The artist is pictured with his piece “Material Girl”

Written by DARLEEN PRINCIPE   Photo by MICHAEL COONS

It’s about noon on a Monday in early August. Nelson De La Nuez sports a white, V-neck T-shirt and blue jeans, both stamped with his own logo: a crown adorned with the words “King of Pop Art.”

He settles comfortably into his off-white living room sofa, perches his right arm on the armrest and, without being asked a question, begins talking.

“We’re in the midst right now of getting ready for Art Aspen,” he says, referring to the annual summer art fair in Aspen, Colo., in which only the country’s most high-end galleries are invited to participate.

His tone is casual, but matter-of-fact. Authoritative, yet friendly. It’s the tone of a man who’s tasted success, but hasn’t let it get to his head.

As De La Nuez continues speaking, he slouches further back into the couch and crosses one leg over the other. His right arm, accessorized by three bead bracelets—red, gray and black—dangles over the edge of the armrest, while the other arm is outstretched along the top edge of the couch. He relaxes.

“This is our second year doing Art Aspen and it’s just been a great show for us,” he continues. “And I’ve got to drop off about 10 pieces at Bruce Lurie Gallery in Beverly Hills this Friday, so that’s why I’ve been working and pulling all-nighters for the last week and a half.”

“Take the Money and Run.”

De La Nuez is used to keeping weird hours. The night is the 56-year-old pop artist’s favorite time to escape to his private Simi Valley studio and lay paint to canvas.

A recent product of one such session hangs on the wall above the artist’s head, making a striking living room centerpiece. The painting, an early edition of his work titled “Graffiti is Not Art,” features Monopoly’s iconic Rich Uncle Pennybags being dragged away by a cop holding a baton.

The image is just like the board game’s “Go to Jail” Community Chest card, except instead of the plain yellow background, there’s a colorful graffiti-filled wall. A can of spray paint is strewn on the floor and where the words “Go directly to jail” should be, it instead reads: “No graffiti.”

The piece is only one of dozens hanging throughout the Simi Valley home De La Nuez shares with his wife of 15 years, Stacy Bell De La Nuez—actress turned president of her husband’s Pop Land Studios. Yet it’s the perfect example of the artist’s M.O.

“It’s the fact that I’ve taken an iconic character and put him in a different situation he’s never been in before,” he says. “The cleverness and the genius behind it is I take these characters and juxtapose them and use them as satire, and create a scene where . . . you kind of shock the viewer.”

But even more than that, this particular piece yells out De La Nuez’s strong stance against street art, a movement that has invaded the mainstream art world in recent years thanks to Banksy, Shepard Fairey and the like.

Although he credits both Banksy and Fairey for being “clever enough to use graffiti as a means of marketing themselves,” most other street art, De La Nuez says, “is like a dog pissing on a wall to make its mark.”

“It’s just such a cheap shot,” he says.

For the Cuban-born artist, graffiti is nothing more than vandalism. And it’s the wrong way to earn success, he says.

“You have to have art that’s controversial. You have to offend people. You’ve got to make them laugh. You’ve got to do all these things. But I’d rather do that through a gallery than become anonymous and play this whole hide-and-seek game just to get fame.”

Over the past decade especially, De La Nuez has worked very hard to make a name for himself and stand apart from other pop art big hitters like Peter Max and Michael Godard.

What makes him unique, he says, is he’s not married to just one style. He’s influenced by surrealism just as much as the images of pop culture. And his craft is constantly evolving.

“I don’t want to box myself into a specific look like some of these artists in the past,” he says. “I like to just take it up a notch and outdo myself. And that’s really what my audience looks forward to. It’s like I’m a magician and they don’t know what tricks I have up my sleeve.”

This strategy has proven to be a smart one.

Today his original works fetch thousands of dollars. His top collectors have included A-list celebrities like Sarah Jessica

Parker and the late Michael Jackson. His work hangs in a Madison Avenue gallery in New York and he’s also recently been commissioned by Delta Air Lines to create an original set of paintings to hang in the exclusive Delta One VIP lounge.

How did he get here?

“I’ve just gotten better at my craft. My No. 1 thing is if I get better at my craft, I will be more successful. It’s just that simple.”

Nelson De La Nuez’s work will be on display locally until mid-January at Bagatelle bistro at 755 N. La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood.