Carlos and Miguel Cevallos’ colorful, handmade signs can be found at countless businesses throughout the five boroughs: taco trucks, diners, restaurants, and dives. For decades, the siblings have operated in New York largely through word of mouth, mostly working with businesses in Queens. But over the past two and half years, since joining Instagram, the Cevallos brothers, as they are often collectively referred to, have found a new generation of fervent fans that has put their work in the spotlight.
These days, commissioning work by the Cevallos brothers has increasingly become something of a rite of passage for restaurant and bar owners. New, buzzy spots like El Pingüino, a sleek Greenpoint Spanish-themed bar with seafood towers; Yellow Rose, a funky Texas-leaning East Village joint; Macosa Trattoria, a Bed-Stuy Italian spot; and Nightmoves, the club attached to Four Horsemen, are just a few that have recently commissioned them. Other more established food businesses in town have also sought their creative consultation: Soho bagel spot Baz Bagel, Nolita Italian hit Rubirosa, the lively East Williamsburg bar Ore Bar, dive bar Marco’s, the downtown sandwich purveyor Regina’s Grocery, burger go-to JG Melon, comfort food mainstay Pies ‘n’ Thighs, Nolita grilled corn favorite Cafe Habana, and even the beloved Brooklyn micro grocery chain Mr. Mango have collaborated with them.
Their handiwork is charming for its cheeky details, nostalgic lettering, and general lack of interest in perfection. “It’s affordable art, each piece unique and [..it’s] really reminiscent of folk artists like Daniel Johnston and Henry Darger,” says Nick Padilla, co-owner and chef of El Pingüino. “There’s a really great childlike quality to their work, and I love that it’s kind of a local thing to have one in your place.”
Prior to the pandemic, much of the Cevallos brothers’ work came from a more low-key, less affluent restaurant scene in Jackson Heights and Corona. Lesser-known spots like Tacos Guerrero, Puebla Seafood, and the annual momo crawl in Jackson Heights have all hired the brothers.
In the early days of COVID, the duo found themselves looking for other ways to keep working as restaurant openings came to a halt and businesses started cutting back on expenses — including any costs associated with aesthetic details — particularly in areas of Queens ravaged by the virus.
With the help of a younger, more tech-savvy friend — who acted as a representative for the brothers, helping translate email and phone interviews with Eater, and asked to remain anonymous in order to keep the focus on the brothers’ work — the duo launched its Instagram account in 2019. A few months later, the streetwear company Neighborhood Spot reached out to team up on a shirt that raised funds for a community fridge in Jackson Heights. The brothers have even launched a clothing collaboration with skater brand Only NY.
Joining Instagram has been a boon for their business: There’s a small-but-growing waitlist as the brothers juggle five clients a week; orders are delivered in three weeks or so. Carlos Cevallos tells Eater he’s “excited” about reaching a bigger audience further afield than ever. At the time of publishing, their Instagram account garnered more than 14,000 followers.
But there’s a cognitive dissonance for Carlos Cevallos, 81, and Miguel Cevallos, 79, who have been making their signs since they were teenagers in Bogotá, Colombia, by way of Ecuador — long before social media even existed. Though they’re more financially solvent than ever, it’s been bittersweet. Their clientele is changing and so many of their longstanding collaborators, fellow immigrants and small business owners, passed away during the pandemic.
Despite their newfound fame, the duo remain shy and private — rarely granting interviews. They’ve been cautious during the pandemic, and it was only after months of repeated requests that their representative agreed to move forward with Eater’s story.
Martha Bernabe, co-owner of Ore Bar in East Williamsburg, says she has worked with the Cevallos brothers since hearing about them from a regular customer, the same representative for Eater’s interviews. In 2019, she relaunched her bar after a fire and was looking for a way to breathe new life into the space. Since then she’s worked with the brothers on everything from “cash only” signs to signs for CPR kit availability, daily specials, and pop-up promotions. “It’s wonderful to see how popular they have become,” says Bernabe, adding she had “always wanted to meet” the brothers in person — a common theme for many people who have hired their brothers but have never actually met them in real life.
Today, orders are only taken via Instagram direct messages instead of the Cevallos taking phone calls or meeting in person. The duo determines prices, which heavily fluctuate, based on how high-profile the customer’s business is and whether the business plans to reuse the image (on the high end, a poster for a big-name business these days might cost around $300; it is purposefully a fraction of that price for a small taco cart). The representative for the brothers tells Eater that while the brothers could likely get away with charging more for their work, they prefer to keep the prices affordable, sometimes to their detriment.
Once each poster is complete, the Cevallos brothers will document the finished product, holding it up side-by-side in their now-iconic fashion, a little reminiscent of The Shining twins — albeit a much cuter grandpa version. It’s an adaptation of something they say they’ve been doing for years, long before Instagram arrived. Even when they’re not documenting their projects, the brothers wear a collared shirt, tie, and jacket every single day. Both unmarried, the two live together in uptown Manhattan, where they work from home side by side using Sharpies and poster paint: Miguel Cevallos makes all the layouts and lettering, Carlos Cevallos is the colorist.
Growing up, the brothers tell Eater, they supported themselves by drawing caricatures of tourists in hotels they visited throughout their travels. By the 1960s, Carlos and Miguel had formalized their artistic talents into a sign shop in Bogotá, alongside Victor Cevallos, the eldest of the five brothers, who passed away in 2012.
“We studied art and we’re very interested in art but, in Colombia of the 1960s there were not those kinds of [educational] opportunities,” says Carlos Cevallos, of their lack of formal art training.
Victor Cevallos was the first of the group to move stateside in 1966, and in early 1974 he started making signs out of a studio in Times Square. That year, Carlos Cevallos followed him, and together they began making menus for nearby coffee and slice shops, eventually expanding into Queens, where they were able to connect with fellow Colombian and Ecuadorian business owners for gigs. By 2003, Miguel Cevallos emigrated to New York City, and their sign-making business for restaurants and bars was in full force.
“The Cevallos brothers are iconic in our eyes. They are inherently New York,” says Bari Musacchio, who owns Baz Bagels and is a partner in Rubirosa. “They have a unique artistic simplicity that allows you to feel the heart and soul of the brand … Not every artist would have taken that ‘interpretative’ risk unless it was a small-business-to-small-business bond and trust,” she says, referring to the prompt she gave for a flame-covered bagel, that they made their own with the additional drawings of firemen. In addition to the posters already hanging at Baz, she plans to turn the commissioned work into shirts and prints for customers to purchase.
Where the brothers once treated sign-making as more of a strictly commercial endeavor, these days, for the first time, the duo tells Eater that they’re able to see their work as collectible art, too.
“I actually got a Nightmoves one made just for myself,” says Nightmoves bar director, Orlando McCray. Though the original copy lives at his house as a framed piece of art, Nightmoves will soon sell poster copies that the brothers made.
Pandemic or not, the brothers say they have no intention of slowing down. But the reality is they someday will likely have to. In the meantime, their Instagram functions as a living archive that showcases some of the city’s most elusive creators to a growing community of eager patrons — leaving a mark on the city’s restaurants long after they put down their pens.