Pop art icon Steve Kaufman wasn't always attending Las Vegas champagne charity events and traveling the globe with his artwork of celebrities, cigars and his mentor Andy Warhol's signature Campbell 's Soup cans.
At the age of 16, a New York judge sentenced him to clean 15 subway cars for spray painting graffiti on public property. The judge upped it to 187 subway cars after he caught young rebel Kaufman decorating the Judge’s home with the F word in retaliation for the harsh sentence of 15 subway cars.
"My father died when I was four and I was always getting in trouble, if you know what I mean," said Kaufman, who now lives and works in East Los Angeles.
The young, scrappy kid from the Bronx ended up participating in a weekend program at a correctional center making frames and stretching canvas for an old art dealer.
"He had a cane and a big dog and he was always yelling at all of us kids," Kaufman, now 41, recalled. "That's exactly what is happening to me now, only now they consider me the old guy."
The artist, who has garnered scores of world-wide awards for his unique approach to painting hires young men and teens with criminal records to build his frames, mix his paint and clean his studio. He has helped 975 kids to get off the streets and into some kind of honest work.
"We have a 85 percent success rate," Kaufman said. "Kids go on to rebuild their lives. Not all go into art, some go into contracting, they even become police officers after their record is wiped clean."
He said he's trying to give other kids the same chance he got more than 20 years ago.
The successful pop artist said it would be easier to hire college art students. He wouldn't have to worry about talking to parole officers & Judges. But those kids aren't the ones who need him.
"We hire kids that nobody else wants," Kaufman said. "These kids are ex-gang kids. One of my kids was arrested for attempted murder. Nicest kid in the world. But he was probably just being nice to me. People come in here and say they have total respect for these guys in here, but they never want to meet them down the block."
He wants to bring that idea to Las Vegas. He spends every other weekend here painting murals on the construction wall at Caesars Palace, hanging his work at Centaur Sculpture Galleries and autographing his famed portraits of Frank Sinatra, Marylin Monroe and Muhammad Ali at Park Place Entertainment hotel-casinos, such as Paris Las Vegas.
Currently, he is asking the City of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada for funds and
land near a correctional center so he can spend $1 million of his own money building
an art studio that would put young men to work making frames for art projects that would be sold at local galleries and hotel-casinos.
Meanwhile, this September he will meet with President Bush at the George Hotel in Washington D.C. to dedicate his "September 11 Memorial piece" that was unveiled at The Forum Shops in Caesars Palace on November 6, 2001. The 15-foot by-40-foot
mural has traveled around the country for the past year and has collected more than one million signatures. It just arrived from New York City to Kaufman's studio.
Ultimately, Kaufman said this piece would be housed in the Smithsonian. Kaufman's working on a larger version of the artwork to wrap around Yankee Stadium. Kaufman, who is the official Yankee artist, said while he's in New York he'll appear on the Howard Stern radio show, which has expressed interest in broadcasting live from the stadium as the piece is being installed.
At Caesars there is a 450-foot-by-25-foot mural depicting famed 160 world champion boxing matches and legendary performers such George Burns and Sinatra. Celine Dion, who opens the Coliseum in March, ends the long line of entertainers. Kaufman said he will add a reproduction of Evel Knievel's motorcycle, which the daredevil used to jump over the Strip Hotel's fountains in 1967, to the wall mural in early September. Kaufman said the work would ultimately be 700 feet long by 20 feet high.
And he's not finished drawing on the walls of the luxury Strip hotel-casino.
He said he's asked Park Place, which owns Caesars Palace, if he can paint a history of the 36-year-old property on the three-block-long outside construction wall. He expects an answer this fall.