Not a Pretty Picture

German artist Erwin Hollecker was happily painting his way across the United States -- until he hit Miami

On a sweltering morning last month, a tall, balding man in overalls peddled colored-pencil caricatures for five dollars each on a downtown Miami sidewalk. His goal: sell enough to buy a $250 plane ticket home to Germany.

In three days Erwin Hollecker had earned $75. But on this Saturday, a bicycle cop showed up before a single sketch was finished. The officer requested a license. Hollecker had none. The officer ordered him to leave. Hollecker stood his ground. He was led away in handcuffs and spent the night of July 11 in the Miami-Dade County Jail.

Now the 37-year-old Hollecker lives under a bridge. A cardboard sign is propped against his backpack: "Don't touch me, or me owner will kill you." He says he is afraid to set up his easel again. "I have fear to sell more. I don't want to go back to jail," he says in broken English.

Hollecker was born in the southern German town of Hohentengen. He studied to be an electrician for three years, then attended art school. He says he worked for six years as a freelance artist in Berlin and Switzerland until wanderlust struck and he hit the road. In most of Western Europe's big cities -- London, Rome, Paris -- he paid his way by hawking the colorful cartoons that take him less than ten minutes to draw. On a good day he earned the equivalent of about $45, which he says was just enough. "Big money is big stress," he says. "This was enough to get a room downtown, food, and drink."

When Hollecker flew from Brussels to Los Angeles this past April, he planned to tour the southern United States. Knowing that American police are generally more strict on street vendors than European officers are, Hollecker asked city hall for permission. Los Angeles and San Diego authorities gave him the green light, he asserts.

San Diego police department spokesman Bill Robinson does not recall Hollecker. In general, he remarks, the city requires a permit to sell goods in public places. But the rule "is not that strictly enforced" -- especially in Balboa Park, home of the San Diego Zoo and a haven for street performers. According to Robinson, "Chances are nobody would bother him."

Traveling by bus, Hollecker says he sold drawings in Yuma, Phoenix, Houston, and New Orleans. In some places he was required to buy a license. He says he paid $75 to work in New Orleans's French Quarter.

Hollecker arrived in Miami June 26 with a week left on his three-month tourist visa and took a room in a South Beach hostel. That's when his troubles started. Miami Beach officials said he couldn't work in their town. "They didn't say why -- only no," he says. Miami Beach Code Enforcement director Al Childress confirms that street vending is prohibited without exception.

Hollecker got a similar response from City of Miami officials at the North Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team office. While Miami allows food vendors in certain public areas such as Flagler Street and the Miami Arena, it prohibits artists from charging for drawings, says code enforcement officer Israel Ibanez. "In France and Germany they do it in the street, but here in Miami you cannot," he says.

Artists can sell their works on private property, but not before getting a handful of approvals. To set up shop at Bayside Marketplace, for instance, Hollecker would need three very expensive zoning permits and occupational licenses from both the city and county, explains city zoning inspector Judith Green.

After four days of frustration in Miami and Miami Beach, Hollecker was out of cash. He moved into Camillus House, which provides shelter for more than 100 homeless men every night. But he quickly grew tired of the strict rules and the 7:00 p.m to 7:00 a.m. curfew. "A street artist cannot work with those hours," he says.

So Hollecker set up shop in front of an abandoned store at 23 E. Flagler St. on July 7. Four days later he was taken away for operating a business without a license, a misdemeanor. He spent the night in a large jail cell with 90 men and 60 beds, then was released the next day. Hollecker says it was the first time he had ever been incarcerated.

He also says he has never been homeless before. During good weather he takes his sleeping bag above the bridge near Bayside, where loud Latin music drifts over from the party boats. When it rains, he stays down below, with mosquitoes that have covered him in bites. There are a half-dozen other homeless men there, sleeping on a concrete ledge beside the bay.

The day after he was arrested, Hollecker showed INS officials his expired visa and asked to be deported. No luck. "They said you must make a criminal act, a very criminal act," he says. INS spokeswoman Maria Elena Garcia said that, while everyone who's here illegally is subject to deportation, "our priority is the removal of aggravated felons." Officials at the German Consulate in Miami recall speaking with Hollecker but say they couldn't help him. The consulate's policy is to put German citizens in touch with family back home, says Vice Consul Thomas Koppmann.

Hollecker has six siblings in Germany but wouldn't think of asking them for money. "I look out for my way. This is my way, not the way for my brothers or for my sisters."

Though he has enjoyed life on the road, Hollecker now aspires to something more permanent: "My goal is to work in a studio, sell my pictures and make a living from it.

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