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Happiness, Hope Inspire Miami Pop Artist

Artist Romero Britto's sculptures decorate a number of shopping malls in Miami.
Karina Pais for NPR
Artist Romero Britto's sculptures decorate a number of shopping malls in Miami.
The artist sizes up one of his newly dedicated sculptures at a Miami shopping center.
Karina Pais for NPR /
The artist sizes up one of his newly dedicated sculptures at a Miami shopping center.
Britto says his art is meant to inspire one feeling — joy.
Karina Pais for NPR /
Britto says his art is meant to inspire one feeling — joy.

There is no artist who is better known or more popular in Miami than Romero Britto. His huge, cartoon-like drawings tower over shopping mall entrances and grin happily from billboards. One even clambers up the side of a downtown condo building.

Britto is a Brazilian-born artist whose simple drawings of children, butterflies and flowers have decorated everything from commercial Absolut Vodka ads to a 45-foot-high pyramid in London.

And Miami developers are some of his biggest fans. You can find Britto's work at shopping malls throughout Miami. Recently, three more of his pieces were unveiled at a shopping center downtown — a heart, a butterfly and an 11-foot dancing boy.

"Romero has managed to create contemporary masterpieces that invoke a spirit of hope," developer John Kokinchak said at the ceremony.

The bold outlines, bright colors and simple images of Britto's art appeal to children, public officials and art collectors alike. Britto says there's a reason his work is so popular: It makes people happy.

"Some people in the arts, they really still believe that art is really only important if you talk about something that's disgusting or horrible or depressing," he says. "I think happiness is not a shallow feeling. It's a very deep feeling."

Britto Stuff

And being a purveyor of happiness has paid off for Britto. The popularity of his work has made Britto an international celebrity and the head of a multimillion dollar company.

The artist — who's in his mid-40s — employs about 70 people, many at his sprawling workshop in Miami's Wynnewood art district. Some are building and painting frames for his prints, others are working on crating and shipping his art to customers around the world.

And down a hallway, behind glass doors is his studio, where he says he tries to keep the focus on creativity.

It's an art business empire that stretches from Brazil, where some of his sculptures and other work is fabricated, to galleries in New York, London and Geneva. Looking around the workshop, you can find Britto's art on paintings, prints, sculptures, shoes, bicycle shirts and shopping bags. There's even Britto cologne.

Whether it's crass commercialism or art brought to the people, it's all happened in just two decades.

Britto arrived in Miami in 1987. Two years later, his career took off when he was asked to design a commemorative label for Absolut Vodka — following in the footsteps of pop artists Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.

On the walls of his workshop and in his South Beach gallery is the evidence of the doors that have opened since — testimony from Ted Kennedy, Jeb Bush and Gloria Estefan, photos of Britto with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chelsea Clinton.

"The vocabulary that I have is a universal one. My audience is very large. I want to reach out to millions of people," he says.

Too Simple?

If everybody can understand his art, is it too simple?

"It's simple, and it's not simple," he says.

Beautiful things in life are really simple, he says. "If you're going to get an orchid, or a flower or an animal, it's simple, it's not complicated."

And what better place to reach out to people than Miami Beach, where you can find sculptures and posters for sale as well as a Swatch watch he designed and the Absolut ads that made him famous.

Britto Central, the artist's shop and gallery, is in the heart of the trendy South Beach scene. Items for sale range from a $14 notepad or a $200,000 original painting.

Sales associate Dawn Stone says many buyers come from Europe and Latin America. They're drawn by the direct appeal of his bright colors and cartoonlike images. They're reassured that Britto's paintings have steadily appreciated.

Pop Art Staying Power

There's no question that Britto's art is popular and that people respond to it. But will it have staying power?

Some critics are skeptical, calling Britto's art derivative and decorative, lacking in emotional depth.

Carol Damian, director of the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, says pop artists have heard these slams before.

"The same thing was also true about Andy Warhol when he started to create his work — the Brillo Box for instance. Everybody said, 'But is it art?' " Damian says. "Romero Britto has just taken this 40 years beyond into his environment. It's not the Brillo Box, it's not the Campbell Soup can. It's Miami, and it's popular in Miami. So what's wrong with that?"

There are signs that even conservative art institutions are starting to take notice. To commemorate the opening of the King Tut exhibition in London last year, Britto created a 45-foot-tall pyramid that was erected in Hyde Park.

And this winter, his work will be part of a group show at the Louvre in Paris.

To which, Britto says, big deal.

"I don't care if it's going to be in a museum. I used to show my work on the sidewalk. I want people to see my work, it doesn't matter where," Britto says.

He says that artists in the time of the Renaissance who painted walls were not considered as prestigious as those who painted ceilings.

"Today, people see the piece of Michelangelo on the walls and they see on the ceiling. And I'm sure people are really in awe, it doesn't matter if it's on the wall or on the ceiling," he says. "And for me, I want my work to be closer to people."

That's why Britto is pleased with an exhibition featuring his sculptures that's now traveling around the U.S. Developers Diversified Realty is showing Britto's work in venues with which by now, he's very comfortable — shopping malls.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.