“A lot of artists want to do something controversial and have people talk about them—shock art. But I don’t want to create images of despair and fear because I think there’s enough out there. You can move people with love or with fear. I want to move them with love.”—Romero Britto

For some, Brazilian artist Romero Britto’s saturated, Day-Glo creations represent South Florida as much as coconut trees and stone crabs. For others, his work is symbol of commercial art at its most banal. But everyone agrees that he has achieved incredible success, building a brand that sits comfortably astride his creative process.

The onetime law student from a poor family in Recife arrived in Miami in 1987, working in a sandwich shop and cutting grass while toiling over his canvases at night. Everything changed in 1989, when Absolut’s marketing genius, Michel Roux, selected the relatively unknown artist to design a bottle for the company’s famous ad campaign. Britto’s work reflected the tropical colors Americans were seeing on Miami Vice. This was no longer the gritty Miami of the Mutiny bar, but instead the Miami of CocoWalk. Britto painted a picture of the town seemingly straight from a Convention & Visitors Bureau playbook.

Britto's Greatest Hits

THE BRITTO BRAND

After Absolut, Britto blew up. Today, this means a 30,000-square-foot Wynwood studio whose walls are covered with photos: Britto with President Obama, Ted Kennedy, Shimon Peres, both Clintons, Prince Charles. Britto has gone to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, six years running, where he sits on panels on creativity and globalization and hosts dinners with cultural figures ranging from Michael Douglas to architects Herzog & de Meuron. He does cruise ships, the Dolphins’ stadium, an Easter Bunny for the White House and a huge pyramid that’s the largest sculpture ever to sit in London’s Hyde Park. His partners are names like Rizzoli, FIFA, Audi, Movado and Volvo. His organization is tight-lipped about numbers, but a 2007 New York Times profile floated an annual revenue figure of $12 million, which we can assume was conservative three years ago.

Still, Britto insists, “I don’t see myself as a brand. I see myself as an artist whom a lot of people love.” He says there’s a higher aim to pursue: “I want to be out there as much as possible. It’s nice to be in Carlos Slim’s office, but also great to know that my work can be enjoyed by a young person who may change the world but at this point can’t afford one of my works.”

His company is a well-oiled machine that runs partly via the clubby international world of celebrity. Dylan Lauren did a splashy collaboration with Britto in her Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York last winter. She met him through her brother David, Polo’s marketing head, who met him through Maria Shriver. Britto’s head of licensing is Alina Shriver, wife of Best Buddies founder and JFK nephew Anthony Shriver. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and Robert Rauschenberg had donated works to the charity for auction, and Britto did, as well. Today he sits on Best Buddies’ board.

YES, HE CAN

In his studio, a sign exhorts: don’t work for the check—make the check work for you! He will fly to South Africa for work for just 48 hours, and often does three business meals a day. Shriver says, “He doesn’t take ‘No’ from a lot of people. I’ll say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ and he’ll say, ‘Yes, we can.’ Romero’s always about making things happen.”

Case in point: Dylan’s Candy Bar had done collaborations with other artists before, but not co-branded products. “Romero was the first one with so many licensing deals,” Lauren says. “He makes this stuff already. If he has a mug with a design on it, it’s easy for us to sell it with hot chocolate. We made co-branded totes, T-shirts, salt-and-pepper shakers, umbrellas. Everything sold. We sold some paintings, too.”

RESPONDING TO THE CRITICS

Projects such as Britto’s candy store mugs are viewed with a jaundiced eye in more traditional art precincts. FIU art-history professor and Frost Art Museum director Carol Damian says, “While we all admire his entrepreneurship and branding, the academic establishment does not regard him as a ‘fine art’ artist in the traditional sense. He also knows that and does not care—which is quite an admirable trait. He knows what he does and is not trying to be the next Andy Warhol, Pop Art or not.”

When asked what he sees as the difference between Britto and other Pop Artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, acclaimed artist and Miami resident Bert Rodriguez says: “They were intentionally working through ideas about high and low culture and creating a dialogue about it, using popular forms of presentation outside of the forms artists at the time were employing. They were messing around and shaking things up.”

Britto just shrugs at his critics. “There’s a lot of jealousy. Once, if the Pope didn’t like you, you were finished. The good thing about the world today is that we have many Popes. It’s good to have critics out there. I’m just painting for other people.”

Dickie Davis, director of customer service at Miami International Airport, is particularly pleased with the Britto-designed shirts her staff wears: “We were looking for a quintessential Miami look, which was lively and evocative of the excitement of the city. Britto’s work certainly has that.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

Will a tipping point be reached, when collectors and the public look around a Britto-soaked Miami and say, “This market is saturated”? After all, doesn’t the key chain look a lot like the $200,000 canvas? University of Miami’s dean Kahn says that’s the point: “It reminds me of Ralph Lauren. The high-end work sells the outlet items. The design linking throughout the different channels makes the whole model work.”

Next up: more stores, like the bustling one at MIA. Then there’s a marketing mascot for Singapore, sculptures that will sit outside of the O2 World arena in Berlin and the Time Warner Center in New York, and a new Disney collectibles project.

So as Britto prepares to go to the Louvre in December—a 30-work solo show for the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts—his star seems firmly on the ascendant, whether to the despair of his critics or the delight of his fans. Roll, bubblegum tide, roll. 

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