While establishing his military-minded style, Alfredo Martinez made money as an art forger. He laid it all on the line for one huge score, but ended up with some cell therapy and a new work ethic. One look at his rap sheet, studio and art, and it ain’t hard to tell—this artist has a lot to say, but he ain’t no snitch.
By Maclean Jackson
In the worlds of art and crime, lies and treasures get flipped like Astro Pops on a hot day. And once you have a taste for the hustle, it’s too sweet to give up the game—even if that means switching up avenues. Thirty-seven-year-old artist Alfredo Martinez has the whole world in his hands: resourcefulness, trickery and a sense of humor, but tonight—the night before his biggest solo show since finishing his prison bid a few years ago—he has to focus on flipping nearly all the pieces for his show. Oh, and with less than 24 hours to go, he’s barely finished. There is junk strewn about everywhere: stacks of covers for boat motors, a toddler-sized Timberland, a female mannequin’s head, lead pipes, books and tons of posters for political candidates. All the machinery—buffers, sanders, small motors and bicycles—is dismantled. Quickly realizing the humor of the setting, he recounts a story about a time he was hesitant to bring a date up here, but then she actually ended up liking it. In fact, Alfredo seems like the kind of guy that would ask a girl on a date, then take her to the junkyard to shoot rats. But soon, it becomes apparent that he might be a lot slicker than that.
The curator for the show, Andreis, comes into the room laughing maniacally. Apparently, Alfredo’s studio was neatly organized only weeks before. Andreis is freaked-out by the disarray and the possibility that his star artist won’t finish in time. When asked to account for what he’s been doing all day, Alfredo explains that he’s been cutting up ski boots with a jigsaw. He needs a soldier for the show, and the pieces will be put together to make a “female super soldier, like a female Boba Fett.” Andreis takes some partially finished pieces and leaves, shaking his head with a grin. “See, I’ve done this a million times,” Alfredo says. “For him it’s like his sweet sixteen party [laughs].”
I first met Alfredo at around ten p.m. by his studio, next to the Smith & 9th Street station at the top of Red Hook in Brooklyn. He doesn’t have a phone, but I knew what to look for: a huge Puerto Rican guy. Alfredo walks up, on time, with a grin on his face and crud on his hands. I knew he did time and all that, but Alfredo kind of looks like if the Incredible Hulk took up a good hobby and got out of shape. We walk next to a water canal towards his studio in a group of factories and we both agree: it looks like the kind of place that the mob would dump a body. But for Alfredo, this type of New York scene is the only way to live.
Alfredo grew up in Sunset Park, not far from his Red Hook den, in a building above the hangout of a biker gang called the 69ers. “The first people that taught me a lot about guns were the biker gang. I remember when I was like 11, they let me shoot a machine gun. They had a Mac-10 with a silencer. I was a happy little kid,” Alfredo recalls. “I wanted to take it apart. Actually, I was notorious for that—taking things apart.” His father owned a junk store, and Alfredo spent a lot of time there indulging in his love of dismantling things, especially a Thompson machine gun. Today, everywhere in his studio are diagrams, drawings and paintings of guns. I ask him if it’s true: can he make a firing gun out of anything? He picks up a plumbing pipe off the floor and says, “This is great tubing, ’cause if I tried to buy a piece of tubing just like this, it’d be 50 dollars! It’s the perfect size. It’s very strong. A lot of people really like my early machine guns I’ve made—those were really Mad Max looking,” he says excitedly. “But now my stuff is starting to get more sophisticated looking. And they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re just buying store bought ones!’ It’s like, ‘No, I just got really good.’” Alfredo did have some regular childhood experiences though (If not, by now he certainly would be a notorious serial killer with a media-moniker, like ‘Automatic Alfredo’). As a kid, he was also into Kitbashing, where he took a bunch of different robot and vehicle model sets and incorporated them into one original piece. The teenage years chimed in and Alfredo started getting into punk, so his parents sent him off to Reading, Pennsylvania to stay out of trouble. “Which is really funny, ’cause out there, I started hanging out with all these redneck, right wing guys,” recalls Alfredo. Then things started to get astonishing. He got a job as a Private Investigator working for perennial presidential candidate and famed conspiracy theorist Lyndon H. LaRouche. At 18, Alfredo returned to New York and used his handy man skills to make money by building sets in clubs and assisting artists. Working with more conceptual artists, Alfredo started making his own art.
