Michael Bell is a prime example of a man with many talents. Despite overcoming great odds as a youth, he always turned towards good, eventually becoming a national award-winning teacher of the year and sought-after artist. After painting portraits of mob boss John Gotti and several cast members of The Sopranos, he also became known as the “Mob Artist.” He tells all about it in his 2017 memoir Dual Lives.
Teacher, artist, and now Bell can also add author to that list. It typifies the man. He likes to stay busy, always looking for new projects. But though he’s on the move, he still takes plenty of time to sit down with those seeking his advice or guidance, be they students, clients or Gangsters Inc. looking for some insightful comments about his large body of work.
ESCAPING THE GANG LIFE
What strikes me first and foremost however, is that Bell almost went down like A Bronx Tale, wasting his talent due to outside influences in the streets. Still, the experiences proved helpful later in life when one of his own high school art students was arrested on some heavy charges during his senior year. “He was a kid who, much like myself as a young kid, made one really terrible decision. Sadly, things like this happen all the time.
Had I not triumphed over my own troubles as a kid, I never would have known how to help that student twenty years later in my class. I wouldn’t have known who to call, how to get him bailed out, how to find him a lawyer, and what needed to happen to help him survive all he was going through as he awaited trial.”
It’s why Bell went into teaching, he tells us. “To try and catch kids before they fall.” How does one do that? “I believe it’s by getting youngsters involved in countless positive activities so they simply don’t have time to consider the alternative. I think you also have to replace the negative influences with something that’s much stronger and positive, so the negative won’t become as alluring. But it’s tough.”
Indeed. The money, power, street fame, and the beautiful women that come along with those are like a siren call to any teenage kid looking for his future self. “It takes a lot of effort to surround a child with positive outlets,” Bell continues. “From home to school to the community, which could even involve churches, sports leagues, youth groups even. It’s all about giving them something positive to play with. The busier they are and the more actively connected they are to school, to things in the community, the better off they’ll be.”
FRIENDS IN THE MOB
After all Bell’s warnings against taking to the streets, one might find it a bit of a paradox seeing him so close to many men with longstanding ties to the Mafia. He tells us he’s asked about that a lot, but that it’s not about what they do or did in ‘the life’, but rather the positive impact they currently have on ‘his life’. “For me, most street guys I know are ‘real’ to me,” he explains to us. “Frankly, I’m more comfortable in a room full of tough guys that at least I know where I stand with them than anyone else.”
Perhaps this stems from one of his own relatives who took a similar path. “My cousin Vinnie on my mother’s side was part of what is still to this day the longest standing gangland murder trial in the history of the State of New Jersey back in the late 1960s. One that got famous trial attorney F. Lee Bailey disbarred from practicing in New Jersey at that time, due to his exposing the levels of corruption in law enforcement and in the Passaic’s prosecutor’s office surrounding his trial. It took four years, but my cousin was eventually acquitted in both cases. Unfortunately, a year later, he was sentenced to fifteen years in Trenton State Prison, resulting from a trafficking pinch in stolen goods out of the Alexander Hamilton Hotel in Paterson. So, I guess when you grow up hearing all the stories surrounding family members that were street guys and being friends with lots of really tough guys, I guess being around them is just more natural.”
Now that he has been chosen as national teacher of the year three times over and has become an internationally respected artist, Bell is able to mingle in just about any circle and feel comfortable. Still, he says, he feels the most love from the men who grew up tough and made some wrong decisions in life. “Because they always showed me true loyalty,” Bell adds.
AUTISM AND TRUE LOYALTY
“When our son was first diagnosed with autism at age 8 it was a very difficult time for us as a family – still is. It sadly wasn’t his educators, administrators or supervisors in my field that stepped up to the plate to help us, or our son. Even though what I’ve done for them in our public education system is unprecedented anywhere. It was street guys and the fighters at Kicked Up Fitness boxing gym that I began taking our son to at age 7 so he could defend himself against bullies at school that embraced him like he was family and made the biggest difference in his life. Guys like Tony Acevedo, Coach Wolf, Mr. Neal, Sean “Rocky Lightsout” Cormier that I wrote about in Dual Lives that stepped up and took the time to give our son confidence and complete acceptance. Wolf has been like an uncle to our son, always checking up on him, and Sean, one of the fighters in the gym even gave our son his Golden Gloves medal after his last fight. So selfless. So inspiring.”
His son has Asperger’s and is on the high end of the spectrum, Bell says. “He is extremely intelligent, charismatic, and very athletic, which we are very fortunate for. But it’s his social deficits, figurative language and reading comprehension skills that he struggles hard with daily. His vision and hearing are also heightened, which means he sees and hears everything much more vividly than most people do and can’t drown out background noise like you or me. His memory is also remarkable. He can remember things most people never pay attention to, like the hotel room we stayed in down the Jersey Shore back when he was 5. He’s also fascinated with trains, grandfather clocks and while most 10-year-olds are into collections of sneakers he only wants more and more boxing gloves.”
His son served as inspiration to write Dual Lives. “His autism made me a lot more conscious of my place in his world,” he says. “I try and stay in good physical shape and box alongside him. That’s become our art. Our father and son time.”
It may come as a surprise – or even shock – to some readers, that Bell would enroll his son at a boxing gym. Even without autism, it can be a brutal sport. “While some view his craft as a violent and barbaric one, for us, as two-time world champion boxer Paulie Malignaggi put it: ‘Boxing loved him when no one else would,’” Bell explains. “It’s also become that missing piece to his puzzle that has given him confidence and a sense of family, a brotherhood even, within the gym and at the Golden Gloves fights, which he’s a regular fixture at.”
