For Romero Britto, luck and charm trump talent
A Britto-ized Mini Cooper.
On a recent Saturday, millionaire pop artist Romero Britto awoke from a terrifying nightmare. In the dream, planet Earth had lost gravity. Everything in the world — shiny cars, well-groomed children, pet hamsters, and pepperoni pizzas — swirled into the air around him. Nothing was in its place. He sat up in bed, frightened.
Other artists might have turned the vision into a surrealistic painting full of angst. But Britto paints only happy subjects: smiling kittens, dancing clowns, and polka-dot palm trees.
"There's enough stress and ugliness in the world," the freckle-faced 46-year-old artist says a few days later as he stands next to an enormous painting of an elf inside his studio. "Why would I want to create more?"
Not a drop of paint stains his hands or clothing as he works. His studio looks fit for MTV's Cribs: There are Dolce & Gabbana shopping bags on the floor, a glittery green bicycle, and photos of the artist with Michael Jackson. There is also a Romero Britto bobblehead, an American flag, and — for reasons not entirely clear — several old-fashioned top hats. Techno music thumps. This is where Miami's most successful artist creates.
"Come here," he says with laser-beam eye contact. "Let me show you something."
The artist pulls out a black magic marker and quickly scribbles the cartoonish face of a girl. Then he dunks a paintbrush in red and makes a single dot on her mouth. The mark will signal to his assistants — who do the painting for him — the intended color of her lips.
The whole creative process takes him two and a half minutes. When the painting is completed by his low-wage workers, it will sell for about $30,000.
An international celebrity, Britto is one of the highest-paid commercial artists in the nation, netting a reported $12 million a year. He has the business of art down to a factory-like science. And people like it: George W. Bush hangs Brittos in his home. So does Whitney Houston, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Jordan.
In Miami, a place that's still grasping for a cultural identity, Britto patterns have spread like a Skittles-colored virus. They can be found in virtually every crevice of Miami-Dade: at Sun Life Stadium, the Shops at Midtown, Miami Children's Museum, and Dadeland Station. You can see them from causeways and expressways. Car dealerships sell Britto-designed Mini Coopers. Workers at Miami International Airport wear Britto uniforms. Tourists on Lincoln Road shop for Britto luggage, dishes, high heels — even yarmulkes.
If, as detractors say, the Magic City is a shimmering veneer where people would rather read Cosmo than The New Yorker and talk about shoes instead of news, the land that brought you Vanilla Ice and butt implants has found an internationally recognized visual brand that has the color and substance of Laffy Taffy.
"Miami is still gestating — it's a fetus," says art critic and Miami Dade College professor Ricardo Pau-Llosa. "It's not a city; it's an airport surrounded by shopping malls — and we get everything that comes with that, including Romero Britto. He is Miami."
Pau-Llosa, who recently donated his Latin American art collection to Notre Dame University, calls Britto's work "phony baloney" and "hideous crap."
His opinion is in line with just about every respected artist, museum curator, and art professor in the country. Not one art publication has critiqued Britto's work. Nor has a respected museum purchased his art.
Pulitzer Prize-nominated art critic and New York Magazine columnist Jerry Saltz has an almost physical reaction to Britto's work. "Oh my God is he unoriginal," Saltz says. "It's sentimental, obvious, and empty. Let me put it this way: No one in the art world would say this is good."
After doing a Google search for Britto, whom he had never heard of, New York Sun art critic David Cohen calls his paintings simply "unchallenging."
"He looks like a sort of Liberace of visual art," Cohen says, referring to the flamboyant pianist who played schmaltzy classics under a chandelier.
Britto — who comes off like a sweet and unassuming airhead — doesn't take the criticism seriously. "It's a very small group of people who don't like it," he explains. "When you are successful, people are going to be jealous."
He might seem clueless, but Britto is actually a shrewd, calculating, and brilliant salesman. He surrounds himself with those who worship him and seeks out the rich and famous who will oil the deals that make him millions. "He is the most creative, limitless talent I have ever met," says Alina Shriver, CEO of Shriver Art. "I have never met anybody who does not love Romero Britto."
While critics loathe his work, the masses love it. If the low-paid employees who crank out his mass-produced paintings find him temperamental, sometimes even tyrannical, the charities that benefit from the hundreds of thousands of dollars he gives annually see him as a selfless saint.
