Carlos Cevallos, eighty-four, and his brother Miguel, eighty-one, make whimsical, hand-drawn signs and posters for a living. The other day, they were sitting in a booth at a coffee shop in Lenox Hill. The brothers, who live together nearby, were dressed, as they are every day, in baggy suits and neckties. They both used a knife and a fork to eat a corn muffin.
Seated across from them was their friend and helper, Aviram Cohen, forty-one, who asked, “You want me to show you the jobs for next week?” The brothers gravely nodded. Then, using a mixture of English and Spanish—the brothers are Ecuadorian but were raised in Colombia, and speak limited English—Cohen outlined six signs that were to be made, including one for a gastropub in New Jersey called Salt.
“Irish,” Carlos said when he saw a sketch of plant life that Cohen had drawn according to instructions the customer had given when placing the order via the brothers’ Instagram account.
“Flores,” Miguel added.
Carlos muttered “shamrog” a few times before landing triumphantly on “shamrock.”
If you’ve ever walked under the elevated 7 train in Queens and encountered the swirl of pupuserías and loan sharks and taco trucks known as the Roosevelt Avenue corridor, you’ve likely seen examples of the Cevallos brothers’ cartelismo, the South American term for hand-lettered posters and signage. Maybe it was a sign in the window of the restaurant El Toro Bravo heralding an expectations-heavy holiday (“FELIZ DÍA DE LAS MADRES”), or perhaps a pushcart emblazoned with the words “ELOTES LOCOS” (“crazy corn”). Since the fall of 2018, when Cohen started an Instagram account to post photographs of the Cevalloses’ work, commissioning posters from the brothers has become, according to the food Web site Eater, “a rite of passage” for hip establishments in Brooklyn and Manhattan (e.g., Van Leeuwen Ice Cream and Café Habana). At the retro luncheonette Baz Bagel, in Little Italy, diners are greeted by a poster of a fireman hosing down a flaming bagel (“BAZ BAGELS / GET ’EM WHILE THEY’RE HOT!”). At Greenwich Letterpress, a stationery store on Christopher Street, a Cevallos poster proclaiming the store “A SISTER OWNED COMPANY” hangs above a trio of antique-looking cat masks, creating an impromptu shrine; at the dank man cave that is the Academy Record Annex, in Greenpoint, a framed Cevallos poster (“ACADEMY RECORD ANNEXES / GOOD TO YOUR EARHOLE”) overlaps a photograph of an underpants-clad Prince. Recent commissions have come in from Russia, Wales, and South Korea, and have included posters honoring pets, birthdays, and charities, as well as advertisements for sourdough home delivery, Arthur Ashe Stadium, and a law student’s “devil dog lawyering.” Also, a poster bearing a marriage proposal, and one quoting the “Midnight Cowboy” line “ ’Eyyyy, I’m walkin’ here!”
Making art is the only job the brothers have ever had. As kids in Bogotá, they supported themselves by drawing caricatures of tourists in hotels. Carlos moved to New York in 1974, to join his sign-making older brother Victor, who died in 2012; Miguel came in 2002. Carlos and Miguel, both bachelors, work side by side in their apartment, using Sharpies and poster paints; Miguel does the layouts and the lettering, and Carlos does the coloring. Each order takes about three weeks to fulfill.
Cohen befriended the brothers in 2017, when his wife needed a sign for her new yoga studio in Jackson Heights. He’d noticed the colorful posters in his neighborhood and assumed that they were the work of a teen-age girl. The Cevalloses were nocturnal at the time, and when Cohen tracked them down they proposed meeting at 9:30 P.M. Cohen works building and mounting exhibitions at museums around the city, but he considers his unpaid gig with the brothers—taking orders, translating, posting their work on Instagram (@cevallos_bros)—to be less an act of curation than an effort to help a vulnerable population. The brothers, whose Roosevelt Avenue clientele shrivelled during the pandemic, have no family in the States; they call Cohen an “amigo verdadero.”
Back at the coffee shop, Carlos and Miguel finished their muffin. A middle-aged woman seated near them, seeing the two solemn-looking men in their suits—the Cevalloses have been featured on the Web site Accidentally Wes Anderson—asked if they were Italian. No, no, they haltingly explained—ecuatorianos. Ah, the woman said. She introduced herself by name. Miguel, looking down at the floor to avoid eye contact, pointed tentatively at his brother and said, “Carlos.” Then he pointed at himself and said, “Michelangelo.” ♦