As New York City's bright lights beamed hope into the early '80s, 42nd Street was visibly tainted by new occupants who cast a shadow of disease and poverty on its once glamorous pavement. Promiscuous prostitutes heckled wide-eyed tourists and homeless drug addicts pleaded for unearned allowances washing windshields. Headlining reports of a new deadly disease mystified the nation as the death toll rose and protected sex was seriously encouraged. AIDS took over the gay community and was spreading rapidly with no cure in sight meanwhile city streets thinned out as each victim was laid to rest. Inside one of New York City's rehabilitation facilities a volunteer supported a helpless Puerto Rican man as he grieved news of his recently diagnosed brother. Angelo Romano volunteered at the facility and would walk the streets undercover hoping to gain the trust of these native New Yorkers. His method to convince them to seek help was posing as a former junkie newly reformed. Naïve of this illness, Romano educated himself and the need to help overwhelmed his soul. Praying for answers led him to the most astonishing discovery and what quintessentially changed the lives of many more.
A man of unique faith, Romano was born in Spain and discovered his natural artistic ability at a very young age. Creating paper cut outs served as an imaginative outlet and sparked his interest in the craft. Frowned upon by his elders he grew up sheltering his talent and enlisted as a merchant marine. Upon his travels he found himself in Brazil touring the pueblos with fellow shipmates, there they were lured into homes filled with prostitutes. Completely stunned by these exotic women, Romano refused their services and excused himself from the nude beauties. They taunted him and accused him of being gay but he assured them that was not the issue. He promised to return the following day and so he did...with a canvas and paint set. He was inspired by the vision of the tanned full breasted ladies and expressed his desires through his gift. The vibrant representation of his vision incorporated nudity, cherry stained lips, gaudy jewelry and the essence of sex. He had no desire to pursue relations with these women instead his passion was released with every stroke on the canvas. This portrait became an overnight sensation and sparked the interest of President Juscelino Kubitschek. Romano would continue to paint inspiring images as he now rediscovered his ability to connect with society through his art.
Nearly half a decade later I found myself honored to hear his tales as I sat across this mystical white haired man. He shared intense stories of premonitions, visions & signs one more elaborate then the next. He shared intimate moments of his life including his mysterious Pyramid experience. Photographed minutes before he entered the sacred tomb he is pictured in a striped polo & black comb over; shortly after following through a spiritual ritual within the holy grounds he exits the tomb stripped of his natural dark hue completely transformed to his existing signature white strands. I asked him to take me back to NYC the night he first heard of the wretched disease that swept the nation. He recalled returning home frightened and anxious. He remembers praying and asking for a sign; instead he had the dream that sparked his AIDS inspired series. After every epiphany he requests a sign, verification guiding him from a higher power. He had a premonition that evening of 600 friends, family, strangers and himself all deathly ill with the virus. He was given orders to stay clear of temptation or he too will fall, instead he needed to use his skill to help spread awareness and give back to those suffering. Romano awoke eager for proof that this was his destiny. As he set out the next morning he kept his heart open to the suggestion still incredibly shaken by this message. Romano found his confirmation in the most unlikely place noticing a dirty chain with a small charm hanging off the corner garbage can. After polishing the chain he revealed St. Francis of Assisi, this was exactly what Romano needed. In his dream there were animals and people surrounding him and the message was so powerful that it only made sense to pursue the task at large. Since 1980 Romano has worn that necklace and continued to paint intense portraits depicting Aids & HIV through skulls, flames, blood and death. His work is on display in hospitals, churches, universities and government offices. He has become internationally recognized for his over 90,000 angel prints which he sends into the universe inspiring people with his powerful message of protection and safety. Recalling the ladies who once tried to persuade him that afternoon in Brazil, he has successfully accepted the challenge to raise funds for Aids patients by donating 100% of his profits to help medicate and rehabilitate them.
Romano's involvement within his community has all been credited to a higher power; he mentioned to me that he doesn't believe in the Bible but feels he is connected to our Creator and serves him through his art. He told me in his native Spanish language, "Yo no soy un pintor, yo soy un espiritista transmitiendo un mensaje." Delivering one message at a time through his extraordinary skill he inspires a nation to give back. Romano and I sat in a small downtown bistro filled with the sound of constant chatter, wine glasses clinking and soft candles flickering...nothing out of the ordinary for a Wednesday evening but I clearly was in the company of a man less than ordinary and I hung onto his every word. He has a message so powerful that for those few hours I was lost in years of knowledge and tales of a man who was sent here on a mission. A humble man of minimal belongings has set out to change the world one masterpiece at a time. Whether on recycled garbage, fabric torsos or simple scraps, Romano does not disappoint. Now represented by the Smile Design Gallery located steps away from where we sat, his folk art is hung with artist such as Takashi Murakami, Robert Peterson & Chi Modu. He closed our interview with this, "Más de 400 personas que estuvieron en mi sueño se han muerto de sida. Incluyendo mi sobrino y muchos más que les trate de advertir. Yo hice lo que dijeron que tenía que hacer, por eso es que todavía estoy aquí." Romano innocently laughs as he hands me a small plastic tile with an angel painted on it, he looked me in the eye and said he was told to live out the rest of his life delivering angels to the world. Some might call this impossible; I see this as an act of genuine acceptance for the constant evolving world we live in.
"Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible." -Francis of Assisi