Add a brand-new criminal record and financial trouble into the mix, and his nightmare about losing control might be coming true. In February, Britto quietly filed a federal lawsuit claiming a business associate in Coral Gables copied his art, forged his signature, and sold Britto fakes to galleries in Minnesota and on eBay. Other knockoffs have been spotted from Biscayne Boulevard to Japan — in roadside vans, malls, and kiosks. The rash of art fakers threatens to bring down the value of his work, maybe even topple his pop empire.
"When your art is that saturated, what do you expect?" says Les Roberts, the gallery owner Britto sued, who denies having made fakes.
Love him or hate him, it's been a hard year for the man who says his paintings represent "the art of happiness."
Romero Britto has a way of making you want to protect him. He tends to oversimplify ("Is this article going to be, like, positive or negative?), is a genius when it comes to self-promotion ("Growing up, I didn't have nothing."), and is understandably preoccupied with money ("Carlos Slim bought my art, and he's, like, richer than Warren Buffett.").
He explains concepts by drawing pictures, tugs his index finger when he's nervous, and tends to parrot the same one-liners to newspaper reporters. Still, he is smarter than he appears, and he knows his rags-to-riches life story makes those very reporters swoon.
Born October 6, 1963, in Recife, Brazil, Romero Britto was the seventh of nine children. His father, Rosemiro, was a tall and handsome police officer who would "impregnate women and just leave them behind," Britto says. His mom, Lourdes, a manicurist, spent a lot of time waiting for his father to send money in the mail.
She bought a sandy plot of land in a then-poor part of town called Prazeres and built a small white house, where chickens and dogs scampered in the back yard. Three of her children died; nine of them survived.
"She was a good mother, but she didn't have much education," says Britto's sister Roberta. "There were times money was so tight we couldn't afford rice and beans."
Romero was always focused on getting out. He wanted things to be beautiful, clean, and orderly. He would sit alone under a mango tree in the back yard and read.
As he grew up, his older brothers spanked him when he didn't go to school or do his homework. "I think it was hard for him not to have a daddy," Roberta says. "It was like he had eight father figures pulling him in different directions."
At age 10, after spotting Michelangelo's Delphic Sybil in a book, he pillaged his mom's stamp collection to make his first piece of art: a little orange flower.
His chance to leave came when he was 16. After taking a test, he landed a scholarship at Colegio Marista, a prestigious Catholic school in Recife. He made wealthy friends, spending time at their mansions, riding in fancy cars, and eating delicious food. This, he decided, was the life he wanted for himself.
Three years later, he passed up art school to study law. Struggling painters didn't live in mansions. "I told myself I never wanted to be out of money again," he says.
The fledgling artist grabbed a paintbrush inside his cramped apartment on Le Jeune Road, dabbed it in green, and began to paint without a plan.
It was 1987, and after dropping out of law school and spending a year in the military, Britto moved to Miami, where he mowed lawns and washed cars while trying his hand at art.
He couldn't afford canvas, so he painted simple images on scraps of newspaper — sometimes using the news as inspiration — and sold the primitive, almost tribal works for $50 to $100 on the then-bohemian streets of Coconut Grove.
"He was a skinny little runt," recalls Tom Abraham, one of his first Miami friends. "Very shy. You couldn't get five words out of him." Abraham let the struggling artist set up a studio in back of his real estate office, where Britto tried not to dribble paint on the carpet.
Alan Serure, also an early friend, remembers, "He was a little offbeat — and his hair... He looked like one of the characters from his paintings."
By 1988, Britto had converted a beauty salon into a small gallery inside the Shoppes at Mayfair in the Grove. He had married his wife, Cheryl, and no longer focused on subject matter that was even remotely dark: the face of a woman crying or ominous headlines. He had discovered that people like bright colors and crisp lines, and his style had shifted toward what he calls neo-pop cubism. He didn't know it, but he was on the verge of becoming the McDonald's of the South Florida art world.
A year after Britto opened shop, Curt Nycander, president of Absolut Vodka, strolled into the gallery on the hunt for an undiscovered artist. He and Britto began to chat, and the executive — like future well-heeled patrons — found him down-to-earth and charming. Nycander sent the company's distributor, Michel Roux, to Miami to meet Britto and offer him a job: Design a pop art-inspired bottle of vodka for the mammoth corporation.
The ad, which featured a large red heart, ran in 60 publications worldwide and made him an overnight celebrity. The value of his paintings — which had sold for $5,000 to $20,000 — would double in just a year. So would his sales.
Britto, it seemed, was simply at the right place at the right time. And soon luck would knock again.