The sport also helped develop his fine motor skills and through repetition and routines, he’s flourished. “If you have a child high on the autism spectrum and if you’re like us – finding out early that team sports just aren’t a good fit – try boxing,” Bell emphasizes. “You might be surprised. Even non-contact boxing inspired classes may reduce and even help various things associated with autism, like stimming and attention deficits, much the same way as boxing has helped people with Parkinson’s. Everyone’s view of the sport is different, and anyone with autism is very unique, so there’s never a one size fits all method of help. I say try it though, see if it’s your missing piece too. If nothing else, at least your child will learn how to defend themselves against bullies who pick on children with disabilities in school. Our son sure can. He once broke my nose while sparring. I can only imagine what he’d do to someone his age.”
THE KIND AND LOVING GOTTI FAMILY
Mobsters, tough guys, boxers, what is it about these men? “I guess I just gotta keep those O.G.’s around me,” Bell laughs. “They’re the kind of guys that would lay down in traffic for you if you needed them to. Not like most people that turn their back on you in times of struggle. That’s when they’re always right there asking ‘What can I do to help?’”
Chief among them are members of the Gotti family. The sons and daughters of infamous New York Mafia boss John Gotti, have become like family to Bell. It all started with his art. “I’ve known Angel Gotti for probably close to twenty years,” he says. “And when John [Gotti Jr.] and Peter approached me to do the cover art for John’s book Shadow of my Father we all formed a very close bond. Our friendship has continued to grow over the several visits my family and I made into the city around Christmas each year to visit them. John and Peter have also been very good to our son, taking him out on the town, staying up shooting pool with him at the Carlton until 3 a.m. making him feel just like one of the guys, sending him autographed copies of John’s book for autism fundraisers, and our very own Lions Only sweatshirts from John’s son, John, who is a successful MMA fighter. In turn, I also send their sons prints of my art of their iconic grandfather, and I’ve also created some personal artwork for them not for public consumption.”
It’s a side of the Gottis often lost in the media due to their notorious history in organized crime. But Bell is crystal clear about their kindness and heart. “They simply always go of their way to make our son feel like family. I love them for that and appreciate their friendship. Recently, our son has also been making wagers between himself and Peter Gotti on boxing matches, from the Danny Garcia – Keith Thurman fight to the Canelo – GGG fight. Peter’s a foodie so the bets are always centered around food. When I lost the Thurman bet when I was in New York City to give an artist talk I had to buy Peter breakfast. It was the best breakfast of my life though, because it was the morning he handed me the hand-written foreword for my book Dual Lives: From the Streets to the Studio. Both Peter and John have hearts of gold and have always gone above and beyond for our son, which endears them to me.”
At the heart of Bell’s story lies his love for his art: Painting. It’s an intense form of work, with emotions coursing through his veins and onto the canvas. To Bell it’s very clear when he succeeded in his art. “When I become the audience,” he tells us. “It’s that moment when I step away from the painting knowing I’ve done everything I possibly could to in order to bring the vision that’s in my head to the surface of the canvas. It’s also when nothing bothers me about the work from a technical or color standpoint. For me, that’s about making people not only look like they do, but also feel like they do, that their true nature and spirit are revealed through the work. That’s why I prefer knowing my subjects on a personal level.”
That personal connection also helps him push through when there is a deadline. “It’s taught me how to work quickly. I’ve learned a lot about myself in those times too. Perseverance most of all. When you’re given a deadline, and in Hollywood or when creating work for any celebrity or important figure, it’s usually a ‘we need it done yesterday’ type of deadline,” he says with a smile.
He painted a portrait of Rob Cordice, one of the fallen heroes from Brooklyn’s Squad 1, overnight for actor Joseph Gannascoli, who played Vito Spatafore on HBO’s The Sopranos, to take to a fundraiser immediately following 9/11. “I’d do several other portraits, some of Joe and his Sopranos pals for future benefits, one for his Cugine Cigar Line, another for an autism fundraiser.”
He also did a fast-paced job for Dominic Capone. “He invited me to film an unveiling for his TV show The Capones, which I blew through in 48 hours. Just enough time for it to dry, ship out, and just before they flew me out for the filming over the course of one week. That was stressful, but the piece came out great. I painted a diamond ring on his girlfriend’s hand in the picture. Something I did once for my own wife in a portrait I gave her the night I proposed. Dominic lured her to a gallery in Chicago, but when she arrived I was the only one there. My painting was mounted to a wall all by itself beside a bottle of champagne on ice. Dominic asked Staci if she noticed anything about her in the painting, motioning toward her ring finger, and then he got down on one knee and proposed.”
The creation of the cover art for John Gotti Junior’s book Shadow of My Father was another round-the-clock job. He received the order two weeks before Christmas. “And you know how the holidays go, so I wanted to knock it out as fast as I could for him before we went out of town to spend the holidays with family. That’s why the quick turnaround on that one. All in all, it’s this process that has taught me how to become one of the great ones and come through for my clients, no matter the personal sacrifices or intense deadlines.”
In the end, the reward is worth it. Bell vividly remembers getting a call from Gotti after sending him the artwork for the book cover. “I was in a restaurant with my wife having dinner when he called. I stepped outside in order to hear him over the background noise as he exclaimed: ‘You hear that roar of applause in the background? That’s the sound of YOU NAILED IT! I’m here at a table full of men applauding a job well done. It’s truly amazing.’ Knowing I helped bring someone’s vision into reality, that’s the most satisfying feeling on the planet.”
View Michael Bell’s Official Website at http://mbellart.com. Follow Michael Bell on social media @mbellart on Instagram & Twitter and on Facebook on his verified fan page at http://facebook.com/mbellartlive
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