Just five short years ago, Marco Perego, the Italian-born artist who recently had his first New York solo show, was washing dishes in Spanish Harlem. It’s a part of his story that he likes to emphasize even more than the fact that prior to his work as a busboy, he was a professional soccer player. The 28-year-old painter has been romanced by his own storybook rise to success, and he’s not ashamed of that either.
“My first show in New York was unbelievable, you know, because they show up like 700, 800 people in Ingrao Gallery,” he recalled over a recent lunch at Downtown Cipriani. “My story was unbelievable, because I come here and I come from very normal family, you know? My father is a waiter, my mum stays at home.”
And now it can fairly be said that Mr. Perego has joined the ranks of the It-boy artist set.
The show, which took place Sept. 20 at the Ingrao Gallery on East 64th Street, represented a substantial haul even for a former professional footballer. It featured 10 paintings priced between $20,000 and $30,000, and 15 sculptures at $15,000. All but two sculptures were sold. Perhaps more importantly, the buyers’ list was littered with famous names, like the Moratti family, Dolce & Gabanna, Hard Rock Café heir Harry Morton and Fiat heir Lapo Elkan, a close friend of the artist. The crowd resembled an overbooked fashion event. Spilling into the street were supermodel Karolina Kurkova, Keith Richards’ daughters Theodora and Alexandra, and social gals Zani Gubelman and Margherita Missoni.
Mr. Perego saw it as a glorious cross section of class and culture.
“It was nice, because they showed from the skateboarding to the important collector to the actor. It was important because it was like 80’s, that kind of crowd,” said Mr. Perego, who takes much of his inspiration from 80’s art icon Andy Warhol.
His other influences include Caravaggio, Marcel Duchamp, Pascal and the writer William S. Burroughs. “I think he is unbelievable, I love him, because everything is coming from the stomach.”
Despite his humble beginnings, Mr. Perego seemed destined for greatness from a young age, gaining a spot on Venice’s professional team at age 17.
Then at 21, he suffered a severe leg injury. He moved to Brazil for a year to try to recuperate and continue play there. He also joined a Samba academy. But in the fall of 2002, he abandoned soccer and moved to New York to pursue his dream of being an artist.
“I was living Spanish Harlem without money and I was living on 104 Street,” said Mr. Perego between sips of espresso. There, he scraped to make rent: “I busboy, waiter, teach soccer.”
He speaks with a heavy Italian accent and dons an unmistakably Euro look. That afternoon he wore a white T-shirt, gray vest and faded, ripped jeans, fastened with a pirate-themed buckle. Many bracelets adorned his wrists. A few beads had been woven into his long bleached locks. His muscled limbs, the last vestige of his soccer days, are now lathered in tattoos.
Through soccer, he said, he “met everyone.”
His big break came through such a connection. He convinced a friend’s sister, Gilda Moratti, who hails from the famed Moratti family and works at Sotheby’s, to come see his art.
“One day what happened was, I come to her and I say, ‘Listen, look at my work, tell me what you think. If it is a joke I will try to find something else,” he said.
“And always, I think, in my life, like Oscar Wilde would say: ‘We all from the same gutter, but some of us look at the stars.’” It’s a quote he would repeat several times during the lunch.
Ms. Moratti saw stars in him—or at least she bought a painting.
“I say okay, I will do one little show in Italy, I put 30 pieces, and the first day I sell everything,” he recalled of his first exhibit in 2005 at the Galleria Cardi, in Milan. His pieces sold for a mere $3,000 back then. Giorgio Armani was among the buyers. “It was incredible,” Mr. Perego said, “I live in Spanish Harlem, you know, and now Giorgio Armani would like to buy a painting.”
The gallery offered him a solo show later that year, 22 paintings. It sold out on the first day. This time Dolce & Gabbana were among the buyers. Then came another show in Florence, in December 2006. This time he tried bumping his prices to 15,000 euros per painting.
“First day, sold everything again,” he said. “And what’s happening is that everybody in Italy is starting to think about my work.”
Several more shows in Italy followed. Then in June 2007, he was in a group show at the London gallery 20 Hoxton Square. His work sold again. At that point, he decided he was ready to move to SoHo.
During his meteoric rise in Europe Mr. Perego recalls people continually asking, “Why? Why did this guy sell out?”
Mr. Perego has not given this question much thought. “I don’t have idea,” he said. “I just believe in my dreams, the sun in the face, wind in the back, the rest take care from the destiny to dance with the stars.”
One answer may be found in some of the themes of his work.
For about a year now, the iPod has been a fixation. In the Sept. 20 show the iPod popped up in roughly half his works, including a painting of a DNA chain made up of tiny, brightly colored floating iPods, as well as a giant nine-foot-tall, mixed-media sculpture of an iPod. Trapped in its screen is an enormous photograph of Mr. Perego, shirtless and wearing a terrified expression.
“People are using technology and sometimes they forget the human content,” said Mr. Perego, who hastened to add that he loves iPods. “They close themselves in a bubble and they don’t connect with each other. You go out with a beautiful woman and you use your Blackberry. My idea was just … don’t close yourself. If you do, evolution will go back from progression if you close a bubble.”
It is a message he thinks resonates more in New York than in Europe. New York, he says, is a city where the people are at war, but still manage to remain bubbled in. “For me it is important that people remember human content,” he said.
Mr. Perego considers the New York show the high point of his fairy tale so far. He credits the city itself for allowing him to rise up from the gutter.
“In Italy when you are young, if you make it in Italy everybody say, ‘Why you make?” he explained. “If you make it in New York everybody come and say, ‘Oh, good job. Come. Keep going. Catch your dream.’ That’s the big difference.”
Mr. Perego insists that his New York life hasn’t changed much either since leaving Spanish Harlem. Though he’s found love.
“I love my girlfriend, is a beautiful girl called Jen Rose,” he said. Ms. Rose is a 24-year-old model. The couple have been going steady for a year and a half.
And a measure of fame has also brought many new acquaintances and many more fancy parties.
But he still eats cheap most days and has the same four good friends in the world.
“It’s the same,” he said of city life. “Because I never forget where I’m from. I go the same. I am the same kid. I love to sit down and be like a voyeur. I love to watch people, and feel like a pirate.”
He added: “My friends are the best pirates in the world. I promise.”