NEW YORK — Miguel and Carlos Cevallos made a living for years by drawing posters for neighborhood nightclubs, taco trucks and restaurants in Queens, painting in the basements of the companies or on their tables, and attracting word of mouth customers.
Until an Instagram account changed a lot of that.
Now hip ice cream parlors in Brooklyn and retro restaurants in Manhattan are just waiting to get one of the brothers’ colorful plates. They are sought after in music stores in San Francisco, national restaurant chains, bars in Belgium and bakeries in South Korea.
It doesn’t matter 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, drawing all day long in the Manhattan apartment they’ve shared for nearly 20 years.
“Fate is like that. Sometimes you find success later in life,” Carlos Cevallos said recently, drinking a cup of tea in an empty Manhattan restaurant. Dressed in suits and ties, as they are every day, the brothers shared a muffin.
Recent orders have come from a bagel shop in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood, a newsagent in Manhattan’s West Village, an Oregon restaurant chain, and a pop-up veggie burger shop in Los Angeles. NYCgo, the official city guide for tourists and New Yorkers, recently asked the brothers to draw Queens’ iconic Unisphere, the giant metal globe built for the 1964 World’s Fair.
“They have a special touch, so beautiful and colorful,” said Marina Cortes, manager of La Bonbonniere restaurant in the West Village. The “Breakfast All Day!” the brothers sign is displayed on the restaurant terrace.
“A life without something good is bad” reads a poster that the brothers signed for Van Leeuwen Ice Cream. “Day special. Choose two sandwiches and pay for both!” reads another one they did for Regina’s Grocery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The playful, childlike posters of the Cevallos brothers are made with acrylic paint and have large letters and a nostalgic look. Miguel draws and Carlos colors and together makes about six posters a week.
The brothers answer five to twenty requests for their work every week.
The family moved from Ecuador to Colombia to follow an uncle who was a Catholic priest and worked in Bogota. Carlos, Miguel and their oldest brother, Victor, used to drawing since they were children, opened an art studio and poster shop in the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogota.
Victor moved to New York in 1969 and Carlos joined him in 1974. For years they worked in a Times Square studio until rent increases led to them moving to Queens.
In the 1980s, they drew posters announcing performances at a club in Queens 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.
Miguel, meanwhile, 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.
Finally, Aviram Cohen, who builds and installs audiovisual art in museums, saw the brothers’ posters in Queens and urged them 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 understood it was all going to go away. Most companies would throw the posters away,” says Cohen, 42. “I had a strong sense that different kinds of people and subcultures could enjoy their art.”
He was right. The account now has over 25,000 followers and has become an archive of their work as well as a source of orders.
“I just love their story,” says Happy David, who manages the Instagram accounts of La Bonbonniere and Casa Magazines, a Manhattan newsstand for which she has also commissioned the brothers’ work. It reminds her of signs she sees in her native Philippines.
In a digital world, “a lot of people are going back to craft,” David said. “We want to connect and we want to feel that there are hands that made these.”
When asked if they plan to retire soon, the Cevallos brothers answer with a quick “no.”
Where do they get their energy from?
“We eat healthy”, they respond with a smile.