Fernando Carlo, who was a "really bad kid" by both society's standards and his own, recently received a $20,000 check from Time magazine's ad agency. It marked the largest single payday during his career in New York City's cutthroat art business. But this isn't your average up-from-the-streets success story. Carlo is succeeding via a talent that once made him something of an outlaw: graffiti.
Carlo, 38, made the news in his hometown recently when, for the $20,000, he created a three-story vinyl wallscape painted in bold red, orange, green, and blue letters spelling out Carlo's tag -- the name a graffiti artist signs on his work. The piece echoes some of his famous circa-1970s graffiti work, the sort most New Yorkers considered an eyesore.
COPE WITH IT. Time employed the billboard, in Manhattan's trendy SoHo neighborhood, as part of an ongoing marketing campaign for its archives service. But one local politician, Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., decried the use of quasi-vandalism to sell a legitimate product. "It's not art. It's a crime," he said.
Carlo, who sports tattoos cascading down his arms, broke into the legitimate art business five years ago, with an aerosol can and more than 20 years of street experience. He's probably better known among graffiti fans by his tag, "Cope" or "Cope2," which has been in New Yorkers' faces on trains and buildings since the late 1970s.
During his three-day stint at a Queens studio for the Time project, his workers included so-called "vandalists," many of whom have chalked up a number of arrests for their artistic endeavors. His own credits include four or five arrests for vandalism, he says.
PLAYSTATION DEAL. Carlo is one of a number of street and musical (often hip-hop) artists turning to the mainstream and selling their art to, and with, Corporate America. He has showcased his creations in Paris, Germany, Spain, Holland, Italy, and Mexico and had museum exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago as well.
He has also designed a sneaker that went on sale last year for Converse and even has his own character in the upcoming Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure graffiti video game for Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 2.
When Carlo was still in school, the only business he had to take care of was settling debts with lawyers. He started "tagging" -- slang for defacing (or decorating, depending on how you look at it) a surface with your trademark name or symbol at age 10. He participated in the widely publicized train "bombings" -- graffitists running amok with Magic Markers -- in the late 1970s. For a time, he also sold drugs and stole.
CHRISTIE'S COMES CALLING. By the time he was 22, Carlo had moved out of his parents' apartment and had two children to provide for. He worked blue-collar jobs (he had begun as an electrician's helper at age 16) and would spend many years moving from job to job, selling drugs on the side to make up for the insufficient pay, but always returning to the subways to paint with his crew.
Over time, the graffiti that developed on the subway moved aboveground and developed into an accepted art form. It turned into a business for Carlo when the New York City auction house Christie's approached him about entering three of his designs on canvas into one of their auctions.
After two of those works sold for $1,000 each, Carlo recognized a business opportunity that could earn him back the $10,000 worth of lawyers' fees and bail for a countless number of drug-, theft-, and vandalism-related one-nighters in jail. So he started showing his work, becoming heavily involved in the mainstream gallery scene in New York City. Soon after, Boogie Down Productions, a hip-hop group, hired Carlo to design a cover for its Sex and Violence album.
SERIOUS MARKETING. "When I realized people actually liked my stuff enough to pay for it, I decided to take my artwork to the next level and live comfortably," Carlo says. "I'm living honestly and being honest with my artwork."
Carlo has since then transformed his delinquent hobby into a business with a marketing strategy. Putting his name on public tableaux might have come naturally, but now he's finding that getting your name out in the corporate world takes more than spray paint on a wall.
Gallery work -- his paintings sell for about $1,000 apiece -- led Time Warner (TWX) and many other corporations to Carlo. His gallery work has earned him enough to finance a move from the South Bronx to a more comfortable home in another part of the Bronx for him and his 17-year-old daughter.
MISSES THE TRAINS. Carlo has also developed the Web site Cope2truelegend.com, which enables prospective clients to read his bio and contact him via e-mail. At various hip-hop events -- musical jams, album releases, and even graffiti jams -- Carlo will surf the crowd, passing out his business card to potential customers.
"I miss the trains...but there's a market out there," he says. "I have to look at it as a business. It's how I make a living now." So, when the phone call from Time Warner came about a month ago to create a corporate advertisement, he didn't think twice. "It's a job," he says. And the benefits are adding up fast.