Franco the Great is known as “Harlem’s Picasso,” and his murals along 125th Street on the gates of businesses provide a more festive appearance to Harlem’s Main Street when stores are closed. His colorful murals are not only a featured attraction for tourists who come uptown, but have become a staple to Harlem’s culture. Since the 1960s, Franco, 81, has managed to continue to add a bit of color to New York City’s facade and get international recognition. His travels are evident by the patches he wears from different countries on his signature jumpsuit.

Born in Panama, Franco said that it was an accident when he was 3 years old that started off his artistic life. At that age, he fell three stories, landing on his head. The incident is still evident by a bump under his stringy hair. The accident left him in a coma for month, with doctors believing he would lead a life of mental disabilities. Because of the accident, Franco was unable to speak properly, isolating him from the other children. A painter he met at age 9 would help him come to speed with his speech, reading and writing in hopes to be accepted by the other children.

“The magic was a vehicle for me that really helped me come out of my shell. I thought that if I could do something that my peers couldn’t do, I’d be accepted,” he said. “But later when I started painting, I was able to put the magic into my art.” As a means to be welcomed by his peers, Franco asked his priest for a book on performing magic tricks. He perfected his craft, doing shows for other children and coining the stage name that would stay with him for the rest of his life: Franco the Great.

While in school, Franco began to draw in class and do some light artwork. Never attending art school, his work was so good that his teacher’s purchased his art. He knew then that art would be his source of income. At the age of 14, Franco worked for two artists who painted murals in his town for $1.50 a week washing their paint brushes. After two years, Franco began making his own murals with the two men. Impressed by his work, he received a raise of $15 a week. In 1958, by the time he was in his early 30s,his grandmother, who was living in New York City, sent for him and he moved to Harlem on 114th Street. However, he didn’t want to leave his talent of painting murals in Panama and didn’t waste any time looking for an artistic outlet.

“During my first week in New York, I walked from Eighth Avenue to Fifth Avenue, asking owners of bars and restaurants if I could paint a mural for them for free,” he said. “I just wanted to get my name out there. They all responded the same way, ‘In New York, no one does anything for free.’” With that in mind, Franco went downtown to 14th Street and painted a free mural for a Mexican restaurant. His first uptown masterpiece was on Amsterdam Avenue and 148th Street of the New York City skyline. After that, bars and restaurants around Harlem began to take notice and started to hire him.

Through the years, he’s painted murals of Black icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and today, President-elect Barack Obama. His paintings have become such a popular attraction on 125th Street that there was a push to rename the thoroughfare Franco Blvd. Speaking six languages, Franco accommodates tourists from all over the world with souvenir postcards of photos that feature him standing beside his murals. In response to his popularity in America, he has circled the globe, visiting Africa, Mexico, the Caribbean, Japan, Denmark, Italy and other countries, painting murals and teaching others about art. He’s been seen around the globe doing his famous trick of painting landscapes blind-folded.

Reflecting on two of his favorite murals, one of a blossom tree and one of a vault leading to an infinite amount of money, Franco said that the symbolism behind the murals is his outlook on life. “I must bloom where I am planted,” he said. “When I came to the States, I found myself planted in Harlem and now, I must bloom. I always try to think positive.”