The People's Gallery

Public art is thriving in urban Miami. And government bureaucrats have nothing to do with it.

A fleet of ships with billowing sails moves across a large plywood sign posted at the Express Hand Car Wash on NW Second Avenue. The boats, flying Haitian flags, weave determinedly toward their island home, amid gulls and frothy clouds. Bright red hand-painted letters spell out the bottom line: Paye Nou SVP (Pay us please.)

On this hellish weekday morning, when the sun prickles the skin through a wheezy haze from the wildfires to the north, the sea-licked shores of Miami Beach and its summer players seem as far away as Haiti. For the inner-city entrepreneurs who work here each day, summertime means business as usual. Several young men are carefully sudsing and rinsing a row of taxicabs and sedans at the car wash while the drivers look on, jangling their keys and chatting in Creole. A little girl and her grandmother wearing identical straw hats slowly push a shopping cart piled with clothes to the crowded laundromat across the street. A pungent smell of frying oil escapes from the Delice Restaurant next door; on its façade jaunty paintings of a jumping fish, a steaming roast chicken, and a highball glass beckon customers for the approaching lunch hour.

Unlike those Miami neighborhoods designed to ensure tidy anonymity, with code-approved barricades and identical condo towers, here life spills voluptuously into the street. Small-business owners with a dream, a plan, or at least a notion announce their intentions in bright acrylic paint that blazes across the faces of tired buildings -- often erasing the bad memory of a failed predecessor. Little Haiti and its northern and western neighbors, extending to Liberty City, compose the land that neon, airbrush, and computer graphics forgot. Instead, a dynamic gallery of hand-painted murals featuring laughing cows and spry crabs, dancing soda cans, swaying palms, steely-eyed Vodou deities, and pensive political heroes covers the walls of shops and restaurants, advertising car parts and tires, refrigerators and slip covers, curly perms and "ocean waves," bail bonds and tax returns, birthday cakes and goat's head soup. The anarchic urban landscape spurred by plain necessity has made this area of Caribbean immigrants and African Americans more picturesque than any tourist board could have ever planned.

"The people who make up these communities come from cultures where art is a functional part of their lives," says Marvin Weeks, a Miami-based artist originally from the Sea Islands off Georgia, whose own work often explores the ties between African-American and Caribbean visual culture. "It's an everyday form of expression."

In the artworks on these city walls, cultural icons are put to the service of commerce. On the side of a market on NW 63rd Street, Martin Luther King stares poignantly into the distance. He may be composing a moving discourse, or perhaps just trying to decide between the turkey wing and "porck" sparerib from the list of offerings printed in colored letters on the wall next to his portrait. Over in Liberty City, the Arab owner of a one-stop hopes the rappers' faces painted on the front of his store will give it the neighborhood seal of approval.

"You've got a lot of people selling a lot of things, so you've got to find an image that people can relate to in order to attract their attention," says Weeks, who on a recent afternoon perches atop a scaffold outside the My Dream Laundry on NE 79th Street. A huge hyperrealist face of King floats on the white wall before him.

Weeks, age 44, has been painting in the street for more than two decades, most actively as a member of Washington, D.C.'s Urban Muralists Association. When he moved to Miami twelve years ago, he noted evidence of a street-painting tradition in the city's black neighborhoods, especially a few remaining signs by a character named Johnny Cool, who, legend has it, rode around in a red Cadillac and painted most of the signs in Overtown and Liberty City in the Fifties. "He never got his due," Weeks laments.

More recently, Oscar Thomas, who died last year at age 41, covered the walls of Liberty City with powerful photorealist murals of historical black figures in an effort to boost community morale. "We as black folk don't take much time to go to galleries and museums. The way to get impact is to use the cities," Thomas once said. "If this is not supposed to be the place for art, then I really need to be here."

Most of Miami's urban artworks are created out of a different sense of need -- to get by. Stores have to advertise, paint is cheap, and so is the labor. Theo Daniel, a 33-year-old Haitian, recently covered the facade of Cayard's Market on North Miami Avenue and 62nd Street with naive depictions of a girl balancing a basket of tropical fruit on her head, an idyllic island scene, a tiered cake, meats, and seafood. Daniel, who came to Miami when he was twelve, graduated from North Miami Beach High (he faked his address so he could go there instead of Little Haiti's Miami Edison High). Now he has four children to support. His regular job is stock supervisor of the market, which caters to a Haitian clientele with items like salted pork and cod, homemade pistachio cookies, and huge bags of rice bearing the kerchiefed visage of Madame Gougousse -- Haiti's equivalent of Uncle Ben.

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