The People's Gallery

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

Toussaint left Haiti to attend high school in New York City, where he lived with his father ("a guy who don't really care about kids, you know?"). He spent his school years doodling on the back of chemistry tests. He says he passed his courses because his teachers were impressed by his artistic talent. He later came to Miami to stay with his cousins. To thank them he painted the front of their fabric store with kitschy depictions of women draped in racy animal prints.

"That got people's attention, and people started asking, 'Would you do it for me?'" says Toussaint, moving out to the street for a guided tour of his works. "They just give me an idea and I just be doing them. They say, 'I want Aristide,' and then I just doing them for the public to appreciate. Most of the time it's political and commercial. There are different styles. If you're going down there toward Liberty City, I mostly draw rappers. And then down there on a laundry I drew Martin Luther King because right across the street from the laundromat there's a church and the people there are preachers, church people. You've got to look at the environment to see what kind of picture, what kind of message, to make for the neighborhood. That's how you draw. And then advertise what they're selling. Right down there, at Get Down Auto Sounds, the guy's a Jamaican, so I draw Bob Marley on the side of the wall there; a musician, you know. There's a picture for E-Z Wear, for a fabric store, so I draw a woman with the clothes. If it's a market, I draw cows and stuff.

"There's my work on that botanica, that's [the Vodou spirits] Ezili Danto and Kouzen Zaka. In most of my work I just say messages, make it mean something. Most of the time I paint for the kids, too -- like there on that grocery store where it says, 'Just say no.'

"An Arab, Majik, owns that store down there. He said just put a rapper here. You put rappers, you put famous people like Muhammad Ali. You've got to put the rappers and the role models so the kids know the difference between good and bad. That's Tupac and Biggie Smalls. I put the R.I.P. -- 'Remember in prayer' -- for the kids to know that there's no life in the thug life, they die young. This really gets their attention about being a gang member. See the diamond earrings and everything? But look what they're losing, they're losing the whole world by being a world by themselves. That black shooting star behind Tupac? That's me."

Toussaint may be the most popular artist in Little Haiti, but he still can't make a decent living. He currently lives in Homestead with his girlfriend Nadia, who's studying to be a nurse. He barely gets by.

"The first day the store owners'll tell you, 'Man, we just opened and business is down,'" says Toussaint. "But once I start painting I just love it so much, that's why people take advantage of me. I'm looking for all kinds of opportunity. That's why I do it for so cheap. People think I'm making millions out of it, but all I get is $40. I just want to get enough recognition for me to get on up.

"I was working at the airport, picking up baggages, and the manager said, 'You be late again, you fired.' I said, 'All right, I'm fired, because I know I'm going to be late.' An artist is just made to be free. You don't tell an artist what time to be here. Well, unless it's an art job. Then I won't be late."

Toussaint can name a few other Little Haiti artists who paint walls -- Tony and Gilbert, and the venerable Jude Thejenus, who did the heartbreaking mural on the Haitian Refugee Center, which shows a young Haitian man shackled to the Statue of Liberty. That painting is faded now and seems to have been partly whitewashed.

Toussaint blames the defacement on a would-be artist named Alex, and adds that Alex has been signing his name to works Toussaint actually did. In fact, Toussaint says, he defended his honor by angrily confronting Alex, a squabble that Toussaint glumly notes ended with him on probation. He says he has to attend anger control classes at five o'clock every weekday.

"It's really hard for an artist to make it, real tough," Toussaint complains. "They just use and abuse you, taking advantage of you. Call you names and stuff. As good as you are, you should have been this and you should have been that. I don't have nothing. I just try and stay straight." He shrugs. "Every time I feel tired, I just look at my work and go on."

Marvin Weeks is painting the abstract background for his portrait of Martin Luther King in colors vivid enough to stop traffic at NE 79th Street and Third Avenue -- and, with any luck, to bring more customers into My Dream Laundromat.

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