One day, while assisting some artists, they asked him to get a drill from the adjoining studio, which belonged to an older Russian fellow. Alfredo went in, grabbed the drill and got back to work. Later that day, the Russian approached Alfredo, which ended up resulting in a new partnership. “He brought me to his place and he had this old, big bureau and he opened up a drawer: all full of money, just stacked in there,” recalls Alfredo with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Awwwwww, you shouldn’t have this much money in here!’ And he’s like, ‘No problem.’ And closed and opened up the other one: all full of guns. I saw grenades in there, and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ Then I started working for him.” The Russian turned out be an art forger, who dealt mainly with religious and masters’ pieces. The classic material bored Alfredo, but he soaked up the business methods of art forgery. “The art dealer’s always chomping their lips, ‘Oh, a deal!’,” says Alfredo. “Their reaction would be, if they found out something was forged, ‘Can we get more for less money?’”
Alfredo eventually stopped focusing on his art, opting instead to go into the forgery business himself. “When I started doing forgeries, I was doing Basquiats and Keith Harings,” says Alfredo. “I was doing contemporary stuff because it was easier—you can make something very large and no one thinks anything very strange about it, [plus] there’s more of it floating around.” Fronting as an art dealer, business was fair, but Alfredo admits, some of the stuff he was making wasn’t that good. Alfredo pushed himelf to make more forgeries, but had to get his assistant, who was none the wiser, out of the studio. “So, I said to him, ‘Here, take these four Keith Haring drawings, take them to this collector,’” recalls Alfredo. “Tell them the price is 12 for each one and tell him, ‘Cash.’” As the hours went by, Alfredo started to get worried, but the assistant finally showed. “He’s like, ‘Fucking hell, it took me five hours, we had to go to four banks to get all this.’ The day I sent him out was the day Keith Haring had announced that he had AIDS. And I didn’t hear this; I didn’t watch the news that day. So it became huge, everyone started buying speculatively and my assistant and the collector thought that I meant $12,000 [each], when I meant $1,200,” Alfredo says, laughing. When the Keith Haring market slowed down around ’89, Alfredo moved to Brussels and got a job as an arms dealer.
Still only 21 years old, his boss got into some trouble and fled the country, so Alfredo went back to the States, enlisted in the Army and returned to Europe as an American soldier. “I think I just started stealing stuff and making stuff out of boredom,” says Alfredo in retrospect. “The thing was, I got in trouble with the loan sharking business.” Higher power got wind of Alfredo’s banking schemes, but fearing he would implicate officers, Alfredo was quietly sent home, as if he had never enlisted. In ’93, a 24-year-old Alfredo returned to New York City and decided to become an artist. His cover as a curator, when he was only selling forgeries, was still intact and he began to curate galleries and show his own work at Alleged Gallery and Exit Art. To make ends meet, Alfredo continued to make and sell forged art. “You know, it’s not that hard. I would be like, ‘Oh, Goddamn, I gotta do another one,’” says Alfredo with a laugh. He continued on this path, switching up his hustle pitch, but his personal work still remained sci-fi and military based. Working as a gun consultant for the film Ghost Dog , Alfredo got to talk war with RZA and further indulge in his firearm fascination.
It took the dream of a big score to turn Alfredo around. “I remember the year before, I was trying to sell my story, trying to get a book deal as a forger. They loved the story, but they didn’t believe me ’cause I never got arrested,” recalls Alfredo. “I thought, I never tried to go for the gusto. So, I was trying to make enough for the work to get like a million, a million and half. I thought, If I sell it all, I’ll go move to a place like the Philippines and if people want to come visit me, it will be like visiting Colonel Kurtz [from Apocalypse Now]. They’ll have to come up river for three days.” Alfredo even consulted with his lawyer, who told him if he got caught, he would do two years, max. Ready to take either outcome, Alfredo manned his battle station and shot for the stars—he ended up doing 21 months in Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Turns out a Colombian drug-money launderer thought he deserved cheaper prices from Alfredo. When Alfredo refused to sell that hype for cheap, the Colombian followed through with his bluff and tipped off the F.B.I.—perfect.
