Michael Perez sold his first painting, a sailboat, at age 9 to an art teacher for $25. He then moved on to graffiti, decorating the sides of subway cars with faces and landscapes.
When they cleaned the cars they left my stuff, he said.
Perez, 38, stands in his Tribeca gallery at 11 Harrison St. dressed in jeans, and a T-shirt bearing the face of his influence, Andy Warhol. He wears a silver hoop and a small diamond stud in his left ear, his eyes a bright blue against his tanned skin.
A self-described surrealist pop artist, Perez paints faces, which now line the walls of his gallery. Bold colors highlight lips, eyes and hair. His faces often show only one eye, the other usually covered by hair. Part of the canvass is devoted to flowers or abstract patterns matching the eyes and lips.
When you walk into a house, they just stare at you, theyre constantly looking, he said, slapping his hands together and mimicking the look with his own eyes.
Perez was born in midtown and raised in the South Bronx and then East New York. He attended Manhattans High School of Art and Design. Today he has two galleries, the other being in Southampton.
His work has been featured on the sets of Friends, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Melrose Place. He has also appeared on NBCs Weekend Today Show and Univision.
Perez has traveled far since that first sailboat, his work now selling anywhere from $3,000 to $16,000 dollars.
He works hard at establishing personal contacts with his buyers, calling them on the phone, delivering the paintings himself and photographing the piece in their apartment settings.
In the center of the gallery is a large white, vinyl reclined couch and black benches line the walls. Perez said he wants to create a cozy space where people feel comfortable wandering in and sitting down. Outside the gallery is brightly painted cow, adorned with his signature faces.
He works and lives below the gallery space and welcomes people to ring the bell any time day or night. This may be one key to his success.
Most galleries close at six oclock. They lock the door and your paintings are hanging there in the dark.
But Perez has never been one to hang anything in the dark. While still in high school, and without gallery contacts, he took his work to the streets.
One day I went to Washington Square and took out my best faces and put them on the fence, he said. I signed them with big signatures big Michael Perez and my name became recognizable.
He continued to sell while in art school and then later worked for advertising firms.
In the mid-90s he moved to Southampton and opened his first gallery in 1995. In 1998 he crashed a party full of TV and movie stars and passed his card around. It paid off. A few came to his gallery and bought some of his faces to decorate the sets of TV shows. From there, his career soared, landing him a place in the popular Friends.
I sold so many paintings from that show, he says.
Since 9/11, he says his work has become even more popular.
Its colorful and happy. People really need that today. It brightens up their apartment.
Even the kids like Perez gallery, coming over from nearby pediatrician, Michel Cohens office, to climb on the life-size cow.
The kids love the cow, he said.
What he seems to enjoy most is people.
I did have some shows in California, he says. You crate it, send it and wait for a check. But when you actually own your own studio, you interact face to face, its so fantastic.