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Don’t be a typical American and ask Kako where his last name went. It might seem peculiar in the U.S., but Brazilian artists frequently go by their first or last names, or nicknames, when it comes to their work. Kako was born Franco D’Angelo Bergamini, but the family called him “Caco,” and he and his brother were known as the kids in the neighborhood who could draw.

His parents kept a houseful of books, art supplies and a video camera, which sparked Kako’s lifelong passion for film. At around age twelve, he and his brother began studying in the afternoons with Domingos Takeshita, also known as tak, an artist who ran Estúdio Pinheiros, a local comic-book school. At least, that’s how he billed it.

Takeshita wasn’t exactly teaching color theory, not in any official way. Instead, his small group of pupils watched movies, read books and hashed out the meaning of life. They drew some, too. Takeshita encouraged them to observe the world and have nuanced discussions about complex subjects. “He wanted us to be authors,” Kako recalls, “and ‘creative beings,’ as he used to say. That was the difference between his classes and the other schools in Brazil. Comic books were just a way to connect with us easily.

“Yes,” Kako adds, speaking over Skype from his São Paulo studio, “he was my Mr. Miyagi.”

After school, Kako put in stints at an advertising production company and then as a fine-art student at the University of São Paulo, working on illustration commissions all the while, but only as a side note. He dropped out of art school (“wrong place, wrong time,” he says) to pursue graphic design, teaching at Takeshita’s school simultaneously. Then, in the early 2000s, he tried his hand at Web design.

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If there were such a thing as a Brazilian Buddha, Kako would be it. So the varied career moves didn't stem from a lack of direction. The opposite is true. “I wanted to experience everything without fear or regret,” he says. “It all adds up in the end."

But in 2002, he happened to open his sketchbook, and its too-white pages screamed up at him: Where have you been? “I realized I hadn’t drawn anything for a year,” he says. “Not even a phone doodle.” It hit him, as Kako says in his unreasonably charming, intensely visual English, “like a big rock in the head.”

So he did what every self-respecting artist must at some point do. He quit his job, grew a beard and took up semi-permanent residency in his pajamas. Eventually, his brother, an art director with contacts, made some introductions. And illustration became his final career move—the one he stuck with for good.

Kako’s far-ranging editorial and advertising clients have included Playboy, Nike, Microsoft, Image Comics and Scholastic, among others. Recognition has come from Communication Arts and, twice, Lürzer’s Archive 200 Best Illustrators Worldwide. Kako doesn’t like talking about awards, but with enough prodding he’ll concede that he also has a Gold Lion under his belt.

He calls his style “dark and dirty,” a good description of the tenor and tone of at least a lot of his work. He likes drama and contrast; that includes contrast between black and blood red, and between layers of raw texture and pristine line work.

Japanese Ukiyo-e prints appeal to Kako in part because of the emphasis on black line, but mostly because of the way those artists worked beyond the limitations of then-incipient printing technologies. To replicate those tight parameters, he sticks to a restricted palette of colors, including blues, greens and neutral tones in the brown family, plus his signature reds and blacks.

Known for being professional and incredibly easy to work with (“I wish I could clone him,” says his rep Sari Schorr, owner, Levy Creative Management), Kako is most empowered as an artist when he connects personally to the material. In some cases, his research is so intense he could probably send his client a master’s thesis along with the illustration come deadline. “It’s an addiction,” he says. “But I feel a responsibility to the reader to complete the story.”

His work has a degree of finish, detail and compositional strength that can stop a trained eye in its proverbial tracks. But it appeals to more than just art geeks. Readers who aren’t visual can look at his work and say, ‘Wow. That’s cool. Now I want to read that story.’ " —Rob Wilson

For “Fifteen Crimes in Fiction,” an article in SEXY magazine (rival to Brazilian Playboy), Kako encrypted his three-part illustration with what he calls “Easter eggs”—symbols of film and literature’s most infamous murders. Embedded in the scenes, you’ll find references to Seven, Match Point, Silence of the Lambs, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (look closely for the horse of Raskolnikov’s dream) and more. In the sunglasses one figure is wearing, you can see the reflection of Psycho's Norman Bates, that famous knife caught on the upswing.