Like a legendary grifter with a shit hand, Alfredo loved to hate the restrictive circumstances at the MDC and quickly started causing trouble when he arrived in 2003. “I deliberately injured myself to keep from having to work. I gave myself an ingrown toenail,” recalls Alfredo of his cellblock charades. After constant infractions, the warden took away Alfredo’s art supplies as punishment. But other prisoners were quick to support him, smuggling him art supplies and yelling Cuckoo! when they saw cops. “I would do drawings for people and I remember, I would do these trades,” says Alfredo. “It was like being in the military. I ran a little scam: I had one guy doing my laundry, one guy cleaning my room for me. ’Cause in prison, someone who was an artist is in high demand.” The warden did what he could, but Alfredo managed to have three one-man shows while in prison by having prisoners and guards smuggle out work. The warden really didn’t like this and kept applying heat to Alfredo, so he went on a hunger strike, not eating for 55 days, knowing that it didn’t warrant extra time to his sentence. After losing 75 pounds, he was restrained and force-fed through a tube. “I realized why I hadn’t had the career I wanted to have, because I really never made these big bodies of work, I was just lazy!” Alfredo says. After being released, he focused on his own art. “I developed a real work ethic [in prison].”
The night after the visit to his studio, it became clear what Alfredo’s passions are as he painstakingly constructed last-minute pieces for his show at the Canal Chapter. “Arsenal For Democracy: War Corporatism” pretty much resembled the Paris Air Show that Alfredo describes from when he worked as an arms dealer 15 years prior. The sculptures were life-sized field artillery, like missile launchers and machine guns. They looked realistic at arms length and if Bush had satellite images, he would deploy beaucoup troops. After studying each sculpture, it suddenly dawns on you—hey, those are bike joints, hand brakes and shocks. That’s a tuba case and that’s a bucket top. On the walls were drawings and paintings of skulls, helicopters, planes, but mostly firearms. There was no Female Boba Fett, but Alfredo definitely lived up to the show’s title. The show was well received, there was a good mix of people and several pieces were sold. Still, considering the size of the sculptures and the straight-forward illustrations, it was a risky time and monetary investment for Alfredo.
Alfredo has plans of doing some performance art, posing as a political refugee, as well as finding more junk, making more amazing art and probably cleaning his studio up—your usual gangster fare. And then there’s the potential book. But with no deals on the table and his history of high-stakes deception, publishers might be weary. Alfredo dropped names, but never in an incriminating way. If his criminal past were to become exposed, it begs the question—Why he didn’t just snitch in the first place? That’s a guaranteed book deal. “The thing is, the art world will forgive me for doing the forgery, but they’d never forgive me for snitching,” Alfredo explains. “I’d just come out and no one would deal with me or talk to me ’cause no one could trust me. There is honor among thieves.”
Three weeks later, in mid-February, I got a call from a reporter at the New York Post. Apparently, the police shut down the Holland Tunnel mid-day, because somebody had put a life-sized cannon sculpture within striking range. He speculated that it was the work of Alfredo because he was known for this type of thing and the Canal Chapter was only blocks away. It was news to me. Did I know if this was the doing of Alfredo and was there anyway I could get in touch with him, the reporter asked? As far as I knew, Alfredo had skipped off to somewhere in rural New Jersey, completely out of reach. The article in the paper said that the police never thought it was real, but removed it because it was an eyesore. The heat might be on, but Alfredo’s probably out somewhere next to an unused bridge scourging for junk to bring back to his new studio. Alfredo’s a new man now, he went inside and came out on top. Perhaps there will be a book and everyone buying that hustle are the ones paying for the crime.