Mafia Hit Man Finds Redemption in Art

Photo: Dominick Montiglio - hit man turned artistABC News
Dominick Montiglio

When Dominick Montiglio was only 2, his "Uncle Nino" -- captain of the notorious Gambino crime family -- banished the boy's alcoholic father from his home and took on the role of surrogate and godfather.

Anthony 'Nino' Gaggi and his crew, headed by Roy DeMeo, set an early example for Montiglio, reportedly murdering 200 people and dismembering their bodies at Brooklyn's Gemini Lounge, also known as the "Horror Hotel."

VIDEO: Dominic Montiglio talks about rigging a hand grenade which ended in murder.Play
Montiglio (right) explains rigging a hand grenade for murder in "Dark Visions."

"I lived the life," said Montiglio, now a 62-year-old struggling artist, who admits he was involved in scores of those killings, then testified against the family before entering the federal witness protection program in 1983.

"But I don't make any excuses," said Montiglio, whose mob nickname was "The Cape."

Now, instead of cutting up corpses, the former hit man creates paintings, depicting the dark anguish caused by a life of organized crime.

VIDEO: Dominic Montiglio describes his artistic process.Play

And his work is starting to get the attention of collectors who are not only mesmerized by his haunting imagery, but his personal redemption.

This week, Montiglio will be showcased for the first time by the prestigious Olof Gallery at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City alongside other untrained artists whose shattered lives land them on the fringes of society.

"I used to go out with $10,000 in my pocket and drive a Ferrari. Now, I don't have a car and I make minimum wage," said Montiglio, who lives in an undisclosed location in the United States. "That's the hand you're dealt."

VIDEO: Dominic Montiglios service in Vietnam comes through in his artwork.Play

Outsider art has its origins in France in 1920, when artist Jean Dubuffet described work created by insane asylum patients. Later, in 1972, art critic Roger Cardinal coined the term for those who are culturally marginized and have no contact with the mainstream art world.

"The art is by the uneducated, untrained and in some cases those who suffer problems and are not within this world," said Sanford Smith, who founded the Outsider Art Fair 18 years ago. "People love the idea that it comes with a story."

VIDEO: Dominic Montiglio explains what steered him from music to a life in the mafia.Play

In New York, outsider art is showcased at the Center for Contemporary Art, which is part of the American Folk Art Museum. "Now, the outsider part is the tail wagging the dog of the museum" as interest in the genre is exploding, according to Smith.

"Part of the mystique is the people who created the art, the autistic who doesn't speak, the mentally ill who have conversations with God," he told "People can say Dominick was a hit man and killed people and went to jail."

Montiglio not only killed for family, but he killed for his country in Vietnam, a paratrooper who survived the slaughter at Hill 875 in the 1967 Battle of Dak To.

Outsider Art Helped Put Mob Behind

"Those demons never leave," he told ABCNews. "To tell the truth, the mob was worse, because killing is war. The other was the crew I was with. Those guys, they killed for fun. They killed for business."

Nightmares of those killings and his fractured family still rage, but now Montiglio uses them to fuel his art in collages of brutal characters and scenes of mayhem.

Montiglio will show his work at Booth 20, alongside three other self-taught artists whose back stories were highlighted in the magazine Raw Vision.

Fantastical painter Alison Silva struggles with an untreated brain tumor that causes hallucinations and fuels her creativity. Artist Candyce Brokaw was sexually abused as a child.

But it is fellow painter and documentary filmmaker Ross Brodar, whom Montiglio credits with "turning my life around," who pushed him to paint, sometimes up to 12 hours a day.

A former all-star lacrosse player from suburban Long Island, Brodar had his own demons.

He was a "troubled" teenager, stealing cars, and spent ages 16 to 19 in a court-ordered therapeutic community. There, in a tough love setting among drug addicts and criminals, he discovered painting through art therapy.

"I believe art is therapy for people like me and Dom," Brodar, now 38, told "It's a need to express pain, hope, death and fear without words, just color, line and emotion."

The two met at a gallery in 2000 and for two years sold their paintings from a 26-foot parked van, snubbed by the annual Outsider Art Fair.

Eventually, fair director Smith and the Netherlands-based Olof Gallery took notice of Brodar and then Montiglio.

