I met Salvador Rosillo about a year ago at a dinner in his Tribeca studio. I had been invited by Reid Stowe, who is both an artist and a world-class sailor, the holder of such records as the longest ocean journey without touching land—a thousand days—so I was unsurprised to find that Rosillo has a similarly exotic CV.
He is both an artist, who showed work recently at the Salomon Gallery in New York City, and a hugely successful activist investor in medical marijuana, being the chief executive officer, president, and treasurer of Hemp Americana, Inc., since 2014. The company was valued at $42 million in January.
This 81-year-old artist was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and has had an unusual and occasionally scary career.
“My father was from Spain,” Rosillo said. “My mother was from Texas. She was Protestant. She would take me to the church.” He began using crayons in that church as a child. “My father didn’t want me to be a painter,” he said. “I would do drawings and he would rip them to shreds.” He still has no idea why.
Rosillo left for the U.S. in his late teens, joined the army as a sharpshooter, moved to New York to become an artist and became a lively part of the art community Downtown.
"I used to curate gigantic exhibitions on the Lower East Side,“ he said. Where? “On Second and 2nd there used to be a high school that was taken over by the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican activists. And they allowed me in. There were so many places. And I was making live performances of action paintings.”
Rosillo then made a critical decision. “I decided to no longer be a starving artist,” he said. His first business venture was in the early 80s and it depended on a former post office truck, refitted with an oven.
“I used to sell burritos and beans and guacamole in SoHo for $3.25. And it only cost me 25 cents. So the profit was enormous, okay? But I had to fly from the cops everywhere. Then a cop wanted a percentage. I said, 'No, man. I’m not giving you shit.'”
Goodbye, truck. That had lasted a year.
Rosillo then got himself to West Africa. “Mali … Senegal … Togo,” he said. In the last he found a partner. “We had 265 square miles of permits to dig for minerals, especially gold,” he said, and he became intensely distrustful of some of the people he was working with. "I was sleeping with one eye open because I thought they might come over the balcony.”
New York ventures which followed included property. So what had propelled the move into marijuana?
It was in the mid '90s and Rosillo had just returned from a stretch in the Persian Gulf where he had, as usual, survived, but with little to show for it. “I had nothing,” he said. “I picked up the Village Voice, which I never did, and in the back it said 'Medicinal Marijuana. Call this number.'”
It smelled like a business opportunity but he did nothing for three days. Then curiosity overcame wariness.
He called and was given an address, which turned out to be that day’s location of “The Club”. This was the New York Medical Marijuana Buyers’ Club, an association put together by a German, Johann Moore, one of the founders of Act-Up, a direct-action group which had sprung up as a response to government and others' inaction over AIDS.
“The club members mostly had AIDS or cancer,” Rosillo recalled. “They were political activists.”
In many states there were and are moves towards decriminalization of pot on medical grounds but dealing was and still is a federal crime, so it was legally iffy. “It took them six months to assess me,” Rosillo said. “They put me at a table. And three were looking at me, interrogating me.”
To make sure you weren’t a fed?
“Yes. I passed the test and got inducted into the club. We used to have secret places throughout the city.”
The legal ambiguity, plus the possibility that other greedy eyes might be watching made vigilance a priority. “You go there for two hours only, you buy your weed and you leave. You never come back to that place in six weeks. Or more.”
The group traded successfully, until the day it was held up by a gang brandishing pistols.
"There was a long table, we put down the marijuana bags and the customers started coming. And everything sold. We were celebrating when somebody says, 'Get down! Get down! I see a gun, man!' I go down like a sack of potatoes, easy mark. They went through my pockets, took all the money.”
The perfect crime it wasn’t though. “They wore S&M masks and guns. Everybody who was there knew who it was. With mask or no mask. And not everybody was nice.”
Rosillo knows that there was retribution, but not the details.
There were other consequences of the hold-up. Rosillo’s six dealers had made themselves scarce. “I was the only one who came back. I got the job,” Rosillo said. And he had a new partner, Dana Beal, a founder of the Yippies and marijuana decriminalization activist.
So it went until early 2001. “Then the whole thing collapsed,” Rosillo said. “Because gangsters wanted to take over. Everybody ran away. And that was the end of the club. But it existed for more than five years. And it was revolutionary.”
Rosillo however was already absorbed in a project that was much bigger, a financial by-product of decriminalization: legal marijuana stocks. He had entered this world back when he was in property. “I had a building in Brooklyn. Just a pile of garbage that had to be rebuilt. So I did that. And then I began to buy stocks. Back in the day, 2006, 2007, marijuana stocks were so cheap! So I bought a whole bunch of them. Year after year. I held on. Sometimes I said, 'Maybe I should sell this shit.'”
On November 6, 2012, Colorado legalized cannabis.
“They went up like an elevator! I made a bundle, paid the building off. And still had money left.”
So Salvador Rosillo no longer risked becoming a starving artist but he has remained very much a working artist throughout his intense business career.
He now covers canvases with vivid, slathery pictograms, working with his fingers, doing the details with a brush, and often working on several—“I want to rent a loft and paint twenty at the same time” he said—and his work at Salomon includes what he calls "Paintography," photographic prints of a painting, with each print individually worked upon.
As to his career in weed, Rosillo now has his own company: Hemp Americana. “The energy to grow the horn of finance has been very hard,” he said. “Even though I surround myself with experts. Sometimes I do not understand what they are talking about. Medical marijuana is just a name. To make it look good. It’s the same marijuana.
“There’s no medical or non-medical—as long as the marijuana is not grown with pesticides, that it’s kind of organic. The field of marijuana has developed incredibly. You can get a marijuana to go to sleep… another one to get up… one to get hungry… another one not to eat.
“The point is that we are a federal company, regulated by the feds," Rosillo said. “Right now there is a chance that [Andrew] Cuomo [the New York governor] might legalize it. [Cynthia] Nixon [Cuomo’s election primary rival] has said it has to be legalized.”
There have recently been further moves towards decriminalization in New York. “It’s piecemeal, one little bit at a time, Rosillo said. “Now they won’t arrest anybody.”
So what will they do to users? Fine them?
“Nothing. They won’t do anything.”
How is Salvador Rosillo affected?
“I just want to validate my position in the marijuana movement," he said.
And just what is his position?
“In the marijuana movement I was the provider for the club. And the other half was Dana Beal.” Rosillo handled the high end, which was a tougher market. “But I found providers on the West Coast and I had the best weed possible man, you know. So I was successful in the end at providing."
And he plans to continue doing just that. “I have a company selling oils. It’s a subsidiary of Hemp Americana. We launch next May.”