Society Swoons for the Pirate Perego

Just five short years ago, Marco Perego, the Italian-born artist who recently had his first New York solo show, was

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.

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“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?”

Society Swoons for the Pirate Perego