would make the letters and design the poster. Later he make his own style.”

For many years, business stayed steady, but as the hospitality industry suffered amid the pandemic, so, too, did the Cevallos brothers, whose regular clients could no longer afford to commission their work. That’s when the Instagram account became key.

Commission requests from trendy restaurants and bars — initially in New York, then globally — began arriving in their inbox, with businesses aiming to lure patrons back after the pandemic shutdown and also support local creators. The brothers, Cohen said, were delighted by the newfound attention.

“They had success exhibiting their artwork through the ’80s, and this is like a renaissance,” Cohen said.

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

Salvatore Carlino, who owns Lucia Pizza of Avenue X in Brooklyn, stumbled upon the Cevallos brothers’ artwork on Instagram, and “I just fell in love with the style,” he said. “To me, it screams New York signage.”

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

“There’s the allure of them being these two older gentlemen, and they’ve just been doing it for so many years,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

Happy David, who manages social media and partnerships for La Bonbonniere — a West Village diner — felt the same way about the brothers’ work.

“You can still see the brushstrokes behind it. It’s a person, it’s not graphic design,” said David, who also runs Casa Magazines’ Instagram account and commissioned the brothers to make a sign for the well-known newsstand. “It’s not perfect; it’s fun and homemade, and I think that’s what attracts me to their work.”

The brothers have also produced posters for barbershops, art suppliers, music stores and even law firms. They’ve done designs for custom-crafted pieces, and they make merchandise, such as T-shirts and sweatshirts.

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

Cohen meets regularly with the brothers to sift through new commission requests and manage the account. His relationship with the Cevallos brothers is familial, Cohen said, adding that he doesn’t get paid for assisting them — and he doesn’t want to.

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

The sibling duo — who, along with art, are passionate about opera — have no plans to part with their pens and paintbrushes anytime soon. They intend to make art indefinitely.

“Destiny is like this,” Carlos told the Associated Press. “Sometimes one finds success later in life.”

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