On a typical summer’s day in Sydney Alesandro Ljubicic is multitasking to get the proverbial shit done. He’s a modern day artist and businessman who assures us that he’s nowhere near slicing off an ear just yet.
“I probably use twelve litres of paint in each painting. The fumes are pretty heavy but I work in evenings where the studio window’s open. Monika doesn’t walk in. Period. It’s my man cave,” he laughs.
Painting striking artworks that evoke positive emotions is Ljubicic’s craft and ‘Monika’ is Monika Radulovic – his fiancée who also happens to be the former Miss Universe of Australia.
We recently sat down with him to talk about all things that men want to know: How he left a potential career in pro basketball to become a professional painter, how he turned a creative outlet into a profitable business and more importantly, the secret dating moves he pulled to capture the attention of a future Miss Universe.
This is art school but not as you know it.
“The difference between a successful artist and another is simply the exposure.”
Scroll through recent social pages and you might come across a tuxedo-clad Ljubicic in trademark specs beaming alongside his equally radiant partner in crime. Watch launches, fashion shows, the races and the odd dog wedding, you name it and the pair have likely dropped in together.
Distinguishing today’s reality from a less glamorous past has never been an issue of conversation for Ljubicic though.
Like most migrant families who arrived in Australia in the past decades, Ljubicic and his family fled a war-torn Bosnia during the early 90s in search of salvation.
“For me honestly, back then when we lived there, we had everything,” he recalls.
In Bosnia his family had accumulated enough wealth over the generations to become “comfortable”. Once the war happened, the family uprooted and left most of those comforts behind, taking their only son with them to Australia in 1993. This was their new home; a place in which they couldn’t speak the language and rebuilding a life meant starting from scratch.
Thankfully it didn’t take much for a young Ljubicic to realise his talents. It was grade two and he had completed one of his first ever paintings. The Harbour Bridge complete with water and an adjoining Opera House. His teacher was so impressed that she sent him to the principal’s office to retrieve a sticker. That was the only time he’d visit the principal’s office on a good note.
“In primary school I took Power Rangers too seriously. At one stage I was banned from excursions for getting in too many fights,” he says.
Nonetheless the popular kids show probably aided in understanding primary colours a bit more and by the time he was in high school, a calmer and more disciplined Alessandro Ljubicic had come to fruition. This was a young man determined to be a future basketball star with NBA dreams.
Ljubicic began taking the sport seriously and carried that same training mentality into his studies. He was always two weeks ahead of schedule so that he’d have enough time to balance training with passing grades whilst his father worked as a pastry chef and his mother worked in a factory.
“Being the only child I’m lucky because my parents went out of their way to make sure I had the best so that I wouldn’t see the negative side of things,” he says.
“When I was accepted to go to the Sydney Academy of Sport for basketball, we didn’t have the money to send me, so dad would sell one of his prized keyboards to pay my fees. It didn’t happen once, it happened several times.”
“After selling it he’d save to buy a new one and if I needed to go somewhere else for basketball, he’d sell it again. It was like that.”
His promising stint in basketball would however come to an abrupt halt after an injury kept him off the court for six months. One of his teachers at the time would tell him that this was a blessing in disguise.
“Laurie Dagwell. I only know her first name because we’re now Instagram friends – she said at the time, ‘You’re not going to be a sportsman, you’re going to be an artist.’ And I thought ‘Fuck, what would you know?'”
More than he would ever imagine it seemed. During his injury period Ljubicic began taking his creativity more seriously.
“I remember doing assessments in Year 12 during school holidays where I’d start painting at 9am in the morning and wouldn’t eat anything until I stopped at 8pm.”
“You don’t realise because you’re just so immersed in it,” he says.
“It’s one of those self-fulfilling things money can’t buy.”
Creating things with his hands soon became an obsession so when it came time to laying the pathway to his future,the choice was easy – art.
“My parents said do what you love. I didn’t look towards the future in terms of how I was going to make money or how I was going to support the family. It was more what I enjoyed doing and things kind of fell in place.”
“They’ve always said that if you’re going to fail, you might as well fail doing something you love rather than doing something you hate. But then again, how can you fail doing something you love?”
Ljubicic didn’t fail. In fact he was shortly accepted into the National Art School, a move which his parents supported whilst drawing some disdain from others.
They’d often say to them: “What the hell are you doing with your kid? Allowing him to go to the National Art School. What the hell is he going to do?”
Unlike other parents who sent their children to study law or business at university, Ljubicic’s parents knew that he was going to make it regardless. They spotted that steely determination early on during his basketball days and knew he’d be fine no matter what he chose to do in life.
Attending the National Art School doesn’t afford you many free meals as a 21-year-old student living in south western Sydney. Thankfully a young Ljubicic knew how to hustle and quickly found a way to open his own art store at a time when most guys were still mashing buttons on a Playstation.
“So what happened was I received a scholarship. It was $3,000 cash. I thought I was the richest guy in the world and I was going to go out for lunch to get extra beef and everything,” he laughs.