Morino Smith lifts a Chihuahua named Prince onto his lap across from an eight-foot Britto installation called Dancing Boy at the Shops at Midtown Miami. He wears a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, a gold Rolex, and one earphone in his right ear. "Oh my gosh, that one is my favorite," he gushes, pointing at the polka-dot statue. "It's so bright, so pretty — it makes me feel young again!"
Smith, a Cuban-born 63-year-old, likes to sit in the Shops at Midtown park, surrounded by Britto sculptures, and listen to Latin Christian radio. He is missing a few teeth but smiles anyway.
Smith is a typical Britto fan. He likes the art for the same reason people like fast food: It's accessible. And it doesn't take refined taste to enjoy.
For every art critic who calls Britto tacky and shallow, there are tenfold the fans — from suburban mall moms to high-powered celebrities — who adore him. Gloria Estefan is a Britto freak. So is Shakira, Norman Braman, and Prince Albert of Monaco.
But ask people of influence what they like about Britto's artwork, and they talk mostly about his personality. "He is a unique and special character," says Anthony Kennedy Shriver, John F. Kennedy's nephew. "He is constantly giving back."
It's for this reason Britto is a marketing wizard, says art consultant Alan Bamberger. "People have confused the artist with his charisma," he says. "They are buying his personality. And for somebody like Romero Britto, that's very convenient."
In 1994, while designing a T-shirt for the nonprofit Best Buddies International, he met power couple Alina and Anthony Kennedy Shriver, the David and Victoria Beckham of the philanthropic set. The couple has links to just about everyone with clout in South Florida. And they instantly loved Britto.
When it came to hookups, it was a lot like winning the friendship lottery. Once again, the gods seemed to be smiling on Britto. With the Shrivers' help, he used charity events to connect with prominent people: actors, politicians, and developers. As he grew rich, he dined with royal families and drank cocktails with mega rock stars.
In the mid-'90s, photos of Britto — generally at fundraisers with his arm around a star — began to pop up in magazines such as People and Ocean Drive. Readers associated the artist with celebrities and assumed his work must be good.
By 1998, large Britto paintings that once sold for $10,000 were now worth $100,000. He moved to South Beach and was commissioned by Pepsi, Disney, and Grand Marnier to design ads. City officials in London later asked him to handpaint a 40-foot yellow pyramid in Hyde Park. Soon galleries from Singapore and Dubai to New York were selling his art.
Then came the merchandise. Like Hello Kitty and Paul Frank, Britto sold watches, handbags, luggage, and teapots. In 2002, he even launched a perfume called Britto for Women, which was marketed as "the perfect fragrance for the contemporary, youthful, vibrant women of the new millennium." Fanatics rushed to order the stuff faster than Beanie Baby collectors.
As his fame grew, so did the pressure. "I think he always felt like there was quicksand under his feet," friend Tom Abraham says. "The way he grew up haunts him every day."
By 2005, to escape constant visitors in South Beach, Britto set up an unmarked studio in Wynwood. Guests were buzzed into the 30,000-square-foot building — which included sections for retail packaging and shipping — by appointment only. His creative space now operated more like a Gap Kids than Warhol's factory.
Britto's workdays were spent signing his name onto bright aluminum sculptures and adding squiggles onto lithographs with Sharpie pens. Like a wand, a stroke of his hand would hike the cost of a piece by thousands of dollars. His commissioned works soon sold for as much as $250,000. Eventually, he no longer had time to paint his own art.
"People don't understand that when you become successful, you need help," Britto says. "Michelangelo had ten assistants."
Britto intentionally hires employees who are not educated in the arts because he tolerates no creative input, says one former assistant who worked on the artist's sculptures for three years. By her account, he was temperamental, controlling, and even slightly paranoid. He would fire dozens of people on a whim. Assistants were paid as little as $10 and, at times, felt like they were slaving in a sweatshop.
"Those were dark years," says the former assistant, who asked not to be named because of Britto's influence. "With him, you never knew which way the wind was gonna blow."
But to friends, family, and charities, Britto remains as sweet and loyal as ever. Reached at home, 18-year-old neighbor Armani explains, "He was always a great neighbor — sincere and genuine — and I'm not just saying that."
Shopping mall developer Jeffrey Berkowitz, a well-spoken 62-year-old, laughs and says, "Art purists want to hit me in the face."
The former lawyer and self-proclaimed Britto nut takes credit for Miami-Dade's Britto epidemic of butterflies and kitty-cats.