"I knew I was going to be friends with him," said Brodar of Montiglio, who was invited this year. "Something about him is different and his work really interesting," said Brodar.

"Six months later, he was living with me," said Brodar, who chronicled Montiglio's struggle in ""Dark Visions"," a Dog's Day Productions film he soon hopes to distribute.

"I took Dom into my home and studio, and in exchange for room and board, he gave me his life story."

Threatened by Gambino Family

And what a story. Montiglio was so "high up" in the mob he went to New Year's Eve parties at the home of Paul "Big Pauly" Castellano, who as head of the Gambino family was gunned down outside a Manhattan restaurant in 1985 on orders from John Gotti.

His tyrannical uncle threatened to kill Montiglio's father if he ever tried to make contact with his son.

"He chased my father away. The biggest wound was after I finally tracked my father down, he was dead already," said Montiglio, who was 27 at the time. "You can't talk to the dead."

The pressure Montiglio felt to join the mob was described in the 1992 book, "Murder Machine" by New York Daily News reporters Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci.

As a first grader, the boy was told he couldn't be a policeman and as a popular teen, Montiglio was forbidden to serve as class president because it involved keeping track of troublesome classmates.

"No one in our family can be a rat," he said. "Basically, I was like Nino's robot. Whatever he said, I did."

A football player, he was ridiculed for an interest in art in high school, but was allowed to play saxophone and sang in a doo-wop band, The Four Directions.

But his uncle refused to support Montiglio's music career: "It's okay to blow somebody's car, but not to sing," he told his nephew. Gaggi also opposed military service, but Montiglio joined anyway.

After returning injured from Vietnam in 1968, Montiglio became deeply involved with the DeMeo crew -- and the life.

With a single phone call, he could get nine front-row tickets to a Tom Jones concert in Las Vegas, but there were also the brutal killings -- worse than anything he had seen in Vietnam.

"Every Friday night we'd chop up the money," he said. "When I walked they were at the kitchen table eating spaghetti, and the door was ajar in the bathroom with two bodies hanging naked and bleeding out. Who were these guys? I'd say, 'Don't worry, I'm not staying for dinner.'"

For years, Montiglio struggled with cocaine addiction and alcohol and in 1983, trying to collect an old loan in a drug deal, Montiglio was arrested for extortion.

Gambinos Order Contract Killing

After two weeks in federal prison, he discovered a contract was out on his life and agreed to testify against Gaggi and the DeMeos, resulting in 24 arrests. His uncle died before finishing his sentence.

Montiglio was spared prison time for probation and given witness protection for 20 years.

His new identity as an artist emerged accidentally in the 1990s while converting his sister's Long Island garage into an apartment. With gallons of leftover paint, he created a 17- by 11-foot mural on one of the walls.

A friend who owned a gallery saw the mural and made an offer Montiglio couldn't refuse: "If you can make me a painting, I'll put it in my next show."

Later, Montiglio's art took off, catching the eye of Red Bull marketing guru and art collector Hans Kastner.

Today, with chronic lung disease and post traumatic stress disorder, Montiglio survives on veteran's benefits and his job as a security guard. The irony does not escape him: "I know all the tricks."

He lives in a state he won't reveal.

"I like to stay ahead of the beast," he said wryly. "The present family always has some young cowboys who like to make their name. It's much better to stay on your toes."

A recurrent nightmare still wakes Montiglio in a pool of sweat: He walks out of Uncle Nino's house and from underneath his Cadillac, emerges Joey and Anthony from the DeMeo crew.

"Hey Dominick, come to hell with us," they chant.

"I am still in hell," said Montiglio. "There are so many things I could have done. I had a football scholarship and Army medals."

He has been "clean" for decades and has already sold one piece of art for $7,200. Montiglio knows that either the Olof Gallery exposure or a documentary in the wings could set him up for life.

"It's hard to be proud of yourself when you ran a twisted life," said the former hit man. "But you just grab at the moment -- whatever it is."

The Outsider Art Fair is being held Feb. 5-7 at 7 West 34th Street off Fifth Avenue in New York City. With donations from many Haitian artists, 5 percent of the sales will go to Doctors Without Borders for earthquake relief.