In a lot of ways, Kako is a guy’s guy, whose favorite commissions from Playboy are excerpts of books about Vegas gangsters, Middle Eastern drug dealers and the next generation of British spies. “When I want something masculine and kinetic,” says Rob Wilson, Playboy art director, “but also thoughtful and nuanced, I’m looking for Kako. That’s exactly what he brings.”

Wilson continues: “His work has a degree of finish, detail and compositional strength that can stop a trained eye in its proverbial tracks. But it appeals to more than just art geeks. Readers who aren’t visual can look at his work and say, ‘Wow. That’s cool. Now I want to read that story.’ And that’s what we’re in the business of doing—we’re charged with making our audience want to read the articles we're presenting.”

Kako’s also a history fanatic who spent three years illustrating and managing the weapons section of Grandes Guerras, a history of warfare magazine. He got so geeked out on the subject that he and writer Fabiano Onça crashed staff meetings regularly, just so they’d have a say in the magazine’s editorial direction.

Some of Kako’s favorite illustrations come from that period. For an article about the Vietnam War’s media coverage—partly or wholly responsible for its loss, according to many—his illustration depicts a landfill pile of discarded televisions, their images still flickering. At the top of the heap, Kako references Hubert Van Es’s iconic 1975 photograph of evacuees, climbing a ladder to an American helicopter on a Saigon rooftop. In essence, the television rubble serves as the foundation for one of history’s most recognizable symbols of that war’s loss.

“I found my voice at Grandes Guerras,” says Kako, “the style that I’m known for and the style clients ask for.”

“I wanted to experience everything without fear or regret. It all adds up in the end." —Kako

But if Kako’s a guy’s guy, he’s one who happens to be in touch with feelings. Yes, he’s really into the history of warfare, but he also admires the work of Lucien Freud, adores his wife and signs his e-mails “Beijos mil from Brazil!” If the occasion suits, he’s not opposed to illustrating a Tori Amos song either. And when it suits, look out, world.

It’s hard to flip through Comic Book Tattoo, an anthology of 51 graphic stories inspired by Amos’s music and edited by Rantz Hoseley, without stopping at Kako’s interpretation of “Marianne,” Amos’s song about the loss of a friend. The graphic designer in Kako compelled him to ditch the framed cells and talking heads a more typical comic book would have warranted. (And typical it’s not: Comic Book Tattoo won both the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best Anthology in 2009.)

Instead, Kako went with lush, large-scale images—eleven, oversized pages in all—whose compositions shift in proportion and perspective, something like a camera speed—ramping from tight to wide shots. The story’s unlikely central figure, a bumblebee, moves from one flower to another as a carnival carousel spins behind the insect.

For Kako, the piece is personal—a reckoning with his cousin’s death at age eighteen. At the time, Kako tried but couldn’t help his troubled cousin. He couldn’t stop the forward momentum—the inevitability of a tragic end—and so had no choice but to let the scenario spin, as with a carousel, to its own conclusion. In his images, you’ll see that the ride has an empty seat.

In this case, the bumblebee idiom is very specific, but Kako doesn’t spoon feed his audience either. The former fine-art student creates enough psychological space to let viewers extract their own meanings. “Most contemporary art is based on the viewer ‘reading though’ or ‘thinking beyond,’” he says. “I don’t think it’s up to me to decide what the viewer is going to get from an illustration.”

Lately, Kako has begun producing black-and-white works that evoke the quality of nineteenth-century etchings, a pretty dramatic stylistic departure. A poster for a film festival, sponsored by the Brazilian cultural institute Itaú Cultural, features two sides of the same face—capturing the moment of inner conflict in which a person turns against himself, when he stops listening. The left side is screaming at the right, and vice versa, and neither can hear the other for all the shouting.

And yes, it is a self-portrait. Joking around over Skype, Kako dramatizes the illustration for the camera. He turns one way, then the other—with a frozen, mock scream on his face. “That’s me,” he says. But of course it’s not really. The minute he swaps the look of faux anguish for a smile, you get the real Kako again, the most sensitive guy’s guy you’ll ever meet. Masculine and kinetic, you could say, but at the same time thoughtful and nuanced. ca

Tiffany Meyers is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her articles about business and visual culture have appeared in such magazines as Surface, the Chicago Tribune, HOW, Metropolis, American PHOTO, PINK, Entrepreneur and Advertising Age, among others.

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