Berkowitz installed a 45-foot statue of a dancing clown named Mr. Happy at Dadeland Mall. He pushed for a 30-foot striped palm tree/beach ball combo at his Fifth & Alton shopping center in South Beach. And at his Kendall Village project, he paid for a sculpture of a boy with a goldfish.
"I may not have the finest taste," says Berkowitz, whose oceanside home is lined with Brittos. "But it's shared with kings and queens and heads of state."
At least 20 other huge cartoonish Britto installations can be found in the county's public spaces. City of Miami parking meters are designed by Britto, and his piece at Dadeland Station is the world's largest aluminum sculpture.
By 2005, Romero Britto installations had sprouted at malls, water parks, major intersections, and on the sides of condo buildings. At Miami City Hall, several commissioners kept Britto sculptures on their desks and lithographs on the walls, which the artist sent them as gifts.
Which is fine, says Wynwood gallery owner Anthony Spinello. Except we're all forced to look at it. "It makes me cringe," he says. "At some point, it just becomes grotesque... I don't think it represents contemporary art in Miami at all."
Midtown photographer John Gynell wrinkles his nose when he talks about Britto. "There are so many good artists out there," he says. "Why does this guy have a monopoly over our public art space?"
That commissioners like his art and want it in public places is no surprise, says art critic Jerry Saltz. The stuff is tailor-made for bureaucracy: It's safe, simple, and pleasing. Put one on a city street, and you won't get phone calls from upset mothers.
But trouble was brewing. By February 2005, a drama was unfolding with Miami Beach's Art in Public Places Committee. Members threatened to charge Berkowitz, the developer, a $500,000 fee to erect the enormous palm tree/beach ball installation at his Fifth & Alton shopping center.
Remembers committee Chairwoman Pola Reydburd: "We felt we needed to see what other artists had to offer creatively."
University of Miami art professor Paula Harper sat on the committee for six years. She explains, "He's a very savvy designer. It's just that it isn't art."
In the end, Berkowitz, who owns the land, had the final say.
Two years later, in 2007, the county commission debated whether to allow Britto to design airport worker uniforms. Only Commissioner Natacha Seijas spoke up: "My maid wears better clothes than this."
In October 2009, after much debate, the giant aluminum palm trees went up at Berkowitz's Fifth & Alton mall. Anybody driving east on the MacArthur Causeway would now be greeted with bright-pink polka dots.
But within a month, commuters noticed something peculiar: Gold spray paint had blasted away one of the rainbow-colored fronds. Somebody, it appeared, was finally protesting.
It's just before 3 a.m. at the corner of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street — South Beach's party central — when a shiny black Bentley swerves into oncoming traffic. It almost strikes a moving car and then a parked one. There's a whirl of blue police lights, and the driver slams on his brakes.
The date is March 26, 2009, and inside the Bentley sits a man with "a flushed face, bloodshot watery eyes, and slurred speech." He fumbles with his car registration, according to police reports. "Officer, I live across the bridge," the man tells the cop. "Give me a break."
It is Romero Britto, who has come from a party at Miami Beach's posh hotel the Fontainebleau. Media from London to New York would soon report Britto's alcohol level was nearly double the legal threshold.
Britto would plead guilty, do 100 hours of community service, and later tell New Times: "I was embarrassed. Nobody should drink and drive."
It was the beginning of Britto's legal trouble — and a sign his luck might be running out. The following March, SunTrust Bank filed foreclosure papers on a yellow South Miami-Dade home he had sold to Kansas City Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt for $635,395. Britto made a mistake with paperwork, according to court documents, which caused a big financial headache. Reached at the house, Betancourt's fiancée would say only: "There were problems, but we settled it in court." Then she drove away in a white SUV.
But an even larger lawsuit was brewing. In mid-2009, a butterfly painting popped up on eBay. Its round wings were full of squiggles and, in typical Britto style, bright reds and yellows. In the bottom right corner was the artist's distinct and bubbly signature.
Only it wasn't really Britto's.
His lawyers would soon allege the painting — dubbed Untitled Butterfly — was one of at least 13 Britto fakes created in South Florida. According to the federal lawsuit, the pieces had been counterfeit, forged, and then sold online to a shop called Griffen Gallery in Edina, Minnesota, a sleepy suburb of Minneapolis.
The alleged culprit: Gables Galleries on Miracle Mile. The gallery had designed paintings "to be similar if not identical to Britto's copyrighted works," which caused Britto "irreversible damage."