Then he realised that he was burning through his art supplies faster than he was receiving those scholarship checks. The wise words of his parents words once again resonated: If you want success with anything, you have to use the best.
Ljubicic began working retail every weekend and holiday for money that would pay for his art material. It still wasn’t enough to cover his expenses though so he hatched an even grander plan.
In a matter of days he had a website, a PayPal account and an “art store” which was deceivingly bigger in name than what it was bricks and mortar.
The Sydney Art Store was born – a one metre wide stand sitting in Ljubicic’s Bankstown bedroom which held $3,000 worth of coloured paint bought from the supplier he was initially using. This was the beginning of his art empire.
With word quickly spreading to fellow students at the school, Ljubicic soon received the go ahead from teachers to start selling his art supplies in his own makeshift stall space every Wednesday at the college.
“We’d get the table out and I became the new supplier for the school. We’d undercut everyone because I had no overheads.”
“I’m sure if I was painting dead birds and road kill, my paintings wouldn’t sell as well.”
Art in practice can be a convoluted industry at the best of times. Reaching the status of a professional artist often involves years of discovering one’s own style before embarking on the hard sell. Ljubicic knew this earlier than most so he toyed with the idea of opening a proper art store to help fund his expensive passion for painting.
Within a week and without hesitation from his parents, the family home was on the market, ready go all into their son’s next big dream. Financially it was one of their biggest risks and one that made little sense to outsiders.
“Mum said, ‘Let’s just do it and give it a go. If it doesn’t work, we’ll start all over.'”
Ten years later and his business is now recognised as one of the largest in Australia with a dedicated store in Sydney in which his studio (see: man cave) sits atop.
Given his brazen approach to business which has consistently worked in his favour (some of his paintings can retail for up to $24,000 today), we had to ask Ljubicic for his best advice on turning art into a profitable job.
“Every artist is some sort of businessman. Every artist has an ABN. They’re a walking business. The difference between a successful artist and another is simply the exposure,” he says.
“I always say, you can’t sell a secret. They have to be savvy in a way cause they’re selling a luxury product. No one needs a painting on their wall. It’s not food or water.”
“You need to create something beautiful and you need get it out there. Its a lot easier now with Instagram but be comfortable in what you’ve painted. It’s supposed to represent who you are.”
Ljubicic’s own work is a prime example of this. Often lathered in thick coats of expensive oil paints, his art has garnered attention for focusing primarily on colours that speak to people. All 25,000 of them on his Instagram following.
These colours have been manifested into grand floral pieces which is today the signature of his work or as he likes to put it, “a universal subject which speaks to everyone”.
“I’m sure if I was painting dead birds and road kill, my paintings wouldn’t sell as well.”
“Monika knew I was painter but a lot of her friends responded with ‘Oh yeah? My dad’s a painter too – painted our whole house the other day.’”
There’s more to Ljubicic than just being a half decent painter who knows how to market his material. Beyond that he’s perceived as the lucky guy engaged to Miss Universe Australia.
But as you probably realise by now, Ljubicic isn’t the kind of guy to rely on luck. How did he charm his way into the heart of the bubbly model?
“The pick up secret is…there is no secret,” he laughs.
“It’s knowing what you want, not being a sleaze and being genuine.”
“She was a friend of a mutual friend. I saw a photo of her in the background of a Facebook photo and contacted the friend asking who the girl in the background was. He said ‘Oh, that’s Monika. I’ll introduce you next time we go out.'”
The introduction never happened so like most obstacles in life Ljubicic took things into his own hands.
“I thought ‘I’m not waiting for this guy to invite me, I’m going to invite myself'”.
He added her on Facebook, said hello and introduced himself as a mutual friend and left it at that. Banter would flow for a few days before Ljubicic would ask her out on a movie date in which she graciously declined on the grounds of being “very busy”. She did however throw him a lifeline in the form of a birthday gathering with her girlfriends. This was code for ‘into the danger zone’.
“Here’s a tip. If you see a girl you like and are willing to make an effort, and she wants to meet with you amongst all her friends, go alone – don’t take your friends.”
“I went on my own and when you go on your own in a situation with sixteen girls surrounding you, you’re already in the good books of appearing social,” he says.
His artist-painter line didn’t exactly pan out with some partygoers though.
“Monika knew I was painter but a lot of her friends responded with ‘Oh yeah? My dad’s a painter too – painted our whole house the other day’,” he laughs.
Since then the pair have been together for five years including those where she competed at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant. The man certainly seems to know a thing or two about keeping women happy and he attributes this to just having a laugh at anything.
“We’re always laughing about ridiculous things. Yesterday we went to a cat and dog wedding and we were laughing, wondering what how the hell we ended up here. When you come from your own skin you can do anything.”
As Ljubicic sits on his paint covered chair in his studio on top of a bustling paint store below, it can be a bit hard to decipher where the finish line is. The part in which a struggling artist can finally say he’s made it.
For Ljubicic that little indicator is obvious. On his dad’s birthday he bought him a Nord Stage 2 keyboard worth a $5,000. He won’t need to sell this one.