So the artist filed a lawsuit to send fakers a message: Steal my art and I'll see you in court.
This is how the Coral Gables operation worked, according to court documents: Les Roberts "assigns fake number items to artwork" and then "forges fake certificates of authenticity."
His son, Les Roberts Jr., was "able to gain access... to the inner workings of [Britto's] private studio," where he did research. A third partner, Silvia Castro, would then sell the paintings online and to galleries. (Castro and Roberts Jr. did not return calls seeking comment.)
Les Roberts denies they created the sham art.
But he has a hunch who did: the team of underpaid assistants who work at Britto's Wynwood studio. "They make next to nothing," he says. "After a while, what do you think is going to happen?"
Roberts stands inside his gallery in front of a Britto lithograph titled Mona Cat, in which a blue kitten is dressed like Mona Lisa. He wears a pink collared shirt and shakes his head as he says, "They shouldn't have put this on me — I'm just a gallery owner. Britto is a millionaire."
The way he tells it, he and Britto were business associates who worked together for three years. Because Britto Central, his gallery on Lincoln Road, does not buy back secondhand pieces, it sometimes refers sellers to one of Roberts's galleries, Max in the Grove.
Last year, Roberts received an email from a Britto employee, he says. She recommended a seller named Marie, who was getting rid of small Britto paintings of flowers for $2,000. Roberts bought them. "They looked good," he remembers. "So I put them on eBay. You live and you learn. Now I'm out thousands of bucks and I can't find this woman." (The case is still open.)
She wasn't the only one allegedly selling phony Brittos. In August 2009, warnings appeared online. "Beware," wrote one buyer on ViewPoints.com, a popular site for online shoppers. "I bought a Britto with a certificate of authenticity... But when I took it to get verified, it turned out to be fake."
The same summer, sloppy-looking Brittos were spotted on the streets and in shops in Tokyo, where fans of American art didn't know any better. In Miami, according to Roberts, a van full of sham lithographs and small Britto paintings began rolling down Biscayne Boulevard near the intersection of NE 123rd Street.
That Britto knockoffs are popping up from Florida to Japan doesn't surprise Alan Bamberger, a San Francisco-based art appraiser and consultant who specializes in spotting inauthentic art. In fact, he strains to think of a modern painter who would be easier to duplicate. "It's not complicated stuff," he says. "Anyone with a reasonable amount of skill could imitate it."
On a recent Tuesday morning, Britto sits in a mahogany leather chair on the 27th floor of downtown Miami's Bank of America building, surrounded by a lawyer, a CEO, and a breathtaking view of the city. He wears a blue Armani dress shirt and pulls on his right index finger.
"Romero is not a litigious person," his lawyer Robert Zarco says in a booming voice. "But one or more people are trying to capitalize on his goodwill."
The artist remains quiet. He doesn't like to dwell on unhappy subjects.
A tall blond couple debates in Russian whether to buy a painting at Britto Central on Lincoln Road. The piece, Tomorrow, features a cartoon woman with orange hair lying down.
With a wave of the hand, the couple calls over an art salesman, who is dressed in black and carrying a calculator the way a waiter might hold a tray. When the pair attempts to haggle, the consultant punches in a figure, holds up the calculator, and says, "This is the best I can do."
The price: a cool $41,000.
Each year, hundreds of paintings are sold at the gallery. Clients come from all over the world — Argentina, China, Italy — to buy art that takes Britto minutes to create.
Today the Russians need a second to talk it over. Where will it hang in the house? Will it survive an airplane ride home? Will it match the carpet?
As they discuss, an art consultant named Thomas Balcker waves New Times into a back room, where dozens of Britto paintings are stored in plastic wrap. A second salesman meets him in back, and the two prop Tomorrow —which they have set aside for the Russians — against a wall.
They both take a step back, cock their heads, and gaze at the piece as if it's made of gold.
"That couple has been back here three times," the salesman says. "But they are going to close the deal."
"Oh, they are definitely going to close," Balcker encourages. "Definitely."
"I know!" his co-worker clarifies. "I mean, look at it. If they don't buy it, somebody else is going to snatch it up!"
The woman sitting at the Miami International Airport information booth is shy but pretty, despite her lazy eye. She would fit in well at a public library. Every day she is required to wear a lively Britto-designed uniform, complete with flamingos and polka-dot palm trees.
When she talks about it, she looks like a tomboy forced to wear a dress. "It doesn't fit my personality," she shrugs.
Then she smiles slyly. "Maybe it's to punish us?"
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